1. What this question is about

It is about cases where an adverb apparently modifies a word of a type that adverbs aren't supposed to be able to modify, like nouns and personal pronouns. It is very much related to this post. Prototypical examples I have in mind:

The work is mostly Kim's.
The work is mostly mine.
The victory was almost Kim's.
The victory was almost hers.

2. The actual question

It seems to me that there are three possible ways to analyze the examples above, none of which seem to me to be satisfactory. Question: which of these, if any, is the best way to analyze the examples above? I would appreciate it if the answer was backed by scholarly sources at the level of Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik and CGEL (as opposed to school or ESL grammars). Possible analyses:

i. The NP answer: Although, true, Kim's is a noun, and a nominal, in these examples it is actually the full noun phrase (NP); similarly for mine and hers. And while adverbs "do not occur as attributive modifiers within a nominal, ... many can occur as external modifier with an NP as head" (see Sec. 4.1, below). So there is no problem: NPs can be modified by adverbs.

ii. The adjective answer: Kim's may be a noun, but here it functions as an adjective; similarly, mine and hers may be pronouns, but here they function as adjectives. So there is no problem: adjectives (and, by extension, words that function like adjectives) can be modified by adverbs. (A variant of this analysis says that all these nouns and pronouns actually are adjectives in these examples.)

iii. The verb answer: In these examples, the adverbs mostly and almost actually modify the verbs is and was. So there is no problem: verbs can be modified by adverbs.

3. Why I don't like the answers 1-3

3.1 The NP answer

This was the accepted answer to this question; so why don't I like it?

I don't like it because it seems to open a Pandora's box. After all, any noun can be the sole constituent of an NP. This analysis would imply a vast number of circumstances under which nouns may be modified by adverbs---potentially, all circumstances in which a noun is the sole constituent of an NP. What then remains of our analysis of adverbs as those words one of the key characteristics of which is that they don't modify nouns?

Moreover, such an analysis does not seem to capture the extremely limited range of circumstances under which adverbs (seem to) modify nouns and pronouns. For example, surely, the following sentence is not allowed in Standard English:
* Mostly John did the work.
But, on this analysis, why not? After all, John is clearly NP. It is even clear what the sentence means; moreover, I think the sentence is actually grammatical in some dialects (e.g. in Indian English)---but it definitely isn't grammatical in Standard English.

3.2 The adjective answer

My guess is that this is the preferred answer of traditional school grammars, because such grammars say that in the phrase the Clinton administration, the word Clinton is an adjective (or that it is "used as an adjective"). Why don't I like it? Because of what CGEL has to say about it:

Traditional school grammar (though not scholarly traditional grammar) tends to analyse the underlined nouns here as adjectives---or to say that they are 'nouns used as adjectives'. From our perspective, this latter formulation represents a confusion between categories and functions: they are not nouns used as adjectives, but nouns used as attributive modifiers. Apart from pronouns, just about any noun can appear in this function---including proper nouns, as in the London, Clinton, and Caroline examples [in the book there are many other examples, and the nouns in question, e.g. Clinton, appear underlined]. These words can all appear as head of an NP in subject or object function, where they are uncontroversially nouns; to analyse them as adjectives when they are functioning attributively would make the adjective category far too heterogeneous, and require an unwarranted and massive overlap between the adjective and noun categories. (p. 537)

It would seem to me that the same remarks apply to the case of nouns and pronouns in the genitive (see Sec. 4.2, below).

3.3 The verb answer

I'm not aware of any sources that advocate this answer, but it seems an obvious possibility to consider. However, either one of the following two reasons is probably enough to see why no one is advocating this:
i. adverbs normally come before the verbs they modify (e.g. I want to mostly eat, with some drinking mixed in.);
ii. it would never occur to anyone to analyze It is mostly red as anything other than red being modified by mostly.

In conclusion, I don't much like any of the proposed answers. Is there another possible answer? Or is one of the ones above in fact the correct one, despite the objections I stated?

