Participial adjectives, very ranked

After not posting for a full month, I have a post that has been on the back burner for at least a year as an idea and half a year as a draft. It definitely falls under the “somebody should have already done this, and nobody has, so I will” category of research, like my THE/hensachi comparison that continues to be the most-read blog post I’ve ever written. In this case, I’m taking another look at a type of word that has interested me for a long time, the participial adjective, adjectives formed from the present or past participles of verbs, like interest/interesting/interested.

The relationship between verbs and adjectives, lightly questioned

It’s tempting to explain both the meanings and grammar of participial adjectives with reference to the verbs that form their bases. The question is, in the mind of a fluent speaker in 2019, are verbs still the bases of participial adjectives? My intuition is that they aren’t, that adjectives like “interesting” enter the lexicon of a typical speaker long before the verb “interest”, and only after much experience of similar words and/or explicit teaching does the relationship between the two become clear and productive.

If my intuition is correct and these are adjectives first and verb derivatives only after some reflection, there are implications for usage and teaching.

On usage, as came up recently in a Twitter discussion with @LinguisticsGirl, the closeness of the relationship between past participial adjectives (e.g. “interested”) to the passive voice of verbs like “interest” has implications for the meanings and grammar of these words.

On meaning, because a passive verb phrase (e.g. “is eaten”) has a patient (the subject) and an implied but sometimes unspecified agent (the object of the preposition “by”), an adjective based on that verb phrase could be thought to also have a patient and an agent. That is, if speakers are actively aware of the relationship between the passive verb phrase “be interested” (where “interested” is a verb) and the participial adjective “interested”, they may believe that the adjective “interested” also has an implied agent, the one who “interests” the subject. To illustrate:

Music bores Sam.

Here, “bore” is verb with an agent (“music”) and a patient (“Sam”).

Sam is bored by music.

Here, the same relationship between agent and patient is rendered with a passive verb phrase- a be-verb and the past participle of “bore”, plus the optional prepositional phrase indicating the agent.

Sam is very bored.

And a be-verb plus adjective. Does the average reader imagine that there must be an agent causing Sam’s current state, as they probably would if the sentence were “Sam is eaten”? To use the example that I used on Twitter, does one assume that “broken rocks” must have been broken by someone or something, or is “broken” just how the rocks are, with no implied cause?

On grammar, we already know that participial adjectives have a variety of prepositions instead of the expected “by” denoting the… let’s just call it the quasi-agent.

100+ Useful Adjective Preposition Collocations 1
Source.

This seems to be evidence of the looseness of the relationship between participial adjectives and the passive verb phrases that they resemble. Clearly, at the very least, participial adjectives have some options for prepositions that passive verb phrases don’t. It is tempting to think that the number of possible prepositions after a given participial adjective is related to its prevalence in corpora as an adjective vs. as a verb. More on that at the bottom.

The implications of the relationship between participial adjectives and verbs for teaching seem to be in the approach that one would take if the relationship were strong or weak. If most fluent speakers keep the relationships between verbs like “disturb” and adjectives like “disturbing” active in their minds and use both with similar meanings and at similar rates, it could be more advantageous to teach the verbs along with the rules for generating adjectives more, as the rules could be counted on to be fairly regular, productive, and useful. On the other hand, if speakers keep “disturb” and “disturbing” separate in their minds, use them at very different rates and with different meanings, it could be more useful to ignore or downplay the relationship between the two and focus on statistical fluency and input, encouraging students to see them simply as separate words as input dictates.

The verbs, totally listed

Below, I have some contributions to our understanding of participial adjectives to make. First, here’s a big glob of data, and a bit of explanation afterward.

