EDM/ODM and grade marking

I’ve been spending rather a lot of time preparing materials for my course this quarter, on this week’s topic, inflectional (infl) vs. periphrastic (periph) comparatives and superlatives (infl handsomer, handsomest; periph more handsome, most handsome). I’ve been writing on the topic for decades, and I posted to Language Log three times recently on the topic (here, here, and here), so I’ve collected an almost unmanageable amount of material. I started to assemble my responses to comments on these postings, intending to post that here. What I have so far is a kind of crude outline for my students’ use, though I’m still striving.

Here I’m pulling out a new bit, having to do with an interaction between infl/periph and another option in the structure of English, Exceptional Degree Marking (EDM) vs. Ordinary Degree Marking (ODM).

Start with EDM/ODM. Ordinarily a degree modifier, like very, combines with an Adj head, like happy, to yield an expression with pretty much the distribution of the Adj on its own: you can think of very happy as an “expansion” of happy. This is ODM.

But a few degree modifiers work differently: they combine with a nominal expression with the indefinite article a(n), to yield a full NP: too/how big a dog. The result is a contrast between ODM a very big dog and EDM too big a dog.

[Yes, I know, the EDM construction can serve as the basis for a kind of compound modifier, as in a too-big dog — not everyday English, but possible. And, yes, I know that there’s a variant of the EDM construction with of in it — too big of a dog — and I’ve written about it. But don’t let these things distract you from the point at hand.]

The crucial point is that the degree modifier more can, in some circumstances, go either way:

I have never seen a more handsome horse. (ODM)
I have never seen more handsome a horse. (EDM)

So far so good. These examples have the periph variant of the comparative. But now look at the infl variant:

I have never seen a handsomer horse. (ODM)
*I have never seen handsomer a horse. (EDM)

This is another case where the syntactic context requires periph rather than infl.

2 Responses to “EDM/ODM and grade marking”

  1. +of EDM on the march « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] fact 1, on EDM vs. ODM (“ordinary degree marking / modification”), from this posting: Ordinarily a degree modifier, like very, combines with an Adj head, like happy, to yield an […]

  2. Innovative EDM « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] But a few degree modifiers [too, how, that, and some others] work differently: they combine with a nominal expression with the indefinite article a(n), to yield a full NP: too/how big a dog. The result is a contrast between ODM a very big dog and EDM too big a dog. (link) […]

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