4. Appendix: Some grammatical background

4.1 Adverbs

According to CGEL,

Adverbs do not occur as attributive modifiers within a nominal, but many can occur as external modifier with an NP as head. Almost the whole book, for example, has the NP the whole book as head, and may be contrasted with * She congratulated him on his [almost success], where it is inadmissibly functioning as modifier of the noun success. (p. 563)

It may be helpful here to recall the distinction between a nominal and a noun phrase:

A phrase consisting of a noun and the constituents that go with it most closely is a nominal [Nom]; a nominal plus a determinative makes a noun phrase [NP]... (p. 22)

Example (p. 23):
this clear case of dedication to duty is an NP, whereas
clear case of dedication to duty (note the missing determinative) is a Nom.

It is helpful to note that, if clear is dropped from the above example, then
almost a case of dedication to duty
is grammatical (if awkward), but
* almost case of dedication to duty
isn't grammatical.

4.2 Nouns and pronouns

According to the source I cited, the genitive form of a noun is still a noun:

Nouns prototypically inflect for number (singular vs plural) and for case (plain vs genitive) Examples: dog-dog's; dogs-dogs'; child-child's; children-children's (p. 326)

Likewise, pronouns in the genitive remain pronouns (p. 327):

nominative     dependent     independent
                            genitive           genitive
          I                     my                 mine
        she                   her                 hers

4.3 The relevant genitive construction

The book lists six types of genitive construction (p. 467). Of relevance to this question is type v, the predicative genitive:

v   All this is Kim's.     [v: predicative genitive]

Details are provided on p. 469:

In [41V] the genitive marks the relation between Kim and the predicand all this, a relation like that expressible by belong + to. Kim's here is thus not part of some matrix NP, as it is in Types 1 and iii-iv: here, then, the predicative complement function is realised directly by a genitive NP. Genitive predicative complements are usually subjective, as in this example, but they can also be objective: Let's call it Kim's; I regard it as Kim's.

5. mostly vs. not

User Frank has suggested that mostly modifies the verb is, by analogy with not in The work is not Kim's. Here I want to explain why that is almost certainly not correct.

Consider e.g. the sentence

[A] The shoe is mostly red.

If the argument by analogy with not were correct, it would follow that in [A], mostly 'belongs with' is; in other words, that [A] should be analyzed as It [is mostly] red, because in The shoe is not red, the not belongs with is.

However, no reputable source would analyze [A] that way; instead, it would always be analyzed as The shoe is [mostly red], where mostly red is taken to be an adjective phrase (AdjP).

I will return to not later. For now, let me concentrate on [A] on its own.

5.1 Why mostly red is a constituent

The reason why mostly 'belongs' not with is but rather with red is that mostly red is a constituent, whereas is mostly is not. There are several kinds of tests that can help determine if something is a constituent. A very well-known one is that only a constituent can be replaced by a pro-form. And indeed: The right shoe is m̲o̲s̲t̲l̲y̲ ̲r̲e̲d̲, and the left one is s̲o̲ as well (so is a pro-adjective that substitutes mostly red).

To complete the argument, one also has to show that is mostly is not a constituent. For that, we use the principle that constituents always must either be conjoined, [1 ... 1][2 ...2], or nested, [1 ... [2... 2] ...1], but they cannot only partially overlap: [1 ... [2... 1]... 2] (see here). We showed above that mostly red is a constituent. But then it follows that is mostly cannot be a constituent, because it would only partially overlap with another constituent, namely mostly red.

5.2 The analogy with not

Let me now turn to the argument concerning the similarity with not. The situation with not is a bit tricky, and it will help if we replace is by seems. This replacement does not change the original question, because now we have The work seems mostly Kim's, and we can still ask if mostly modifies Kim's. Now consider

[C] a. The shoe seems not red.
       b. The shoe does not seem red.

In a., not red seems to function somewhat like non-red, suggesting it is a constituent. To further strengthen that point of view, it seems like we can freely move around not red in a., which, if true, means that not red is indeed a constituent in that sentence (the question mark in front of the following examples means that it is however not entirely clear if the sentences are truly grammatical): ?Not red seems the shoe; ?Not red, the shoe seems. Also, it seems that 'not+adjective' can usually be replaced by a pro-form, again suggesting it is a constituent: ?John seems not tired, and Jane seems so, too. Finally, though this is not a conclusive test of constituenthood even if true, it looks like not red can be a stand-alone reply to a question, as in

Jane: I want the other shoe to be red.
Alex: OK, how does this shoe seem to you?
Jane: Not red.

