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I will try my hardest.

I am confusing myself by trying to figure out the grammatical relations in this sentence. It is not clear to me whether my hardest is a direct object here. If it is not, what kind of complement is it (assuming it is a complement)? If it is a direct object, how can we show this?

Another issue: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language analyse phrases such as the poor, the blind or the Dutch as noun phrases headed by adjectives (they dub them fused modifier-head constructions). Is my hardest a noun phrase in the sentence above. If so, why? If not, why not?

  • 2
    Hardest is class-ambivalent. Externally it's an adverb (StoneyB tried hard, and FumbleFingers tried harder, but Araucaria tried hardest)†. Internally to its phrase it's recategorized as a nominal to allow it to take adnominals like determiners and relative clauses, as in the hardest of which I am capable. It's a tortilla-folding device like the one John Lawler describes in the comments here. ... †(not the same thing as was [Ø/more/most] trying). – StoneyB Apr 4 '17 at 13:47
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    This phrase is an adverb. – Jason P Sallinger Apr 4 '17 at 13:48
  • @JasonPSallinger It isn't an adverb. That is clear because it is a phrase, and adverbs are types of word not types of phrase. – Araucaria Apr 4 '17 at 13:57
  • very well. See below. – Jason P Sallinger Apr 4 '17 at 13:59
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    It seems to me these phrases are related to the original: "I try hard" ("hard" is clearly an adverb). "I tried hardest" ("hardest" is a superlative adverb as far as I can tell). "I tried the hardest" ("the hardest" seems to be an adverbial). "I will try my hardest" (This seems to fit the same structure to me, so it seems "my hardest" is an adverbial). But then what about this: "I tried my hardest, but my hardest was not good enough." It seems "my hardest" can be the subject, so doesn't it stand to reason that it could be an object? – Richard Peterson Apr 11 '17 at 19:44
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Yes, my hardest is a direct object in the sentence "I will try my hardest". A direct object answers the question "What?" or "Who?". What will you try? My hardest. You can also say that "(my) hardest" is used substantively. Nouns and noun-equivalents collectively are called substantives according to The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition. Modern grammar books use the term nominal also.

Here is a good definition of substantive and it is relevant to the topic:

A substantive is a term covering all words that can be perceived by the senses or the understanding, a substantive can be a noun, pronoun or any word functioning like a noun. This could include such items like an adjective, participle, or infinitive used as the subject or a direct object of the sentence. A substantive can be one word or a group of words.

http://www.englishlanguageguide.com/grammar/substantive.asp

It works same as I will try/do my best. In this sentence, best is a noun used with a possessive and my best is the direct object. Here is the relevant excerpt from OED:

best, adj., n.1, and adv.

B. n.1

4. Usually with possessive: effort which surpasses all others in commitment or dedication, or reaches the highest level of which one is capable; the or one's utmost. Originally and chiefly in to do (also try) one's best: to do one's utmost (to do something); to try as hard as possible.

See also one's level best at level adj. 9.

In later use one's best is sometimes used adverbially with verbs of performance other than do and try and has the sense ‘as well as possible, as best one can’ (see e.g. quot. 1927).

1927    Boys' Life Aug. 20/2    No man can play his best with some outside thing on his mind.

Some relevant examples from OED:

1671    Dryden Evening's Love v. 73,    I will do my best to disingage my heart from this furious tender which I have for him.