Verb baseVerb – 3sAdj – presAdj – pastv/total
dismay133459370.9998405612
flummox12113760.9992846924
disconcert50115562160.9957705972
gut2424442110.9946416611
amaze1309317397311062000.992957057
devastate109612725565620.9918762462
interest29236173663314115190.9907987315
stun4390452311147820.9906889538
excite146097994295859830.9895651565
embarrass159982322635220.9891551311
flabbergast489842260.989021043
astonish101367450146180.9878070798
petrify190315122980.9851597282
bore55892340421106570.9840445576
hearten11562283480.9828127335
depress2954420931064490.9805011353
fascinate543726067451880.9799593806
disgust169463490187090.9798076121
overwhelm5315220680367060.979767873
tempt3907755231006630.9783056532
thrill207271947211060.978218134
nauseate138453015230.9777095784
frustrate6591190874710790.975456536
amuse229849598151300.9657147972
compel9719175318712510.9620778187
revolt29367196790.9619035236
terrify331959834222490.9611367415
enthrall37688193310.9605290783
dazzle1904458642970.960386976
frighten377656745308740.9586848296
discombobulate19663450.9558139535
relax142721402391668630.9555906825
annoy12686227355448370.9554686568
confuse145521939411098380.9542865759
astound15601756094580.9454125551
agitate772306118250.940168953
disturb702889753195000.9395602033
upset8932152701233330.9394584336
freeze244491305722227970.9352889486
exhaust401622199334830.9327280646
worry225471005691662890.9220918782
floor143015970.917816092
damage18710701691233840.9118546332
relate15169008918050.8546327486
inspire678261528891321250.8077712278
develop1708594179711520330.7693784141
boil3702886434329890.7633252584
drive204561501510984060.7457217546
forbid144538729330530.7429892416
distract79021168571760.7047416209
rate233130533980.6960931288
discourage97771236213610.5839574468
justify19230524190360.5042536736
encourage19119719175100.5007233358
love4810451884481985480.4458268676
move36560116388929430.3133389553
enliven12392771900.2737397421
consider1435030131380.08387331542
trigger57732042900.06916900455

All of this data came from the iWeb corpus over the spring and summer of 2019, basically built up over time whenever I had a spare 20 minutes or so to look up some words. In most cases, I just thought of a word that I noticed was both a verb and a participial adjective and did the search right away. There was no method to how I settled on words to search for.

The columns are:

  • Verb base: Exactly what you think it is.
  • verb 3s: the number of hits for that verb with its 3rd person singular “s” attached and the verb.3SG tag _v?z*, e.g. dismays_v?z*
  • adj – pres: the number of hits for that verb in its present participle form and the adj.ALL tag _j*, e.g. dismaying_j*
  • adj – past: the number of hits for that verb in its past participle form and the adj.ALL tag _j*, e.g. dismayed_j*
  • v/total: the number of verb 3s hits divided by the number of hits in all 3 categories. I.e., the % of hits that were adjectives instead of verbs.

The reasons that I searched for these categories were related to the limitations of the concordancer. The iWeb corpus (along with COCA and the other BYU-hosted corpora) reliably confuses grammatical categories, for example returning this sentence as an example of interest_v* (“interest” as a verb):

…James and Vugo is that they really have drivers best interest in hand.

I found that the verb form least likely to result in a misclassification of this kind was the third person singular, i.e. “interests” or “dismays”. Note that this reduces but does not eliminate misclassifications (try searching for interests_v* yourself to see). Likewise, interesting_j* and interested_j* reduce but do not eliminate misclassifications of these words as adjectives – it is possible, as is the entire premise of this post, that readers both human and computer get confused as to which uses of “am interested” are passive verb phrases and which ones are adjectives. It is probably less likely that the concordancer gets confused about present participle adjectives, as I certainly have never heard a sentence like “it is interesting me”, but for some verbs like “terrify” confusion is still possible – “terrifying me” does occur in iWeb 68 times.

Results, partly discussed

As a result of the accommodations to the limitations of the concordancer described above, the results have to be taken as ballpark estimates of the relative frequencies of the words in question as verbs or adjectives. The high ranking of “dismay” above gives us a sense that the adjectives “dismaying” and “dismayed” are more common than the verb “dismay”, and that “dismayed” is more common than “dismaying”, but it’s still not clear exactly how much more common in either case.