On the other hand, in b., it seems pretty clear that not belongs with does.

And now notice that

[D] The shoe is not red

is ambiguous between being read like [Ca] (The shoe is [not red]) and being read like [Cb] (The shoe [is not] red).

On the one hand, here is some (admittedly inconclusive) evidence of the possibility of a [Ca]-like reading of [D]. Fronting: ?Not red, the shoe is. Answer ellipsis: "What is that shoe?" "Well, not red..." Pro-form substitution: The one thing I insist on is that all items be anything but red. Well, the hat is n̲o̲t̲ ̲r̲e̲d̲, the shawl is s̲o̲ as well, but the shoes are kind of reddish.

On the other hand, the [Cb]-like reading of [D] is arguably the standard one, though I (who am not a linguist) have had trouble coming up with a clear and conclusive demonstration of that fact. Perhaps this is not that surprising, as verb phrases are often more difficult to test for constituenthood than other kinds of phrases. So far, I only have answer ellipsis (sort of): "That shoe is red!" "Is not!"

The fact that [D] seems to be readable two different ways is why I say not is trickier when it follows is than when it follows e.g. seems. The reason, of course, is that negation with is does not involve do: we say don't say *The shoe does not be red; our only possibilities are the shoe is not red and the shoe isn't red. (CGEL seems to argue that isn't and is not aren't quite the same thing, unlike she'll and she will, which are. One reason is that isn't cannot always be expanded to is not, whereas she'll can always be expanded to she will. For example, That's a great hat, i̲s̲n̲'̲t̲ it? cannot be expanded to *That's a great hat, i̲s̲ ̲n̲o̲t̲ it?; the question tag must instead be is it not. There are other differences as well, see CGEL, p. 91, which discusses won't vs. will not, but it seems like all the arguments there also apply to isn't and is not.)

And the point of all this, of course, is that [A] is analogous not to the [Cb]-like reading of [D] but to the [Ca]-like reading of it.

Whatever turns out to be the correct thing to say about [D], however, it remains the case that in [A], it is mostly red which is a constituent.

5 Answers 5


The NP answer is correct. Your objections to it are no good. The Pandora's box argument doesn't make sense -- just because an adverb immediately precedes a noun and there is nothing else in the NP, this doesn't mean the adverb modifies the noun. That is what your argument assumes, and it is just not so. In such cases, the adverb modifies only the NP and not the noun.

Your other objection is that in many cases a given adverb cannot modify a NP. But so what? Adverbs can modify many things, and there are all sorts of restrictions and complexities. Just because adverbs can sometimes modify NPs, it doesn't mean that every adverb can modify every NP.

There is a refinement to the proposal that adjectives are modifiers of nouns that you might like to know about. In McCawley's TSPE (which gives a very interesting taxonomy of adverbs), it is not nouns that are modified by adjectives, but rather N' (N-bar). An N' is (a) a noun alone, (b) a noun with a noun complement (e.g. the P' in "the father of the bride"), or (c) the result of modifying an N' with an adjective, relative clause, or whatever. N' can be replaced by the pro-form "one", as in "The unbroken red ball hit the window before the broken one (one = red ball) did."

  • Thank you for your answer. But somehow, I still don't quite get the distinction (I believe there is one, I just don't quite see it yet). Let's try this. Consider the following two sentences: 1. Adverbs never modify nouns; they do, however, modify NPs, even when the NP consists of a single noun. 2. Adverbs can modify nouns only when the noun is the sole constituent of an NP. As far as I understand, you are saying that the difference between 1. and 2. is no mere semantics. Could you clarify? E.g., could you give an example where 2. would make a wrong prediction but 1. would not? Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 18:38
  • I have just posted the above as a separate question, here. If you got a sec, I would appreciate you weighing in! Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 18:59
  1. The work is mostly Kim's.
  2. The work is mostly mine.
  3. The victory was almost Kim's.
  4. The victory was almost hers.

Not every adverb that appears before a noun phrase is modifying that noun phrase

There are two issues here. The first is that because an adverb happens to occur before a particular word, it doesn't mean it is modifying it. If an adverb is a sentence Adjunct, we may be able to put it in several positions in the sentence. This is the case with the adverb mostly in examples (1-2).

