19.3858, Sum: Grammatical Category of Worth

Tue Dec 16 17:35:04 UTC 2008

LINGUIST List: Vol-19-3858. Tue Dec 16 2008. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 19.3858, Sum: Grammatical Category of Worth

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Date: 14-Dec-2008
From: Karen Stanley < karen.stanley at cpcc.edu >
Subject: Grammatical Category of Worth


-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Tue, 16 Dec 2008 12:33:47
From: Karen Stanley [karen.stanley at cpcc.edu]
Subject: Grammatical Category of Worth

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Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 19.3748                                                                                                                                               

In alphabetical order, thanks to: Bas Aarts, Katalin Balogne Berces, Costas
Gabrielatos, Dinha Gorgis, Anthea Fraser Gupta, Richard Hudson, Kate
Kearns, Mike Maxwell, Paul Purdom, Elizabeth Pyatt, Dale Russell, Michael
Swan, and Magdalena Zoeppritz for their contributions (and please excuse me
if I somehow missed a name)

I have, of necessity, taken only excerpts from explanations, and apologize
in advance if I misrepresented or did not fully represent any ideas

Support for Adjective Status

-- the adjective status fits well systematically, both with the adjectives
taking measure-type complements (5 ft tall) and others (not many, but: 
guilty OF a crime, eager to inf-please)
-- preposition analysis fails with all non-noun complements
-- although 'preserving' is a verbal noun, 'worth preserving' is an NP (not
a PP) because 'worth' is an adjectival functioning as a premodifier.  A
simple test would be placing 'well, too, often' or any suitable adverb
before 'worth' (...are well worth preserving)
-- its syntactic distribution supports adjective status; also, semantic
content and phonological behavior (always stressed) are against analysing
it as a function word; it can also be graded (exclusive to adjectives - eg,
more worth)
-- there's no reason an adjective couldn't subcategorize for a non-finite
-- it's a transitive adjective, an adjective that obligatorily takes a
nominal object; 'fond' could be considered a transitive adjective but
instead of taking a nominal object, it takes a prepositional phrase as its

Support for Preposition Status

-- the BNC tags it as a preposition in the (BE + worth + V-ing) structure
-- one of the entries in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
labels 'worth' ''1. preposition (esp. after be)'' and under that entry
includes a meaning of 'deserving of.'
-- it takes NPs ('worth a fortune') and the only quasi-verbal complements
must be gerunds, it can't take any distinctively adjectival or verbal
morphology (*this is unworth the price, *it worthed more), and an
adjectival form exists ('worthy').  Possibly the noun is the original form.

Other Suggestions

-- the OED says it is ''Almost always (now only) in predicative use, or
following the n. as part of a qualifying phrase,'' usefully thought of as
part of an idiom ''BE WORTH [N].''  This analysis covers the etymology of
''BE worth (the) while,'' though 'worthwhile' has become an adjective. 
Classification as a 'preposition' is presumably analogous with structures
like 'He is in the garden' and 'They are near finishing.' If forced to
choose one category, it would be preposition, but the idiom route is
-- rather than fit into any one category, 'worth' exists along an
adjectival-prepositional syntactic gradient along with a number of other
elements including like, unlike, due, near far, and close.(This brief
sentence does not even come close to doing justice to the chapter from Bas
Aarts' recent book, Syntactic Gradience.)
-- while (a) it takes -ly adverbs (eg highly), and (b) other adjectives can
take a VP construction (She is happy living here.), there is something
different about the latter where the matrix subject is understood as the
subject of the VP-ing, as against the original sentence where the matrix
subject is the *object* of the -ing verb.  However, it is reminiscent of
the ''tough'' construction (Bill is tough to talk to - subject is object)
versus eager (Bill is eager to go).  The worth-ing construction also
supports parasitic gaps, indicating it's a form of WH- construction (My
reports are worth reading before tossing.) However, no other adjectives
behave like worth, although there are some X+P constructions that are
similar (This room is _intended for_ partying in.) And unlike adjectives it
fairly readily post-modifies nouns in this construction (Fido is a dog
worth avoiding.)
-- another possibility is that it's both adjective and preposition. 
Precedents for double assignment:  gerunds (noun and verb), much/many (noun
and adjective).  The adjective explains why it's okay after BECOME
(normally only okay for adjectives and nouns:  It became worth nothing/*in
great demand).  The preposition would explain why it takes a bare noun as
complement, but even then has the special property of raising the object
from a gerund complement (''It's worth buying'' - 'buy' requires an object,
and 'it' is its object.)
-- the term preposition is closest to what is available in traditional
grammar, but it may be what is called a ''predicator'' (Pr) similar to 'as'
and 'like' in syntactic theory (see John Bowers).  Fronting, which is
possible with prepositional phrases, is questionable for all three.  So,
depending on your analysis, it could be a predicate usage, some sort of
adverb, or some sort of preposition.
-- it probably doesn't belong properly to any of the categories under
consideration, although Huddleston and Pullum (Cambridge Grammar of the
English Language, p 607) demonstrate that it functions more like adjectives
than anything else.  Also to consider:  'Worth' seems to have something in
common with 'any/no use', 'any/no good' and similar expressions with 'use'
and 'good'.  Perhaps these are historically all genitive expressions used
adjectivally ('of no worth/use/good') that have dropped their 'of,' leaving
them as syntactic isolates.  See also David Crystal's Encyclopaedia of
Language and ''Fuzzy Grammar, a Reader' by Bas Aarts and others (OUP).
-- Webster's New World Dictionary labels it as an ''adjective [with
prepositional force]'' 

Linguistic Field(s): Syntax

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