Friday, May 25, 2007

How breaking is it?

I saw the following over at Johnny's Cache. These Google current_ videos are hit and miss. And foul sometimes. Sometimes easy pop-up. To extend the metaphor poorly -- this one reaches an error. It should be an out but one good joke saves it.

The use of "breakinger" (around 1:45) is a lovely reanalysis of "breaking" as an adjective rather than a progressive participle. The two categories are close for it to make a good joke. It's related to the "hey...why not" question I mentioned in an recent post.

It's a clear difference between participles and adjectives when you focus on one as a verb and the other as a quality. But consider that both describe define or modify a noun, and in some phrases a substitution test shows they're interchangeable.

And as the structure of "a breaking story" shows, we can use a participle in an attributive position, but how similar are participles and adjectives?

1. He was tired.
2. He was walking.

Throw in an adverb and they both seem fine still.

3. He was clearly tired.
4. He was clearly walking.

But that's too simple an analysis of the adverb's function in the phrases. If we flip the order of the participle/adjective and the adverb in each of these sentences a not yet obvious meaning pops up. (I've left out the commas as per my usual habit. A comma in sentence 6 would resolve the possible ambiguity)

5. He was tired clearly.
6. ?He was walking clearly.

Sentence 5 doesn't make sense if we parse clearly as a modifier on "tired." In sentence 6 the new meaning is more salient and the ambiguity is between the scope of "clearly" in the sentence. It could be modifying the walking (which would be odd) or it could be modifying the apparency of the entire proposition that he was walking.

Let's consider another adverb to highlight the ambiguity.

7. He was quickly tired.
8. He was tired quickly.
9. He was quickly walking.
10. He was walking quickly.

The adverb as event modifier is the only possible reading of 7 and 8. That helps avoid the ambiguity. In sentences 9 and 10 the ambiguity is still there. Was he walking at a quick pace or did he start walking right away?

Some adverbs won't work at all with the participle.

11. He was very tired.
12. *He was very walking

This is because very cannot modify a non-gradable adjective or a verb, and it cannot be an event modifier. So the limits of a participle as a modifier become utterly apparent here. The Oxford Companion to the English Language identifies the importance of a "permanent characteristic" for a participle in attributive use. Such permanence loosely defined, but it does help with some analyses. Consider the difference between "the running man" and "the man who is running." We might easily assume that the former is always running or at least has a habit of running. The man who is running could stop and never run again and we would not need to correct ourselves. We would simply reassess the situation. He's not running now. But if the running man stops being a runner "he's not running now" doesn't quite address the change. The correction would have to address the characteristic. He's not the running man anymore or he no longer runs

Newscasts trust that a word like "breaking" is practically (albeit not syntactically) interchangeable with adjectives like important or interesting. Anyone who has been watching Game 7 of the finals when a breaking story interrupted knows very well that's not true.

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