We can show that this adverb is not modifying either Kim's or mine by moving it about:

  • The work is mostly Kim's.
  • The work is Kim's, mostly.
  • Mostly the work is Kim's.
  • The work has mostly been Kim's.

The data above seem to show that the word mostly is a sentence Adjunct, not a modifier of the word Kim's. Clearly we could do the same thing substituting the word Kim's with mine.

On then to examples (3-4). The OP says that Kim's here is a noun and a nominal. Usually a nominal is the phrase headed by a noun that occurs after any Determiners within a noun phrase (NP). So within the NP the big dog the nominal is the phrase big dog. The nominal is the Head of the noun phrase. We can also say that the Head noun in the nominal is the Ultimate Head of the larger NP. So in the big dog, the Ultimate Head of the NP is the noun dog.

The Determiner function

The structure of an NP, then, according to this kind of model, is usually a Head, a nominal preceded by a Determiner. Notice that Determiner here is a syntactic function (grammatical relation). We need to distinguish syntactic functions such as Subject, Head and Determiner from phrasal categories such as verb phrase or nominal and also from word categories such as determinative or noun.

Now in the same way that clauses and phrases headed by nouns can both be Subjects. Determiners may be realised by different types of word. We can have NP's realised by genitively inflected pronouns as Determiners:

  • my dog

We can also have genitively inflected NPs headed by common nouns or proper nouns as Determiners:

  • the elephant's dog
  • Ermintrude's dog

We can have preposition phrases as Determiners:

  • over fifty dogs

And of course we can have determinatives as Determiners:

  • the dog

NPs realised by nominals realised by nouns

Now not all NPs have a Determiner. Sometimes we have what are known as bare NPs. This is when an NP is realised by a nominal without any Determiner. So for example in Water flows downhill, the NP water is realised by a nominal. It has no Determiner. So the Head of this NP is the nominal water itself. Now the nominal water must have a Head too. The Head of the nominal is the noun water. The word water therefore is also the Ultimate Head of the NP. We can show that this is an NP, because we can freely use it with a Determiner: The water flows downhill.

We can contrast this with nominals which aren't NPs. For example consider the phrase antiquarian book in an antiquarian book collector. This phrase is the Complement of the noun collector. It occurs within the nominal headed by collector, itself within the larger NP. In this example the Determiner, a, belongs in the larger NP, not with the phrase antiquarian book. Now if we try to give the nominal antiquarian book its own Determiner, the result will be ungrammatical:

  • *an the antiquarian book collector

This is because the word collector can only accept nominals, not NPs, as complements. We can clearly distinguish therefore between NPs realised by nominals and those nominals which aren't NPs.

Fused Determiner-Heads

Under the framework given by CaGEL (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) we also find NPs wherein the syntactic functions of Determiner and Head have become fused, so that one element is performing the functions of both Determiner and Head. This is exactly what we find with the Original Poster's example (3-4). In (3) we see the NP Kim's. The Subject-Determiner-Head of this NP is the NP Kim's. The function of this NP is both that of Determiner and Head together.

Similarly in (4) we see the NP hers, the Determiner-Head of which is the NP hers. Here is the image from CaGEL for the fused Determiner-Head construction. Because CaGEL recognise a Subject-determiner as a subtype of Determiner, the function is labelled a Subject-determiner-Head:

enter image description here

The Original Poster's question:

With regards to examples (3-4), it seems to be, at least from the CaGEL standpoint that Kim's and hers must both be NPs. This is not a place where we would expect a nominal. However, more importantly, the Determiner function is being carried out by the phrase (along with the Head function). NP's have Determiners, but nominals don't. A noun cannot have a Determiner either. Words don't have internal functions of any sort. The adverb almost therefore must be regarded as modifying an NP, not a nominal or a noun.

Another way to look at this is to assume a DP hypothesis. In both cases these phrases would be regarded as determiner phrases, where a determiner phrase (notice the small 'd' for the label of the word category in this framework) is the equivalent of CaGEL's NPs. Now adverbs can modify DPs, but not the phrase headed by a noun within it. So again here we see that in both almost Kim's and almost hers the adverb almost is modifying a larger phrase, not the smaller phrase within it, and not the noun.

