Consider the following examples:

The work is mostly Kim's.
Only Kim resigned.

A question some of us had (e.g. here and here) was, aren't these examples of adverbs modifying nouns (which they are not supposed to do)? Isn't mostly modifying Kim's, and isn't only modifying Kim?

In both cases, the accepted answer is this: in these examples, Kim and Kim's are not simply nouns. They are nouns, of course, but in addition to being nouns, they are also entire noun phrases (NPs). And adverbs may modify NPs.

I somehow didn't like this answer, for the following reason: it seemed to me 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?

I got the following answer, from Greg Lee: "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."

I do believe this is the correct answer. The problem is, I just don't quite get it.

Let me try to sharpen my question. Consider the following two sentences:

  1. Adverbs never modify nouns; they may, however, modify NPs, even when the NP consists of a single noun.

  2. Adverbs may modify nouns, but only when the noun is the sole constituent of an NP.

As far as I understand, the difference between 1. and 2. is no mere semantics. Could anyone clarify? For instance, could anyone give an example where 2. would make a wrong prediction (about whether some sentence is grammatical) but 1. would not?

  • 2
    It seems significant that the adverbs in your examples are semantically quantifiers; I don't think there are examples of other kinds of adverbs that behave this way. So maybe quantifiers like only, mostly, solely, partially, etc. are syntactically distinct from other adverbs.
    – Marq
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 19:24
  • 1
    You may find that my answer to your other question might go some way to answering your question. Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 19:58
  • @araucaria Yes, I saw that. Thanks! It will take me a while to process it... Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:14

2 Answers 2


On the face of it, your sentences 1 and 2 seem extensionally identical -- that is, each is true if and only if the other is true. So I don't know whether I can find an answer. But I'll discuss it.

Syntacticians think about sentence structure in a peculiar way -- a way that traditional grammarians usually do not think about it. Syntacticians take sentence structure as something that actually exists and can be discovered, while other people generally think of it as a mere taxonomy -- a convenient classification system for discussing grammar. So it is often difficult for me to explain to a person trained in traditional grammar what the difference between a noun and a noun phrase is. (Hereafter N and NP.)

To a traditional grammarian, it's straightforward. A NP has to have more than one word in it, because that's what "phrase" means. A syntactician who has experience writing phrase structure grammar doesn't look at it that way at all. The difference between NP and N has nothing to do with the original source of the "P" in the name "NP". If I want to ensure that an NP always has more than one word, I have to make sure that I always write rules like NP -> old men but that I never write a rule like NP -> men.

This is not easy, when I want to start generalizing the rules. If I write NP -> Det N, I have to make sure other rules expand both Det and N as at least one word each. If I want to allow for sentences that have one word subjects, I can't have just the rule S -> NP VP -- I have to add the rule S ->N VP.

After a while, you start to wonder what the point is. Do one word subjects display any grammatical behavior distinct from that of multi-word subjects, other than having just a single word? Well, no.

There is also a difficulty with two tempting generalizations about English coordination. Ordinarily, you can only coordinate things of the same grammatical category, but then what about "socks and old shoes"? If a single word is of a different category from a multi-word phrase, this example should not be allowed. Furthermore, ordinarily the coordination of two like categories is of the same category as each of the things coordinated. The coordination of two verb phrases is a verb phrase, e.g. But an exception would have to be "socks and shoes", if I distinguish between one-word and multi-word categories, because I coordinated two single words and got a multi-word category.

So that's a problem with the sentence 2 in your question. You've proposed a difference in grammatical behavior that depends on whether a constituent has more than one word in it. But so far as I know, English just doesn't work this way, though it's not impossible that it might, I suppose.

  • Thank you for the clarification. I did have the vague idea that it was probably something like that, but your explanation definitely helped. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:12
  • Also, just to help me navigate the various answers I got: are you in any sort of fundamental disagreement with the answer given by Araucaria to my original question (you did comment on it), and especially with the answer given by John Lawler to this question? Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:31
  • You mean do I agree that "Kim's" in your examples is a determiner? Yes, I do agree with that. That is what English possessives in apostrophe+s are -- determiners. I can't find the answer from Lawler that you refer to.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:00
  • Oh, I see Lawler's answer. Well, no, I don't see why he thinks that "only" is a quantifier. It's clearly not mutually exclusive with (other) determiners. His distinction between being "used as an adverb" and actually being an adverb escapes me.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:11
  • @Greg Lee I don't like the inclusion of 'only' in either 'Only Kim was ...' or 'Kim only looked at the vase; she didn't touch it' in the adverb category. There are reasons to consider it closest to a determiner before a noun (in spite of the availability of 'the only person ...'), and the determiner analogue of an adverb in the second usage. Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 13:18
  • The work is mostly Kim's.
  • Only Kim resigned.

Aren't these examples of adverbs modifying nouns (which they are not supposed to do)?
Isn't mostly modifying Kim's, and isn't only modifying Kim?

In order,

  1. No, these aren't examples of adverbs modifying nouns.
    Because only and mostly are not adverbs; they are Quantifiers.
    Quantifers are one kind of Determiner (other determiners include articles and demonstratives).
    Determiners are a part of noun phrases and generally appear before adjectives in English NPs.
    They can form quite complex phrases, just like any other part.

    • [the]D [big old brick]A [house]N
    • [several of the]D [big old brick]A [houses]N
    • [only a few of the]D [big old brick]A [houses]N
  2. If the "not supposed to do" part of the question comes from an English grammar book that tells you what adverbs are and are not allowed to do, throw away the grammar book.
    Clearly the author was innocent of English grammar.

  3. No, modification is more complicated than just being in front; only does not modify Kim.
    Only is a quantifier over the whole clause Kim resigned, and it has a focus on Kim.
    That's different from modifying Kim.

Quantifiers are often mistaken for adverbs because they're often used as adverbs in English.
A process called Quantifier-Floating (Q-Float) can move a quantifier to a number of positions
in an English sentence, so they can appear in many of the same positions as adverbs.

  • The cat only puked once, in the living room, on the carpet.
  • The cat puked only once, in the living room, on the carpet.
  • The cat puked once, only in the living room, on the carpet.
  • The cat puked once, in the living room, only on the carpet.

Note that these do not all mean the same thing. Some are ambiguous, some aren't.
This is par for the course with quantifiers and negatives (only is a negative trigger).
And there would be more variants if stress were considered, like the difference between

  • The cat only puked once, in the living room, on the carpet.
  • The cat only puked once, in the living room, on the carpet.

which disambiguates the focus of only.

  • 1
    Thank you so much for your answer. It will take me a while to process it. Just to be clear, though: are you in any sort of fundamental disagreement with the answers that Greg Lee and Araucaria gave to my original question? They do (as best as I can tell) disagree with each other somewhat, but they both agree that only and mostly are adverbs in these examples. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:21
  • @linguisticturn No, I upvoted both their answers long ago. We are different linguists with different histories of language learning, and I suspect we simply have different habits of analysis, and different estimations of feature priority. Like any different speakers of any language. Linguists can't really expect much precision in speaking of ordinary language if we can't agree with one another about how it's to be done and what good it is. Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 21:52

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