In the list above, the words are listed in order of v/total. That is, the highest ratios of adjectives are at the top of the list, and the lowest are at the bottom.

The data gives some support to the idea that at least for certain participial adjectives, their uses as adjectives far outnumber their uses as verbs. These participial adjectives include conversation and coursebook staples like “amazing” and “embarrassed”, but also some oddballs like “hearten” and “enthrall”. At the low end are words like “consider” whose main life is still as a verb and is only rarely used as an adjective (e.g. “in my considered opinion”) and last-minute addition “trigger”, which at the moment has no present participle adjective hits but is sure to change in the coming years.

It’s hard to extrapolate this data to answer the question, “how close is the relationship between ‘disturb’ and ‘disturbing’ in the average speaker’s brain?”, but it certainly seems compatible with my hypothesis that at least in the case of words like “amazing”, the adjective is capable of surviving on its own without analogy to the verb “amaze”. It stands to reason that a word that outnumbers another word 133:1 in frequency, as “amazing” does with “amazes”, probably can afford to pay its own rent, so to speak. And yes, I am using obtuse metaphors as a way of avoiding questions of psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics which I have absolutely no right to pretend to be able to answer.

The iWeb corpus an other corpora are less useful for semantic analysis, but it seems to me that many of the words high on the list here have gaps between the meanings of the verbs and their related adjectives – “disturb” doesn’t have all the same nuances as “disturbing” or “disturbed”, and “amaze” certainly doesn’t have the Kardashian-like connotations of “amazing”.

(At this point in the post, I vanished for at least 15 minutes unfruitfully searching for a clip of Dong Nguyen from Kimmy Schmidt saying “amaaazing”.)

In closing, the reader is invited to take from the data what lessons they will. I humbly suggest that one lesson that is not compatible with the data is that for all participial adjectives, the relationships between the adjectives and the verbs that they are based on are obvious and productive.

The same data, differently manipulated

For kicks, here is the same list, but in order of ratio of present participle adjectives to all adjectives:

Verb baseadj – presadj – past% pres
floor015970
relate08918050
rate0533980
consider0131380
trigger042900
justify524190360.01350863625
flummox2113760.01502145923
flabbergast9842260.02241537054
agitate306118250.02371541502
petrify315122980.02460360853
dismay33459370.05325255102
gut24442110.05447644564
upset152701233330.1035008642
discombobulate663450.1534883721
forbid8729330530.1552236152
enliven2771900.1623681125
love1884481985480.2170957363
depress420931064490.2778489201
move16388929430.3078114993
damage701691233840.330575748
freeze1305722227970.345594969
worry1005691662890.3475026347
exhaust22199334830.3718550035
tempt755231006630.4193555552
inspire1528891321250.4333097155
relax1402391668630.4363731976
distract1168571760.4366102455
encourage19175100.5007233358
discourage1236213610.5260425532
interest173663314115190.5465599417
boil86434329890.5524669066
embarrass82322635220.5583310161
develop4179711520330.5641677341
excite7994295859830.5710121491
confuse1939411098380.6092432091
astound1756094580.6144586745
frighten56745308740.6208764156
drive501510984060.6233988044
bore2340421106570.6681416434
compel175318712510.6840663628
terrify59834222490.7006159106
frustrate190874710790.7107736535
nauseate453015230.7317073171
amuse49598151300.7399814997
thrill71947211060.7563416557
disgust63490187090.756797349
disturb89753195000.7718629871
annoy227355448370.7980784757
astonish67450146180.811858307
overwhelm220680367060.8400424818
revolt67196790.8736185151
enthrall88193310.9257820701
hearten62283480.9308025706
amaze17397311062000.9358303067
devastate12725565620.9432374938
dazzle458642970.9542078435
stun452311147820.959336816
fascinate26067451880.9608365678
disconcert115562160.9774995771

According to this list, these sentences should sound extremely wrong to you:

“The news was just flooring.”

