Briefly noted: an appositive adjective

From the (San Francisco Mid-Peninsula) Daily Post of 8/14/14, p. 1, “Massage parlor workers arrested”:

Redwood City police conducted an undercover operation at the Aurora Spa at 1865 Broadway on July 22 after receiving complaints of illegal prostitution.

Not just prostitution, but illegal prostitution. But prostitution is in fact illegal in California (and other places outside of Nevada), so what is the adjective illegal doing here?

This is an appositive, rather than restrictive, use of the adjective — a phenomenon I’ve posted about several times, at greatest length in a 2/8/07 Language Log posting “Droning on”, about the expression pilotless drones.

That posting contrasted the two uses:

Intersective modification: the denotation of an Adj N combination is the intersection of the denotations of the Adj and the N. That is, Adj N has the same denotation as N plus a restrictive relative clause containing Adj: N that/who is/are Adj.

Appositive modification: the denotation of an Adj N combination is the same as that of N plus a non-restrictive (a.k.a. appositive) relative clause containing Adj: N, which/who is/are Adj.

And went on to note that

Plenty of Adj N combinations are, out of context, ambiguous between intersective and appositive modification; but context, background information, and reasoning about other people’s intentions are usually enough for us to decide which reading is the appropriate one.

… You might think that … the appositive reading of “pilotless drones” would be stupid [the restrictive reading certainly is], since drones are all pilotless. But look at the explicitly appositive version: “drones, which are pilotless”.  This isn’t stupid at all; it REMINDS us, in a helpful way, that drones are pilotless. In general, even when the denotation of Adj is included within the denotation of N, appositive Adj N can do useful discourse work. As a bonus, since intersective Adj N is stupid in this situation, the potential ambiguity is eliminated in practice, in favor of the appositive reading.

And so it is with illegal prostitution.

One Response to “Briefly noted: an appositive adjective”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Thanks for the free gift of this information!

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