1886    Times 20 Nov. 9/3    The young fiddlers and 'cellists do their very best, which is by no means contemptible.

2012    Daily Tel. 3 Sept. 5/2    My best wasn't good enough. I knew I'd blown it.

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    Hmm. I upvoted this answer, but I'm not sure this analysis works: consider the collocation "work my hardest": is "your hardest" really what you work in that context, or how you work? – sumelic Apr 13 '17 at 2:31
  • The verb try doesn't take an object, it takes an infinitival verb phrase. (Or sometimes the construction "try and VP".) What will you try? What ever the verb phrase is that comes after, or in this case, is elided. How will you try? With a manner adjunct "very hard", "my hardest" etc. – curiousdannii Apr 13 '17 at 2:58
  • @sumelic You are correct. Many/most verbs can have multiple argument structures. But when the NP functions as a manner adverbial, and when it has the same position as adverbs like "very hard", then those are reasons to say that it's an adjunct. But on the other hand you can't move it, "*I will try to jump high my hardest". But this is questionable for me... "?I will try to jump high verb hard". So maybe there's some other factor affecting where the adverbs can move in "try VP". Or maybe it is just an object. I'd want to see a solid argument against it being an adjunct to support that though. – curiousdannii Apr 13 '17 at 3:20
  • I have posted a separate answer. I ended up disagreeing with this post, although as I said I do think it was helpful. I just noticed that the OED itself, although listing this use under the "noun" category, calls "one's best" "adverbial" in constructions "with verbs of performance other than do and try" – sumelic Apr 19 '17 at 6:50
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    For what it's worth, there is a supporting evidence from an old grammar book. – ermanen Apr 19 '17 at 14:32
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"My hardest" in "try my hardest" is probably not a direct object

I think "my hardest" is not generally a direct object when it comes at the end of a verb phrase like this, because in all cases it fails the passivization and extraction tests, and in some cases it can co-occur with what appears to be a direct object.

I don't know if this is conclusive evidence for the precise grammatical role of "my hardest" in expressions like this, but it seems sufficient for me to think that it is not a direct object.

Examples of "my hardest" in a verb phrase containing another phrase that seems to have the role of direct object

A Google search for "hit it my hardest" turns up a number of examples:

I wasn't trying to hit it my hardest, I just wanted to get it over

Taryn Hicks, "0/12/13 - Troy Tournament"

I learned that I didn't have to hit it my hardest every time,” Chisolm said.

"2016 Volleyball Co-Player of the Year: Claudia Chisolm, Calvary Day"

To me, it seems pretty apparent that "it" is the direct object of "hit" in these examples; unfortunately, I wasn't able to find passive versions of "hit it my hardest" (like "It was hit my hardest") so I guess it's still possible to try to analyze it elsewise, if you can figure out how to do that.

I did found three examples of the passive "I was pushed my hardest" on Google, which doesn't quite seem to be the conventional usage of "my hardest" but which is relevant I think.

It's possible that "hit it my hardest" is a different construction from "try my hardest," but I think it's more parsimonious to assume that "my hardest" plays the same grammatical role in both.

In fact, even though they seem non-standard to me, I did find a couple of examples of "try it my hardest," which I think serve as evidence that at least some speakers do not think of "my hardest" as the direct object of "try" in this construction:

And I to promise to try it my hardest." Tears welled up in Rini's eyes as she wrapped her arms around my and Darien's neck.

"Reversed Event", by Twi-chick34 | fanfiction.net > Anime/Manga > Sailor Moon

Promise I tried it my hardest

Taj Ahkel – On Two Feet Lyrics | Genius Lyrics

Two failed direct object tests

The passivization test fails, of course:

  • *My hardest will be tried.

I cannot figure out a way to extract "my hardest", so I would say it also fails an extraction text.

  • *My hardest is what I will try.

The non-conclusive evidence I know of for it being a direct object

  • Position: it's in the right position for an object
  • Noun phrase grammar: as StoneyB mentioned, this kind of superlative indisputably has the structure of a noun phrase internally, which is why it can take the determiner "my."
  • Rarely occurs alongside a direct object: When I looked through Google Books, all of the instances I found of "my hardest" were after verbs that did not have another noun phrase that could be interpreted as the direct object. For example, run my hardest, try my hardest [to _____], work my hardest, paddle my hardest, fight my hardest, pitch my hardest, strive my hardest [to _____], pull my hardest, pray my hardest. There were no Google Books results for "hit it my hardest" or "was pushed my hardest". So these constructions with an object in addition to "my hardest" are evidently quite rare (although, as mentioned above, there are examples from Google web search).

