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I know the following sentences basically mean the same thing:

  • We need to reduce pollution to the greatest extent possible.

  • We need to reduce pollution to the greatest possible extent.

so my question is specifically related to the function of the adjective "possible" depending on its position in the sentence. It a syntactical question, rather than a semantical question.

Correct me if I'm wrong:

  • In the first sentence, the adjective "possible" is a complement of "greatest extent", and the adjective "greatest" is a complement of the noun "extent". Therefore, the sentence would be more or less equivalent to:

We need to reduce pollution to the greatest extent that is possible.

  • In the second sentence, the adjective "possible" is a complement of "greatest", and in turn, "greatest possible" is a complement of the noun "extent".
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    Both of these forms say essentially the same thing. I favor the first, though, but that's just me.
    – IconDaemon
    Commented May 24 at 0:23
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    Is there any particular reason you favor seeing possible as a complement of the noun phrase greatest extent rather than a postpositioned attributive modifier to the head-noun? Is it because without involving greatest the word possible would make no sense? I ask because I’m in general wary of analyses that reach too automatically towards whiz-deletion to explain away all possible right-branching NP elements.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 24 at 0:33

1 Answer 1

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As explained in WordReference, when you write "superlative possible noun", it means the most extreme value of the noun possible in the universe of all conceivable values. But when you write "superlative noun possible" the context is constrained to the current circumstances.

So "greatest extent possible" implies that we take current economics, politics, etc. into account when determining what's possible, while "greatest possible extent" ignores those constraints (e.g. everyone stops driving cars immediately).

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  • This seems to be the simplest explanation. Thanks.
    – mateleco
    Commented May 24 at 16:51

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