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The ‘nouniness’ of attributive adjectives and ‘verbiness’ of predicative adjectives: evidence from phonology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 March 2020

Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YL, United Kingdom


This article investigates prototypically attributive versus predicative adjectives in English in terms of the phonological properties that have been associated especially with nouns versus verbs in a substantial body of psycholinguistic research (e.g. Kelly 1992) – often ignored in theoretical linguistic work on word classes. Inspired by Berg's (2000, 2009) ‘cross-level harmony constraint’, the hypothesis I test is that prototypically attributive adjectives not only align more with nouns than with verbs syntactically, semantically and pragmatically, but also phonologically – and likewise for prototypically predicative adjectives and verbs. I analyse the phonological structure of frequent adjectives from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), and show that the data do indeed support the hypothesis. Berg's ‘cross-level harmony constraint’ may thus apply not only to the entire word classes noun, verb and adjective, but also to these two adjectival subclasses. I discuss several theoretical issues that emerge. The facts are most readily accommodated in a usage-based model, such as Radical Construction Grammar (Croft 2001), where these adjectives are seen as forming two distinct but overlapping classes. Drawing also on recent research by Boyd & Goldberg (2011) and Hao (2015), I explore the possible nature and emergence of these classes in some detail.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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This study contains analysis of existing data available from (10 December 2019). I am grateful to two anonymous reviewers and to the Editor, Bernd Kortmann, for their thoughtful comments. Any remaining inaccuracies are of course my own.


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The ‘nouniness’ of attributive adjectives and ‘verbiness’ of predicative adjectives: evidence from phonology
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