“Critics are highly rating of that movie.”

“The President was totally rationalizing of his behavior.”

Again, I will mostly leave the implications to you, but I count this as at least compatible with the idea of letting input address at least the less common ones and only explicitly teaching the most common/most equally distributed.

Preposition options, negatively correlated

Last, to test my dropped breadcrumb from earlier about non-“by” prepositional complements, I added up all the hits for all prepositions following the word in its past participle form, but without a verb or adjective tag, i.e. dismayed _i*. I then divided the number of hits for “by” by the total number of preposition hits, giving me a sense of how often the preposition following the past participle of that verb is “by”. For verbs that are interpreted only as verbs and never as adjectives, we would expect a higher number, because “Salads are eaten by yoga practitioners” but not “Salads are eaten of yoga practitioners” grammatically describes the relationship between the patient and agent for “eaten”. On the other hand, we expect a bit of noise in these results, as “Salads are eaten at restaurants” remains possible, as does “Salads were eaten up“. Indeed, only 33% of prepositions following “eaten” are “by”, although “by” is indeed the top hit.

The following are (is?) a random group of 11 words from the earlier list that I did the above search for:

Verb basev/adjs% of prep results that are “by”
enliven0.27373974210.7139713971
encourage0.50072333580.7016276321
distract0.70474162090.7096645612
damage0.91185463320.4349661798
disturb0.93956020330.7107868987
frighten*0.95868482960.3507753418
frustrate*0.9754565360.3077699294
disgust*0.97980761210.4077433443
bore*0.98404455760.06302701481
amaze*0.9929570570.2719719747
dismay0.99984056120.5463917526

Interestingly, the ratio of non-“by” prepositions after a given word did correlate with its ratio of hits as adjective to verb at -0.65. That is, the more often a word was used as an adjective vs. a verb, the more often it had prepositions other than “by” following it. Verbs marked with an asterisk had prepositions other than “by” as their top hit (“bored” had two prepositions above “by”, “of” and “with”).

Again, this speaks the possibility that in the minds of most fluent speakers, these participial adjectives are not explicitly or actively related to the verbs that etymologically form their bases. It stands to reason, although it isn’t proved here, that on other issues including the implied existence of an agent and the semantic relationship between the passive voice and the past participle adjective are less close than some casual linguists, language teachers, and coursebooks seem to assume.

Did I mention that my university has a half-term break right now? Don’t expect another post like this until at least December.

Addendum, just added

On the “close relationship” between participial adjectives and verbs, some readers have pointed out that I could have been more precise in what I meant. Here, I hope to flesh out some of the various ways that the two could be “related” without, again, treading too hard on territory outside my expertise with phrases like “instantiated in the brain” or “sharing an entry in the mental lexicon”.

Semantic relationships

I can think of 3 ways that these verbs and adjectives might be semantically related: number of meanings, state/action, and degree.

On meaning specifically, consider these three definitions from dictionary.com:

  • disturb
  • verb (used with object)
  • to interrupt the quiet, rest, peace, or order of; unsettle.
  • to interfere with; interrupt; hinder:
    • Please do not disturb me when I’m working.
  • to interfere with the arrangement, order, or harmony of; disarrange:
    • to disturb the papers on her desk.
  • to perplex; trouble:
    • to be disturbed by strange behavior.
  • disturbing
  • adjective
  • upsetting or disquieting; dismaying:
    • a disturbing increase in the crime rate.
  • disturbed
  • adjective
  • marked by symptoms of mental illness:
    • a disturbed personality.

Notice that only one of the meanings listed for the verb is similar to the present participle adjective, and none are similar to that of the past participle adjective (except metaphorpically). Even a grammatically ambiguous sentence can be interpreted as clearly a verb or clearly and adjective based on meaning:

The “do not disturb” sign is out, but clearly we’re being disturbed.

His collection of loose toenails is disturbing.

He’s clearly disturbed, judging by his interest in feet.

