Transforming manner adverbs into subject-oriented adverbs: evidence from Japanese


It is well known that some adverbs in English, such as stupidly, cleverly and clumsily, can be interpreted as manner adverbs or agent-oriented adverbs depending on their positions in a sentence, e.g., John danced stupidly vs. Stupidly, John danced. Three approaches are possible and have been proposed for this alternation: (i) positing an agent-oriented adverb as the basic entry from which a manner adverb is derived (Ernst 2002), (ii) positing a manner adverb as the basic entry from which an agent-oriented adverb is derived (McConnell-Ginet 1982), and (iii) positing two distinct lexical entries for the two readings (Piñón 2010). I present data from Japanese which support the second approach. However, there would be a problem if we directly adopt the second approach for the Japanese data, since the adverbs that at first sight look like agent-oriented adverbs in Japanese are not truly ‘agent’-oriented, but rather ‘surface-subject’-oriented. I propose an analysis that does not suffer from this problem, by modifying an idea from McConnell-Ginet (1982) and also incorporating the notion of comparison class from Ernst (2002). The discussion extends to another class of adverbs called ‘evaluative adverbs’, such as fortunately and oddly, which show the same morphological property with surface-subject oriented adverbs in Japanese.

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  1. 1.

    Wyner (2008: 255) notes that adverbs can be interpreted as manner adverbs even in the sentence initial position, when “the overall sentence implies a contrast; that is, we use [(i)] to deny some previous assertion” (for example, in a context where the speaker wants to deny the statement “Bill kissed Jill reluctantly”).

    1. (i)

      Passionately, Bill kissed Jill.

    In this paper, I do not consider cases that involve this additional focus effect.

  2. 2.

    In Japanese, the position of adverbs within a sentence is quite free as long as they precede the verb. Focusing (by adding phonological prominence, for example) does not affect the interpretation of the adverb as far as the manner/clausal alternation is concerned.

  3. 3.

    The interjectional use of mo is often called eetan no mo ‘exclamatory mo’ such as in (i).

    1. (i)

    Mo is found in other uses, e.g., as an additive particle and (a part of) NPIs as shown below.

    1. (ii)

    I do not know whether it is possible to have a unified analysis that covers all the instances of mo.

  4. 4.

    Agent-oriented adverbs are also called “thematically dependent adverbs (TDAs)” (Wyner 1998) and “Ad-VPs” (McConnell-Ginet 1982).

  5. 5.

    As pointed out by one of the reviewers, the paraphrase in (i-b) is not appropriate for some of the adverbs listed in (5), e.g., *John was {secret/calm} to spill the beans. Since the adverbs secretly and calmly does not appear in Jackendoff’s (1972) list of subject-oriented adverbs, it is either the case that the paraphrase ‘SUBJ was ADJ to …’ is not adequate for subject-oriented adverbs or the adverbs secretly and calmly are not supposed to be classified as subject-oriented adverbs. See also footnote 7.

  6. 6.

    For the precise implementation of the Manner Rule, see Chap. 2 in Ernst (2002).

  7. 7.

    This pattern in which the manner adverb is morphologically simpler does not seem to be limited to Japanese, as it is also attested in other languages such as German (e.g., klugerweise ‘cleverly’, which consists of klug ‘clever’ and weise, can only be interpreted as a agent-oriented adverb). The Manner Rule would be more convincing if there is a significant number of languages in which the morphological relation between the two adverbs is the opposite of (11). I do not know of any such language.

  8. 8.

    To be more precise, adverbs are actually considered as an argument of the verb and not really a modifier.

  9. 9.

    In the original proposal, the clausal argument of ‘decide’ is intensionalized. I have reproduced a simplified entry in (14) since this aspect of the analysis does not affect our discussion below.

  10. 10.

    In this connection, I should note that there are proposals that view manner modification as event kind modification (Landman and Morzycki 2003; Anderson and Morzycki 2015; Gehrke 2015). It would be interesting to see if it is possible to integrate the notion of comparison class and event kind modification, a task which I leave for future research.

  11. 11.

    Recall from above that mo has this additive function as one of its meanings (see footnote 3), but I will set aside further discussion on a more comprehensive analysis of mo.

  12. 12.

    In connection to footnote 5, this paraphrase can handle adverbs such as secretly as in secretly, John danced. While it does not make sense to say “it was secret of John to have danced”, the alternative paraphrase “that John danced was secret” may come close to what it is intended to mean.

  13. 13.

    For Wyner (1998), the ambiguity is not explained in terms of structural differences, but by assuming that there are two kinds of passive be: one that is semantically vacuous and the other that assigns a volitional meaning to the subject. In this view, however, not only do we need two kinds of be, but also two different ways to interpret the main verb: one with volition and the other without.

  14. 14.

    However, it is less clear compared to mental attitude adverbs whether they are really passive sensitive according to the native speakers I consulted with. While some speakers accept both readings in (31), others report that it is difficult to interpret it as (31-a), hence the marking ‘(??)’.

  15. 15.

    To my knowledge, the only exception is nesshinni-mo ‘eagerly’.


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Kubota, A. Transforming manner adverbs into subject-oriented adverbs: evidence from Japanese. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 33, 1019–1046 (2015).

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  • Manner adverb
  • Agent-oriented adverb
  • Subject-oriented adverb
  • Evaluative adverb
  • Japanese
  • Comparison class
  • Passive sensitivity