More on attitudinal adjectives

The present post is a follow-up to this one, which discussed grammatical similarities between the word poor and adjectival swearwords. Given the subject matter, this post will use (or, rather, mention) offensive language rather copiously. If you don’t like that, don’t read it.

In my earlier post, I mentioned that adjectives like poor and fucking are subject to unusual grammatical restraints — but only when a particular sense of the word is intended. To recap, consider these examples.

  1. The genius is fucking.
  2. Never interrupt a genius who is fucking.
  3. The man’s a fucking genius.
  4. That fucking genius thinks he’s so much better than us.

Sentences (1) and (2) use the literal meaning of “engaging in sexual intercourse.”  In sentence (3), the word is not used literally, but neither is it being used to curse someone; it does not imply scorn or hatred but merely serves to underscore the word genius. Only in sentence (4) is the word used to communicate the speaker’s emotional attitude towards the genius in question; this is what I’m going to call the attitudinal sense of the word.

The situation is similar with poor.

  1. The gardener is poor.
  2. This fertilizer is beyond the means of a gardener who is poor.
  3. He’s a poor gardener.
  4. The poor gardener had to pick all the dandelions out of the lawn by hand.

In sentences (5) and (6), poor can only mean “impoverished.” In (7) it could mean either “impoverished” or “lacking in ability.” In (8), it could have either of those meanings, but it would more likely be interpreted in a third, attitudinal sense — as an expression of the speaker’s pity or sympathy for the gardener.

When an adjective is used in the attitudinal sense, it does not predicate anything at all of the referent of the noun which it is modifying. That is why that annoying cat is not synonymous with that confounded cat. The former is predicating something of the cat — namely, that it causes feelings of annoyance. The truth-value of that predication may be a matter of subjective opinion, but the phrase is still meant to say something about the cat itself. In contrast, that confounded cat says nothing about the cat itself but merely serves to express the speaker’s attitude toward it. For a similar reason, the pitiable boy is no substitute for the poor boy. Pitiable makes a statement about the boy — that he deserves, or at least tends to elicit, pity — but poor is simply an expression of the speaker’s own feeling of pity.


In addition to poor and various execratory terms, there are several other candidates for the category of attitudinal adjectives (or adjectives which can be used in an attitudinal sense).

One of these — actually a phrase rather than a single adjective is good old. Consider these examples.

  1. *John is good old.
  2. John is good and old.
  3. John is a good old person.
  4. You can always count on good old John.
  5. Good old John!

The pattern is familiar from our previous discussion of poor and fucking. Sentence (9) is ill-formed because only attributive adjectives (those used before the noun, rather than in the predicate) can be strung together without a conjunction. It’s nearest well-formed equivalent, (9) can only mean that John is an elderly gentleman of high moral caliber — which is predicating something of John and is thus not attitudinal. The sense of (11) depends on which word is stressed. If you stress old, it means the same as (10) — or it could mean that John is in some sense “good at being old”; perhaps old age becomes him, or perhaps he is an actor who is good at playing elderly characters. If instead the word person is stressed, good old can be interpreted in the attitudinal sense — but the attitude conveyed is an attitude towards people in general, not John in particular. Here’s an example of a (rather contrived) context in which that reading might make sense:

“I spent all morning observing the chimp colony. Harry and Bonzo were squabbling all morning, with Joey joining in from time to time. I was going crazy trying to catch everything they were doing and write it down. Then finally John showed up and they all quieted down.”

“Who’s John? The alpha?”

“No, no, he’s not a chimp. John is a good old person, one of the other researchers. Boy was I ever glad to have another human being to talk to for a change!”

Sentences (12) and (13) would both be interpreted in the attitudinal sense — conveying the speaker’s attitude towards John rather than predicating anything of John himself.

Note that for the good old in (11) to be interpreted attitudinally, we must construct a context in which it could be used in passing. If we take it for granted that John is person, then the main point of (11) is to say that John is good and old. If we imagine a context in which one might assume that John is a chimpanzee, then the main point of the sentence is to say that John is a person; good old is then used in passing and can be interpreted attitudinally.


Adjectival curse words generally have three possible senses: the literal, the emphatic, and the attitudinal. However, not all curse words have all three senses.

Curse words which are noun-participle compounds, such as goddamn(ed) and motherfucking, have no literal sense. That seems like a strange thing to say, since anyone can tell you that goddamned literally means “condemned to hell by God” and that the literal meaning of motherfucking is “having sexual relations with one’s mother.” However, if you try to use either word literally in a sentence, you’ll find that it can’t be done. Even in a sentence like Oedipus was the motherfucking king of Thebes, the curse word will be understood in its emphatic sense (the alleged literal sense will also be salient, of course, but only as a sort of pun). Likewise, Let’s burn that goddamned heretic carries the attitudinal sense and is not interchangeable with Let’s burn that heretic who has been condemned to hell by God. The same is also true of cotton-picking, in my judgment; it would be hard (but perhaps not impossible?) to interpret a sentence like Look at all those cotton-picking migrant workers as a non-attitudinal description of the agricultural task in which the workers in question are engaged.

Curse words which (as I have heard them used) have no emphatic sense include confounded and blasted. When these words are used non-literally, they always carry an attitudinal meaning; they cannot be used for mere emphasis. You can say I’m a goddamn American Jedi, but you can’t really say I’m a confounded American Jedi.

Most other adjectival curse words, though, have both an emphatic and an attitudinal sense — and the distinction seems to be based on the same “used in passing” criterion I identified for the attitudinal sense of poor.

  1. Now this is a motherfucking plane!
  2. I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!

Sentence (14) is clearly emphatic in meaning; it serves to emphasize the word plane and has no execratory meaning. Sentence (15) uses the word twice in its attitudinal sense, expressing exasperation with the snakes and the plane, and does so in the familiar “in passing” manner.

No sentence with the same grammar as (14), but using poor in place of motherfucking, could be interpreted in the attitudinal sense, which supports the distinction between emphatic curse words and truly attitudinal ones.

Leave a comment

Filed under Language

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s