Monday, August 9, 2010

Adjectives and more unexpected ambiguity

Tonight Grace and I had the following interaction while reading a story about a girl saving pennies in a penny jar:
Me (reading): "She put all the shiny coins in the jar."
Grace (responding): But not the dark ones.
It took me a second to figure out what she meant, but it did occur to me that given the structure "all the ADJ NOUN", her assumption that ADJ was restrictive was not a bad one. Only given the (false) assumption that all coins are shiny and the knowledge that shininess is not a good criterion for sorting coins when saving money is the correct reading, in which "shiny" serves as descriptive embellishment, obvious.

All of this reminds me a bit of teaching adjective order in Spanish. One common example given is "La blanca nieve." The explanation of this word-order is that adjectives providing an extra flourish of description can be preposed, whereas adjectives playing the more typical function of restricting the set of nouns being described are postposed.

When you try to explain this in terms of emphasis, it gets quite confusing, because whether "La blanca nieve" calls more or less attention to the word "blanca" depends on your frame of reference ("blanca" is extraneous information, but the fact it's being mentioned at all given its obviousness serves to emphasize it).

Of course, in both the case of the "shiny coin" and "la blanca nieve", it seems that contextual knowledge -- about the importance of shininess in coins and whiteness in snow -- plays a much more important role than grammatical patterns.

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