Failing the passivization and extraction tests probably is not enough on its own to prove that "my hardest" is not a direct object in sentences like this. To me, the so-called "cognate object constructions" seem similar, and if the name is accurate they are considered objects in at least some analyses. These are constructions like "They died a gruesome death," "He smiled an evil smile" or "I slept a good night's sleep."

But many "cognate objects" fail the passivization test or an extraction test: we definitely can't say

  • *A gruesome death was died by them.

and I also don't think

  • *A gruesome death is what they died.

works.

If "my hardest" is not a direct object, what is it?

I don't know what other options there are for analysis besides "direct object." As other answers have pointed out, "adverbial" seems plausible.

In fact, the OED quotation cited in ermanen's answer seems to follow this analysis for the similar expression "one's best" in at least some cases, since it says

In later use one's best is sometimes used adverbially with verbs of performance other than do and try and has the sense ‘as well as possible, as best one can’

While this does make an exception for do and try, as I said earlier, I don't see any clear motivation for doing that.

I've also run across the term "pseudo-object" in "Leg it, floor it, snuff it: A synchronic and diachronic analysis of dummy it" (Mondorf; see also Mondorf 2016 which may also be relevant) but that doesn't seem very explanatory, just a bare description.

  • Very interesting, +1. I’m still a bit confused though. It looks to me I can try a hat, a new recipe, to get my message across, or your patience, but my hardest doesn’t sound like something I can try (is this related to your extraction test, or maybe the reason why it fails?). It seems to me that if I try my hardest I try my hardest to do something, even if I don’t state what that something is. Isn’t that to do something the direct object? Say in “I’ll try my hardest to persuade him,” isn’t to persuade him the direct object of try? In which case my hardest would be an adverbial? – Jacinto Apr 19 '17 at 19:06
  • @Jacinto: It's unclear if an infinitival clause like "to persuade him" can ever be a direct object. See the following question and its varied answers: Is there an object in this sentence? An infinitival clause definitely doesn't have to be a direct object: compare "I will do it to persuade him," where "it" is the direct object so "to persuade him" must be something else. – sumelic Apr 19 '17 at 19:38
  • Arguably the my hardest in your examples isn't the same my hardest in the OQ. In your examples my hardest doesn't mean with maximum effort it means with maximum force. There's also the fact that my best, for example might arguably be a DO in did my best but not in tried my best. So my hardest might be a DO in tried my hardest but not in hit it my hardest. – Araucaria Apr 22 '17 at 16:10
  • @AraucariaMan: well, I think the idea of "effort" in "try my hardest" mainly comes from the verb "try". It seems possible that there is a difference in grammar between "try my hardest" and "hit it my hardest," but I think it's more parsimonious to assume there isn't, since I don't see any facts that would be explained by postulating a difference. – sumelic Apr 22 '17 at 22:19
  • @AraucariaMan: It could be a case like adverbial many where a construction starts out one way (the OED says "many more [nouns]" probably arose as two successive adjectives, "many" and "more"), is extended to more contexts (a number of people now can use "many fewer [nouns]", where an analysis of "many" as an adjective doesn't make sense), and this extension motivates a re-analysis of the original construction (the OED analyzes "many more" in modern English as adverb + adjective). – sumelic Apr 22 '17 at 22:21
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From ODO

adverbial

An adverb, phrase, or clause which changes, restricts, or adds to the meaning of a verb, for instance:

I put my bag on the floor.

  • (On the floor is an adverbial, but note that it isn't an adverb. It's a preposition phrase.) Why do you think my hardest is an adverbial in my example (I'm not saying it isn't, btw!) – Araucaria Apr 4 '17 at 14:08
  • It clearly modifies the action. (btw I do concede it is not an adverb, per se. Personally I think it's silly to have two definitions for 'adverb' and 'adverbial') – Jason P Sallinger Apr 4 '17 at 14:11
  • Adverbial's a grammatical relation though and adverb is a word category. It's like the difference between noun and subject. – Araucaria Apr 4 '17 at 14:31
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    Ok. I'm not sure what the discussion is about anymore. The phrase in question is an adverbial. – Jason P Sallinger Apr 4 '17 at 14:40

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