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.
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 base||verb 3s||adj – pres||adj – past||v/total|
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 base||adj – pres||adj – past||% of adjs present|
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 base||v/adjs||% of prep results that are “by”|
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”.
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:
- 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.
- upsetting or disquieting; dismaying:
- a disturbing increase in the crime rate.
- 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).
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.