  • I guess "nominal" is an H&P-ism that means N-bar (as McCawley uses it). I am unenthusiastic. Note the "nominalization" of a sentence turns it into a NP, not an N-bar. Besides, "nominal" is a traditional term meaning NP. Is this all there is to H&P? -- bad terminology?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 21:25
  • @araucaria Thank you for your answer... it will take a bit for me to digest it! Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:08
  • @araucaria I appreciate that you gave an answer that relied on CaGEL as the reference. Is this answer in any fundamental disagreement with the answer given by John Lawler to my other question? Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:39
  • @linguisticturn I don't think so. only and almost are different though. For example, only always precedes what it is intended to refer to, and as John says modifies clauses, but can shift around in the sentence. In contrast, almost does indeed modify NPs and so is substantially different. For that reason John's answer doesn't really cover the same kind of ground as this one or Greg's (and vice verse). The 'determiner' analysis of only is quite controversial, though interesting. H&P analyse it as an adverb. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:09
  • I just came across your answer, and I got a question. You seem to say, unlike mostly in #1 & 2, almost in #3 & 4 does modify subsequent nouns Kim's & hers. How come? To me, almost doesn't modify either of the nouns, but is merely a sentence adjunct just like mostly in #1 & 2. The proof is that you just can't use the NP almost hers as a subject or an object, but only as a predicative complement. Another proof is that you can say, The victory has almost been hers. Also marginally acceptable are: Almost, the victory was hers and The victory was hers, almost. What you think?
    – JK2
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 12:07

I don't think that "mostly" or "almost" modify the following noun.

1 The work is mostly Kim's (work). This is in other words "The work is Kim's work - in most cases. I can't understand the idea that "mostly" modifies "King's work". It is a sentence adverb.

2 The victory was almost Kim's. Actually it is the same case as in (1). But one might say that the function of "almost" is a special kind of negation, being near to "not". One might explain "Kim was not the winner, but he was on his heels.

  • Thank you for your answer. However, I don't think these are instances of omitted work or victory, as can be seen by the behavior of my/mine and her/hers: The work is mostly hers/mine. *The work is mostly hers/mine work. (should be her/my) The victory was almost hers/mine. *The victory was almost hers/mine victory. (should be her/my) Perhaps the answer given by John Lawler to my related question is close to what you had in mind? Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 19:54

I'm no scholar but it seems to me that the adverb mostly is obviously modifying is. It relates to a property of being of Kim's work.

If we remove the adverb, we get:

The work is Kim's.

The verb be here is asserting the identification of The work with Kim's [work] -- that is, they are the same thing.

If we replace is with is not, we negate the previous identification:

The work is not Kim's work.

Now we can replace is not with is mostly, to get the meaning of partial identification.

  • Thank you for your answer! However, I do not think it is correct. I have appended a section to my original question above ('5. mostly vs. not') where I explain why I think so. Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 4:31

Adverbs can appear in many places in a sentence. Your sentence is in the form [NP VP NP] + AdvP. All of the following are grammatically correct:

  • AdvP NP VP NP
  • NP AdvP VP NP
  • NP VP AdvP NP
  • NP VP NP AdvP
  1. Mostly the work is Kim's.

  2. The work mostly is Kim's.

  3. The work is mostly Kim's.

  4. The work is Kim's mostly.

In the first sentence do you consider that mostly qualifies the work? I don't think so, because it doesn't make sense without the other noun phrase (the complement) and the verb phrase. Mostly seems to be qualifying the whole sentence.

The second sentence appears to connect mostly to is. The third sentence appears to connect mostly to Kim's. The fourth sentence seems to connect mostly with is Kim's.

It's easy enough to construct sentences without verbs or complements to connect an adverb to.

No complement:

Who is happy?

I am mostly.

No verb:

Whose work is this?

Mostly Kim's.

However, both are examples of ellipsis:

I am mostly (happy).

(This work is) mostly Kim's.

Mostly needs both a verb phrase and a noun phrase, and if one of these phrases is missing it will be implied elliptically. It's equally valid to say the adverb phrase modifies the verb phrase (is), the noun phrase (Kim's), both at the same time (is Kim's), or the whole rest of the sentence (the work is Kim's). There is no single correct answer.

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