look pretty Adj

In a recent One Big Happy, Ruthie and her mother stumble through Ambiguityland:

An ambiguity both lexical and structural.

First, the lexical: there’s an Adj pretty, referring to physical appearance; and there’s an informal Deg (degree adverb) pretty, on the relevant scale somewhere between somewhat and very, roughly equivalent to fairly.

Second, the internal structure of the VP look pretty Adj is different for the two different items pretty:

(a) look [ pretty-Adj ] [ Adj ]
(the structure Ruthie understands, meaning, roughly, ‘you look pretty when you’re dirty’)

(b) look [ [ pretty-Deg ] [ Adj ] ]
(the structure Ruthie’s mother intends, meaning, roughly, ‘you look fairly dirty’)

The (a) structure has the V look with two complements: a predicative AdjP (here consisting of just the Adj pretty), attributing prettiness to the referent of the V’s subject; and a predicative phrase (here an AdjP, consisting of just the Adj dirty; other sorts of predicative phrases are possible, in particular a PP like in pink), serving as an adverbial of accompanying circumstance.

The second complement is understood as a subjectless adverbial modifying the V, locating the situation in space and time, with the missing subject supplied by the subject of the V.

The (b) structure is much simpler, with only one predication involved, so that it’s something of a surprise that the little kid goes for the (a) structure.

One Response to “look pretty Adj”

  1. astraya Says:

    There was a girl in my primary school class surnamed Pretty (but whose first name I will disguise even now). We thought that saying ‘Karen Pretty is pretty ugly’ was very funny, but we probably inflicted lasting damage on her.
    I sometimes use the song ‘I feel pretty’ from West Side Story to illustrate adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases. I have to point out that the ‘pretty’ of ‘a pretty wonderful boy’ is different from the ‘pretty’ in ‘I feel pretty’.

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