While I was preparing a posting on xkcd‘s “Language Nerd” strip — I think very slowly and write even more slowly — my Language Log colleagues Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman zipped into gear on the way language nerd is used in the strip in the expression (1), an instance of the construction in (2):
(1) to go all language nerd on you
(2) to go (all) X (on s.o.)
In my posting I referred, rather too hastily, to
the construction in go (all) X (on s.o.), where X is a nominal — here, a N + N compound (language nerd, sentence fragment) — converted to an adverbial in construction with the verb go
The problem is my use of converted, suggesting that language nerd (also sentence fragment) is converted from one syntactic category (or “part of speech”) to another, as in other examples in the strip, which involve true conversion, specifically the verbing of nouns. But what’s going on in (1) (and more generally in (2)) is not conversion, but the use of expressions of one syntactic category (here, a N-headed expression) in a syntactic function characteristic of a different category: in this case, not conversion of N to Adverb, but use of N in the syntactic function Adverbial, specifically the Adverbial subtype Modifier-of-V.
Consider a parallel: the syntactic category and syntactic function of the first element in expressions like language nerd and sentence fragment. Some writers maintain (presumably on the basis of the semantics) that the category is Adjective, but there is no evidence that the category is anything other than Noun. The syntactic function, on the other hand, is Adjectival, specifically the Adjectival subtype Modifier-of-N.
Now look at the syntactic category and syntactic function of words like fishing in go fishing (as in Let’s go fishing this afternoon). The category is clearly Verb; indeed, fishing here is the PRP form of the Verb fish. But Clare Silva argued (in “Adverbial –ing“, Linguistic Inquiry 6.346-50 (1975)) that its syntactic function is Adverbial (specifically, Modifier-of-V, in my terms above). Just so in the construction in (2).
But with (2) there’s a question about the syntactic category of X in the construction, and that’s the focus of the Language Log discussion. First up was Geoff Pullum, in “Adverbing, verbing, and adjectiving” of 11/5:
perhaps it would have been safer for a real language nerd to say (I just) predicative-complemented ‘language nerd’. But for the most part what you get in the go all ____ on you is adjective-headed phrases, so (I just) adjectived ‘language nerd’ is arguably accurate.
I note that Predicative-Complement is a syntactic function, not a syntactic category, but that’s not the immediate point at issue here (although, I’ll argue, it’s important), which is the syntactic category of X. Geoff claims that it’s Adjective, but Mark Liberman (in “… go all ___ on you …” of 11/6) disputed that:
While I hardly ever disagree with Geoff, my intuition said otherwise in this case, so I checked.
Searching Google for “go all * on you”, the first 50 results I got earlier this morning included 41 nouns or noun phrases
But Mark also pulled up 7 adjectives or adjective phrases. And you can invent examples of (2) with PP as X, like
I don’t mean to go all off my head on you, but …
What do N(P), Adj(P), and PP have in common? They can all serve in the syntactic function Predicative-Complement: I’m a nut case, He’s a bit crazy, She’s off her head. So it looks to me like Geoff had it essentially right, but veered into syntactic categories when he should have stuck with syntactic functions.
[Added 11/8: a note on the semantics of the construction in (2). The verb go there is understood as an inchoative, roughly like become in He went crazy or get in Let’s get friendly. So it’s no surprise that X in (2) is functioning as a Predicative-Complement.]