Based on these examples, “disturb” has a loose relationship to its participial adjectives. If you do a similar search to that I did above, but for “amaze”, you will see that some verbs and participial adjectives retain very similar meanings. I don’t have any quantitative way to refer to this, but let’s just say the fewer meanings are the same or similar, the less close the relationship.

Perception as a state or action is usually more of a difference between verbs and adjectives as grammatical categories, but my verbs are mostly stative – that is, they refer to a state of being rather than a discrete action, and therefore collocate more than adverbs of intensity than adverbs of frequency, just like adjectives. However, for at least some of the verbs above, there will be an option for an action rather than state meaning:

  • He disturbs me at work every day, and he is disturbing me right now. (action)
  • Your lack of faith disturbs me. (state, verb)
  • Your lack of faith is disturbing. (state, adjective)

Clearly, the action meaning is unavailable for the adjectives. What this means for “closeness” of verbs and adjectives is that if a verb has a possible meaning as an action verb, it could be said to be less close to its participial adjectives, which naturally don’t.

Last, for degree, adjectives unlike verbs are usually perceived as gradable – attributing some quality to nouns to varying degrees, as specified by adverbs like “a little” or “very”. There are exceptions like “unique” (at least according to some) or “freezing”, but the key area of interest for us is the extent to which verbs share these qualities with their participial adjectives, regardless of what those particular qualities are. For example, the verb “amaze” seems to have the same ungradability as its adjectives “amazing” and “amazed”:

  • It absolutely amazes me.
  • I am absolutely amazed.
  • It’s absolutely amazing.

But “compel” seems not to be not as gradable, or not gradable in the same ways, as “compelling” or “compelled”:

  • Δ It doesn’t compel me very much.
  • It’s not very compelling.
  • Δ I’m not very compelled.

Curiously, “compel” as a verb and “compelled” as an adjective seem less gradable than “compelling” as an adjective, perhaps because interpretation of “compel” is so closely tied to the completion of the verb that it usually takes as an infinitive complement. That is, if I “compel” you to wash the dishes, you almost definitely wash the dishes, but if I’m just “compelling” in general, my status as “compelling” doesn’t have a binary on-off status tied to the completion of anything in particular.

I believe that when verbs and adjectives differ in their ability to be seen as gradable or in degrees, they can be said to have a more distant relationship. When they are the same in these respects, their relationship can be described as “close”.

Any other forms of “closeness” will have to wait for another day.

Addendum, added again

Here are some charts showing the relative frequencies of the verb (with the caveats above), the present participle adjective, and the past participle adjective for the top 20 most frequent words in the list (as of this update, at least).

Top 10
Second 10

Since I’m at it, I thought I’d provide a bit of the opposite of what I did in my last addendum – signs of “distance” between verbs and the participial adjectives that come from them.

Date of first use

First, not every participial adjective in this list has a unique dictionary entry at all – devastated, for example, appears in neither dictionary.com nor etymonline.com, although its partners devastating and devastate do. Of those that do, often the first recorded use with a particular meaning is noted, for example “Meaning “dejected, lowered in spirits” is from 1620s.” for depressed from etymonline.com. An older first use as an adjective, particularly with a distinct meaning, could speak to a meaning as distinct as ice and cream have to ice-cream (1744).

Age of first use

This is opening an issue that begs for actual data that I don’t have, but if it could be shown that people begin using amaze and amazing at different ages, it could also speak to greater “distance” between these words. On the other hand, if both begin appearing in speech at about the same time, one could simply be a true morphological derivation of the other, formed by rules analogous to a wug test. I believe we are seeing this process of derivation in real time with the birth of the adjective triggered. If future generations of children start using sentences like “He was so triggered” years before they say “The video triggered him”, we can assume that these are distinct words, not just morphologically derived variations on the verb.

Charts, very framed

Last, here are two super handy charts for you to print, frame, and finally replace that picture of your niece with:

<– most likely to be used as an adjective most likely to be used as a verb –>
<– past participle adjectives more common present participle adjectives more common –>