'ten-feet-wide plant'

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed May 22 14:56:09 UTC 2002

At 3:39 PM +0100 5/22/02, Lynne Murphy wrote:
>Hello ADSers,
>I'm puzzled by some examples I've recently seen of prenominal measure
>phrase-APs that have inflected measure nouns--in both cases it was 'feet'.
>To be clearer, here's an example:
>'the 10-feet-wide giant succulent'
>                                -- 'Century Plant' Oxford Today 8:1.3, 1995
>(Can't find the other example, but it was in a recent New Yorker article
>about Patti Smith.)
>Now, as far as I'm concerned, this should be
>  'the 10-foot-wide giant succulent'
>After all, you wouldn't say 'the three-years-old child'.
>It's a compound, right?  So inflections shouldn't show up within it.
>Since I've only seen this with 'feet', I'm guessing that the irregular
>plural form is going under our inflectional radar.  In other Germanic
>languages with this construction, the inflections do survive the prenominal
>position (so they're not interpreted as compounds there).
>Any thoughts on
>(a) whether the 'feet' example is ok?
>(b) whether it might be UK rather than US?
>(c) other (or more detailed) explanations why 'feet' is ok here but 'years'
>is not?
On (c), there's been a general assumption (purveyed by, inter al.,
Steven Pinker in his popular books on linguistics) that irregular
inflection is OK in compounds but regular inflection is not:
mice-catcher vs. rat(*s)-catcher, etc.  This difference (which your
minimal pair supports, assuming the "feet" version is better than the
"years", or for that matter "inches" counterpart) is explained in
terms of level-ordered morphology and various other things.  A paper
just given at the CLS, "The acceptability of regular plurals in
compounds", by Elisa Sneed of Northwestern U. challenges this line
and shows that acceptability of regular morphology in compounds is
rather complex.  I'm sure she'd be a good source of information on
the issue.  (I'd imagine "the three-years-old child" would actually
be worse than "the 10-inches-wide board" because the former is
conventionally lexicalized or "frozen" with the singular.)


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