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The standard linguistic analysis of the NP

a box of apples

is that we have a determiner (a) which acts on (modifies?) box of apples. (For an example of standard analysis, see e.g. Fig. 6 here). CGEL refers to box of apples as a nominal, though I understand that others would prefer to call it an NP'. Then box of apples is further parsed into box being modified by of apples. In other words, we have

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My question is: what is the evidence against the following alternative parsing: a box being modified by of apples?

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In other words, why does

a [box [of apples] ]

make more sense than

[a box] [of apples]?

Equivalently: why is a taken to modify box of apples rather than of apples taken to modify a box?

What is particularly impressive (or surprising) is that, on the standard analysis, the parsing seems to be completely independent of context. It is simply never the case that a box gets modified by of apples; it is always box being modified by of apples, and then a modifying box of apples.

I hope it is understood that I'm only mentioning a box of apples for the sake of concreteness. What I would like to know is why such a parsing applies in all relevantly similar cases. In other words, my actual question is: consider an NP which is Det + Head + PP. Why is Det taken to modify Head + PP, rather than PP taken to modify Det + Head?

I'm sure there is more than one piece of evidence, and would appreciate it if someone could explain the first several strongest pieces of evidence.

(In contrast, I find the standard parsing far more intuitive in the cases of NPs which look like Det + Mod + Head, e.g. an old man. The correct parsing is, of course, an [old man], and somehow I don't have the slightest inclination to parse it as [an old] man.)

Update 1: found a page that seems to say something relevant on the issue: this one. Still digesting it...

Update 2: I have accepted the answer given by Greg Lee. (Thanks!) The answer uses the notion of a pro-form. A pro-form is a particular type of function word---"a word that has little lexical meaning or has ambiguous meaning, but instead serves to express grammatical relationships with other words within a sentence, or specify the attitude or mood of the speaker" (Wikipedia). For completeness, here are details (also from Wikipedia):

A pro-form is a type of function word or expression that stands in for (expresses the same content as) another word, phrase, clause or sentence where the meaning is recoverable from the context. They are used either to avoid repetitive expressions or in quantification (limiting the variables of a proposition).

Pro-forms are divided into several categories, according to which part of speech they substitute:

  • A pronoun substitutes a noun or a noun phrase, with or without a determiner: it, this. (Compare also prop-word; this denotes a word like one in "the blue one".)
  • A pro-adjective substitutes an adjective or a phrase that functions as an adjective: so as in "It is less so than we had expected."
  • A pro-adverb substitutes an adverb or a phrase that functions as an adverb: how or this way.
  • A pro-verb substitutes a verb or a verb phrase: do.
  • A pro-sentence substitutes an entire sentence or subsentence: Yes, or that as in "That is true".

Now the answer by Greg Lee is easy to follow (some of the emphases are mine):

One generally assumes that only constituents can be replaced by a pro-form and that only a constituent can be the antecedent for such a replacement. So since we can go from

I want a big box of apples, but my sister wants only a small box of apples.

to

I want a big box of apples, but my sister wants only a small one.

then "box of apples" must be a constituent. This rules out the structure: [a (Adj) box] [of apples]. It must be instead: a (Adj) [box of apples].

Once this answer was posted, it was easy to find other resources that discuss this; one of them is here.

  • You might find this article by susan53 at ESLHQ Forums interesting and even helpful. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 16 '16 at 22:36
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    Aleluya, an interesting grammar question. Thank you! – Araucaria Feb 16 '16 at 23:13
  • Consider: "I don't want a box of apples, I want that box of apples." Of course, in other contexts the alternative parsing might make more sense. I can't think of any such contexts offhand, but I'll leave it as a challenge. – Peter Shor Feb 17 '16 at 0:58
  • @peter-shor Well, we are told that the head in any case is box, and that the rest are mere modifiers. But if that is so, then what's wrong with the following way of understanding your example: "I don't want a box, I want that box (and by the way, all and any of them are filled with apples)"? And if that's OK, then why wouldn't we parse the NPs as [a box] [of apples] and [that box] [of apples]? – linguisticturn Feb 17 '16 at 1:28
  • @linguisticturn You ask: "what is the evidence against the following alternative parsing: a box being modified by of apples"? But then you diagram your alternative with the PP "of apples" labelled 'complement'! (Complement and modifier are quite different functions). Ignoring that apparent contradiction, you've actually answered the question yourself. The difference is that CGEL recognise a unit intermediate between the NP and the noun which they call a "nominal" Thus the higher NP, not the nominal, includes the determiner. I thought CGEL explained the rationale for that quite clearly. – BillJ Feb 17 '16 at 11:42
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One generally assumes that only constituents can be replaced by an indefinite pro-form and that only a constituent can be the antecedent for such a replacement. So since we can go from

I want a big box of apples, but my sister wants only a small box of apples.

to

I want a big box of apples, but my sister wants only a small one.

then "box of apples" must be a constituent. This rules out the structure: [a (Adj) box] [of apples]. It must be instead: a (Adj) [box of apples].

  • It's obviously a [box full of apples] not a [box made out of apples]. If we are speaking of examples like: "fence of wood" or "house of stones". I guess you can make a box of apples if you try really hard. – SovereignSun Oct 31 '16 at 14:53
  • @SovereignSun, Yes, and the passive "A box is made of apples" shows that in that sense, "box of apples" is not a constituent. – Greg Lee Oct 31 '16 at 17:50
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It depends on what you're trying to say, but given the sentence

We have a box of apples.

It's quite obvious what we mean. We literally have a box filled with apples. If we examine the phrase "...a box of apples" in the sentence, the phrase's 'subject' is the box. We use a becuase we have one of the many boxes in the world. We don't have just one grand box (the box) and we don't have every box (every box).

Further, the detail about the apples isn't necessary. The apples are not the 'subject', so they are a detail. Details by nature modify an overarching something that can contain one or many details. The sentence is just as correct if you remove "of apples".

We have a box.

Of is a modifier similar to a. By that fact alone, the phrase "of apples" cannot stand independently and requires additional information.

Technically you can argue that a noun requires some kind of modifier to be used in a complete sentence. Proper English says

Want buy box?

is incorrect. Even though the intent is obvious and technically a full coherent thought, it's not proper. The correct form is:

Want to buy a box (of apples)?

Which can be further corrected to

Do you want to buy a box (of apples)?

English itself was also built this way. Take something like gender expression. In other languages this can modify a word (El Niño vs El Niña). According to wikipedia,

Modern English is not considered to have grammatical gender, although Old English had it, and some remnants of a gender system exist, such as the distinct personal pronouns he, she, and it. However, aside from a handful of nouns like "god" and "goddess", "duke" and "duchess", "tiger" and "tigress", and "waiter" and "waitress", grammatical gender is almost exclusively found in pronouns and titles. Since they accurately reflect the biological sex of whatever they represent, with all male animate beings being assigned as masculine, all female animate beings being assigned as feminine, and all inanimate objects being assigned as neuter, English is said to have natural gender.

We don't generally modify words themselves depending on usage. We have other words do that job for us.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Oct 30 '16 at 23:47

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