July 25, 2020

Adjective in the form of the past participle of an intransitive verb

First, a few grammatical terms. Everyone knows what an adjective is, like "big" in "a big car". Past participle (PP hereinafter) is a form of a verb that you use after "have" to indicate a completed action, like "opened" in "I have opened the door". A verb is intransitive when it is not followed by an object, like "happen" in "The incident happened", although it can be followed by a complement indicating time, place, etc. A transitive verb is followed by an object, like "hit" in "He hit him".

Sometimes the PP of a verb can be used as an adjective, like "opened" in "the opened jar", referring to the jar that was opened (by somebody), which is slightly different from "the open jar", where the speaker emphasizes the state of the jar more than someone's opening action.

All is fine if the verb is transitive. That is, there is no problem in using PP of a transitive verb as the modifier of a noun (nominal modifier), serving the function of an adjective. But can PP of an intransitive verb do so? The answer is sometimes but not always. We can say "an expired license", which is the same as "a license that has expired". The phrase "the disappeared man" seems to be acceptable, referring to the man that has disappeared, not necessarily implying that the man was forced to disappear by e.g. abduction. (The verb disappear does have the rare transitive sense of "to make vanish" according to Wiktionary, but we don't discuss it here.) On the other hand, we cannot say *"a come guest" (* means incorrect) and have to say "a guest that has come".

An interesting question is, How do we know when the PP of an intransitive verb can be used as an adjective or nominal modifier? I posted a question to the Facebook Linguistics group. One reader, apparently a linguist, referred me to the concept of "unaccusative verb". According to Wikipedia, "an unaccusative verb is an intransitive verb whose grammatical subject is not a semantic agent. In other words, it does not actively initiate, or is not actively responsible for, the action of the verb." Let me paraphrase. Just because a word (or phrase) is the grammatical subject in front of a verb doesn't always mean it actively (主动地) takes the action indicated by the verb. For example, "The window broke" doesn't mean the window wanted to break and therefore broke. It broke probably because someone broke it, or the bad weather caused it to break. This is different from "A guest comes" because the guest can walk and take action by himself and comes. Note that in linguistics, "accusative" refers to the relationship between the verb and its immediate action on its direct object; it has nothing to do with the action of accusing someone doing something bad, although "John accuses Jake" does have the accusative action in it ("accuses Jake").

The article goes on to say "[u]naccusative past participles can be used as nominal modifiers with active meaning", and gives a criterion to identify such verbs. For example, in the archaic sentence "He is fallen/come" (which means He, usually referring to Jesus, has fallen / come), because "is" instead of "has" is used, both "fall" and "come" are unaccusative. Well, obviously, in Modern English, only "a fallen tree", not *"a come visitor", makes sense. So I'm afraid we can only say some unaccusative past participles can be used as nominal modifiers or adjectives. The article lists 6 groups of unaccusative verbs given by Perlmutter (1978). But I don't think all are fit to be used as nominal modifiers. Specifically, I would say (a) and (c) won't work (e.g. *"the happened event"). In (f), only "survive" works.

For native English speakers, this is a non-issue because which intransitive verb can and which cannot be turned into PP and act as an adjective naturally comes to the mouth or pen (nowadays keyboard). For English learners, it may be more fruitful to just learn them by reading and listening than by studying the grammatical rule. Nevertheless, the linguists' effort to decipher the underlying grammatical rule is intriguing to the curious mind.

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