Being a linguist must be very frustrating. When others think of the most intellectually-demanding subjects which have been tackled by the brightest of human brains, they think of modern physics and the likes of Albert Einstein, not linguistics. When we speak figuratively of very complex matters, we refer to them as being ‘rocket science’, not syntactic theory, or language acquisition.
Yet many of our most powerful intellects become linguists, and some of the world’s greatest intellectuals are linguists. Probably the best-known is Noam Chomsky, who has been at the head of an enterprise which tries to explain how we process language, thus (among other things) how we acquire it. For nearly 50 years, his school of linguistics has been dominant.
My worry is that I am not sure that in those 50 years, it has made much progress in our understanding the basics.
Renegade and critic Peter Culicover has collected a suite of thorny problems drawn from everyday English in his little book, Syntactic Nuts (Oxford UP, 1999). Today’s specific nut does not appear there, but in his Simpler Syntax (Oxford UP, 2005), co-authored with Ray Jackendoff, and is enlarged upon in Culicover and Dellert’s paper Going postal: the architecture of English change of state verbs (2008, from here). This also draws on enlightenment from what must be the favourite modern grammar of English, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Huddleston and Pullum (Cambridge UP, 2002).
This nut concerns what might long-windedly be termed ‘complex intransitive verbs with resultative predicative complements’, a sub-set of those discussed in the references above. Let me give you some simple examples:
come right [in the end]
go red [with rage]
Their generic structure is
[intransitive verb] [resultative adjective/adjectival phrase/noun]
Their most generic verbs are become and get, and one test for them is to substitute either of those verbs for the more specialised intransitive verb in the phrase. If this does not change the overall meaning, then you know that the specialised verb has become ‘bleached’ of its original meaning, and that you are probably dealing with one of these nuts.
In addition to the generic verbs become and get, there are two other classes of verb found in Modern English forms of this construction: some have a limited range of acceptable resultatives, and others have only one or two.
Examples of the limited class include:
fall asleep, calm, ill, pregnant, prey (to NP), sick, silent, victim (to NP), short, heir (to NP), lame, vacant, due, foul (of NP), sacrifice; questionable are flat, free;
come good, loose, open, right, true, [ordinal adjective such as third];
go bad, free, mad, wrong, [colour adjective], silent;
turn bad, nasty, sour, traitor, [colour adjective];
grow long, old, tall, [psychological state adjective], [comparative adjectival phrase as in you grow more beautiful every day].
Examples of the more restricted class include:
wax eloquent, lyrical
and possibly freeze solid, run hot, run cold, spring open.
Try mixing and matching other combinations and you will see what I mean:
fall awake, fall noisy
come closed, come wrong, come false
go good, go right, go noisy, go open
grow short, grow young
are each nonsense, and jar in the brain.
Now I have no recollection of anyone trying to use the unacceptable forms, but with British English as my first language, I know that they are unacceptable (except in certain rhetorical tropes, for that very unacceptability). I have also checked some corpora, including the BNC and Google Ngrams, to see whether it is just one of my peccadilloes, and the combinations that I consider unacceptable seem not to be used by anyone else.
So how did I learn these rules or lexical limitations? If there is some generic rule that my brain constructed from the language that I have heard and read, what is it which will fit the above observations? If not, how did my brain assemble such a vast lexicon with all these intricate rules of usage, when I have not even heard or seen such usage.
Answers please in comments of no more than 20 words!