Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Absolute Adjectives in the Mind

Absolute adjectives offer an intriguing insight into how our knowledge of the grammar of language and our unconscious mental logic work together symbiotically. The brain is a magnificent achievement of nature and even though we do not know how it forms concepts and manipulates them during speech, we can see that grammar and logic are two distinct levels of mental processing that work together when we talk.

First, the claim that absolute adjectives cannot be compared or intensified is itself a misstatement of the grammatical facts. Most of us say “more infinite”, “very complete”, “pretty unique” all the time. Are all but the prescriptive grammarians and their dupes wrong in their use of absolute adjectives?

Of course not. The absolute adjective rule is a logical, not a grammatical rule. If the universe is either infinite or not, it makes no logical sense to say more infinite. However, grammar plays on that fact. Since we know this is logically true, we are allowed to use expressions like this since the hearer will know that more infinite cannot mean “more infinite”. The closest interpretation of this phrase is “more nearly infinite”—and this is precisely the interpretation we assign to such expressions. More complete means “more nearly complete”, “more dead” means “more nearly dead”, and so on.

Logic and grammar are intertwined but they are separate processes. Grammar, as you can see here, plays on logic. It does the same thing with the class of liquid substances. Logically, a substance like water has no plural. However, the vast majority of English-speakers say things like, “Please bring us two waters” or “four coffees” or “I put three sugars in my yoghurt” all the time.

Again, grammar plays off logic so that the speaker, knowing these phrases are not literally true, applies the nearest possible interpretation: “two portions (glasses) of water”, “four portions (cups) of coffee”, “three portions (teaspoons, lumps) of sugar”. Notice that the interpretation is perfectly consistent in all instances.

The reason that I studied and researched languages and linguistics for 40 years was the discovery of insights into the human mind like these. The fact that grammar and words tell us things about how our minds work that we can find nowhere else is a compelling reason to explore language on and on. I presume everyone reading this agrees with me on this point.

6 Responses to “Absolute Adjectives in the Mind”

  1. Ko Kyaw Says:

    This is the “most excellent” blog.
    Can you do me a favor, please. I would like to know more absolute adjectives. I already know “excellent, dead, unique, round, square, complete, perfect, and extreme”.

  2. Mike M. Says:

    I have to disagree with this analysis of absolute adjectives and the mind.

    The mind is constructed by language and shaped by it. If users of a given language are taught what is “permissible” and what is not in that language, their minds will bend to that “teaching.” The fact that English speakers today routinely say “more infinite” and so on merely indicates that they are not being taught what is permissible and what is not. (What is permissible is, of course, often a matter of consensus, but we need to ask after the quality of the minds that are creating that consensus: how have those minds been constructed and shaped?) It also indicates that they are not being taught logic in schools. If they were, they would instinctively avoid such aberrations (as I instinctively do).

    One only has to consider that other languages do not make the same distinctions as we do in English in regard to a wide range of grammatical/logical issues to realize that mind is not some independent, innate, self-existent entity. For example, English speakers do not distinguish between 15 different types of snow, but there are people in the world who do. Their minds are, at least in this respect, different from ours.

    The latest research in the neurobiology of language shows quite clearly that the neural circuits in our brain are shaped by the experiences we have growing up, and in particular our linguistic experiences. The brains of native Chinese speakers, for example, are differently wired from those of native English speakers, and so on. This means that mind is a social construct. Some languages are not altogether logical, since the speakers who speak them (and spoke them as they evolved) are (were) not aware of the logical categories of Western thought. It is neither right nor wrong for a language to be logical or illogical, but for a society that is aware of logical categories to fail to teach these categories to its members is a sign of a society in intellectual decline.

    A generation ago and more, one would not have been likely to hear “more infinite” or “more complete” among well-educated English speakers, simply because their education formed their minds to think in certain ways. That people today say “more infinite” says nothing directly about the mind or grammar or logic. It says only that education is deteriorating, and under this deleterious influence, so is the English language.

  3. Edward Says:

    Mike M. is correct. If ignorance established correct usage, we would all be saying “He don’t”.

    That you characterize those who prefer Standard English as “dupes” say more about you than it does about them. Far from being the repressive tool of an elite class, grammatical prescription makes it possible for us to communicate efficiently. Your coffee, water and sugar examples unwittingly make this very point.

    Those examples have absolutely nothing to do with the use of adjectives. They are idioms, just like “It is raining.” Idioms are the very soul of efficiency. Your examples may even be considered elliptical constructions, since the missing “portions of” is readily inferred by the reader. Either way, they say nothing about such grammatical gaucheries as “most perfect” and “more complete”.

    To make matters worse, your assertion that “water” has no plural is dead wrong. Three examples should suffice: The waters of the Amazon are numerous. The Coast Guard defends the territorial waters of the USA. The bottlers displayed their waters with pride.

    You’re wrong about the relationship between grammar and logic too. Grammar does not “play on logic”. Grammar is informed by logic. When confronted with two possible constructions for the same idea, grammarians ask themselves, “Which is more logical?”.

    If your first paragraph above is any indication, you may also wish to review the rule concerning the use of commas to introduce independent clauses.

  4. Edward Says:

    Make that “…says more about you…” in my post above. Typing is not my strong suit.

  5. Robert Beard Says:

    Mike, I would love to read some of the latest research on linguistic determination of the mind that have proven something. The idea has been around since von Humboldt and, the last time I surveyed the evidence 10 or 15 years ago, there was more disproof than proof.

    So, Edward, what you are saying that “water of the Amazon” refers to only one water while “the waters of the Amazon” refer to two or more? I don’t quite follow that logic. Words like ‘waters” and “sands” are poetic variant, not plurals. A plural must refer to several countable objects, otherwise it cannot be a plura.

  6. Warsaw Will Says:

    I just want to comment on “very complete” and “pretty unique”, as I think there is a difference. As I understand it (I’m a TEFL teacher), we normally only use “very” with gradable adjectives. We say, for example, “I’m very tired”, but not “I’m very exhausted” – , so “very complete” does sound strange to me.

    But we can use “pretty” for both gradable and non-gradable adjectives – “I’m pretty tired” or “I’m pretty exhausted” – so “pretty unique” sounds fine to me, although it does suggest that it might not be quite the only one of its kind in the world. But then how many things truly are unique?

    @Edward – please don’t confuse Standard English (which I speak) with prescriptivism (which I abhor) – it is Standard English to say “The boy I gave the book to” or “If he was the next prime minister, he would …” (or “were”, we have the choice), or “If anybody wants any more, could they ….”. Standard English as in that is how most educated people speak, and as taught in TEFL, for example. But anathema to prescriptivists.

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