Sunday, March 11, 2007

Adjectival friends? (Crosspost from LL)

It's orthogonal to the point of Mark's post, but in thinking about the expression, 'be friends with', a few questions sprang into my head, and having (I think) introspectively answered them to my satisfaction, I thought I'd inflict the whole train of thought on the rest of the world.

First, note that the idiom 'Be friends with' is one of them there symmetric predicates, related to the 'essentially plural' predicate 'be friends', which requires a plural subject:

(1) X and Y are friends

(2) a. X is friends with Y

b.Y is friends with X

It's the same way 'be married to' is realted to the essentially plural predicate 'be married':

(3) X and Y are married

(4) a. X is married to Y

b. Y is married to X

"Be married" is an adjectival passive, and 'be friends' looks like a predicate nominal. In their singular-subject forms, both involve idiosyncratically selecting a preposition to introduce the non-subject argument (with or to, respectively).

However, with respect to 'be friends', I think it's likely that an interesting process of idiomatization involving category change has occurred. In (5),

(5) X and Y are friends

the plural nominal predicate 'friends' is appropriate because the subject is plural. It's behaving like the straightforward nominal predicate in (6) below: plural subject, plural predicate. Singular predicates are not possible with plural subjects:

(6) a. X and Y are doctors
b. *X and Y are a doctor

Originally, X and Y are friends would have been symmetrical with the following singular and truly nominal predicate constructions, entailment-wise:

(7) a. X is a friend to Y
b. Y is a friend to X

These are behaving appropriately: nominal predicates with singular subjects take singular predicates, as in (6). Note that a plural predicate here sounds bizarre:

(8) *X is friends to Y

So why is "X is friends with Y" grammatical? If 'be friends with' is a real nominal predicate, it shouldn't be able to take a singular subject.

I think "X and Y are friends" must have undergone reanalysis, to become an idiomatic predicate adjective construction where the plural -s isn't really doing its plural job. That is, in the minds of speakers, [[friend]N -s]Pl changed to [friends]A .

A predicate adjective isn't marked for number with respect to its subject in English, the way nominal predicates are, so that the faux-plural form 'friends', now a predicate adjective, became acceptable with a singular subject. Hence, X is friends with Y is grammatical.

The proof that 'friends' is not the same nominal as 'friend' here is that as a predicate, it takes a different preposition than 'friend', namely 'with', rather than 'to' (though the change in preposition in itself doesn't confirm that friends is now an adjective in this expression -- but it does confirm that it's a different friend than the one in be a friend to).

With respect to the subtler semantic issues with this kind of predicate, Googling quickly I came across the following abstract from Martin Hackl about these and other similar but not-the-same plural-subject predicates (from which I got the term 'essentially plural').

So a linguist's Sunday morning goes.

PS. What does it mean that 'be friends with' can be modified by 'best' without invoking a uniqueness presupposition?

John and Mary are best friends/Mary is best friends with John.

You can't do that with normal nominal predicates:
John and Mary are *(the) best doctors.

And, of course, 'best' can't modify adjectives, being the superlative form of one itself. That's kind of problematic for my friends-as-adjective hypothesis.

"Be best friends (with)" is related, semantically, to the following real predicate nominal expressions, which do require the the:

John is the best friend of Mary.

Mary is the best friend of John.

Maybe it's just that 'be best friends' is also an idiom.


Blogger myl said...

The process seems to be one that generalizes to other plural predicate nominals: "is colleagues with", "is lovers with", "is co-workers with", etc.

These seem wierd to me in a way that "is friends with" doesn't, but they're out there.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Bradley Momberger said...

I think I've got it. Now please forgive any malaprops or horribly roundabout descriptions in this post, as this isn't coming from a language scholar, but I realized that the predicate "be friends with X" is semantically similar to the seemingly-more-colloquial "be good people." What I perceive as the difference in connotation between "N is a good person" and "N is good people" is that the former is a statement of attributes (person has qualities which identify a good person) while the latter is a statement of classification or group membership (person is seen as a member of the group of "good people").

In the same way, "friends with X" is a classification of those people who are both a friend to X and a friend of X. So to be "friends with X" is to fall into the classification. How that affects the "best friends with X" idiom (since the expectation is that only one person can be your best friend) is unclear.

Of course, this only explains how it could be considered grammatical. I really think that it seems more of a multilevel mutilation of "be in friendship with X", perhaps with a stopover at a provincial-sounding "be in friends with X" before the preposition was dropped.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Marie-Lucie Tarpent said...

I like the interpretation of "friends" here as equivalent to an adjective. I recollect at least one example of "best + Adj": "Best Beloved", a term of address which I think is from Kipling's Jungle Book.

"Best" is the superlative, not only of the adjective "good" but of the adverb "well" - note that "best beloved" is equivalent to "most loved", and "most", like "more", is an adverb. Because of the fluidity of categories in English, there is only a short step from "X is my (best) friend" to "I am (best) friends with X".

11:52 AM  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Another possibly relevant datum is that for many people (e.g., my daughter, born 1987, but not me, born 1958), the "best" in "best friend(s)" is no longer superlative; my daughter has no problem with having more than one "best friend" at a time. This I think accounts for the difference between "best friends" and "(the) best doctors", as "best doctor" has no such idiomatic meaning.

Somewhat similarly, the "best boy", or most senior assistant (originally in any craft, now most often movie lighting and camera-rigging) may bear that title even if there are no other assistants.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous craig said...

I feel like there's something unique about the word "friend" that requires a construction like this. "Be friends" describes a reciprocal relationship in a way that "be a friend" does not - if I am a friend TO x, that does not necessarily mean that x is a friend to me. But if x and I are friends, we are necessarily each a friend to the other, and so "be friends" comes to mean "be in a reciprocal friendship", a predicate whose meaning can logically take a singular subject. If I am friends WITH x, that also says something about x's relationship with me, which the statement "I am a friend TO x" does not.

Perhaps the reason this expression still seems odd in other contexts ("is colleagues with", "is lovers with", etc) is that in these contexts, the reciprocality is already implied by the context. I can't be x's lover without x also being my lover, I can't be x's co-worker without x being mine, but I CAN be x's friend without x being mine (ask any grade-schooler).

While the above generalizations sound weird to me as well, "is enemies with" sounds less so, perhaps because the expression is a more natural extention of "is friends with", or perhaps because there can be the same difference between reciprocality and one-sidedness.

1:39 PM  
Blogger ChrisW said...

I like the link with "is good people". Another fixed expression containing a predicative element that looks like (but only looks like) a plural but is an adjective is "call it quits.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Estel said...

On the modifiable-by-adjective track:

a) Mary and John are good friends.
b) Mary is good friends with John.
c) John is good friends with Mary.

Those are all fine to me.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Kevin Iga said...

Not all modifiers work.
*Amy is very friends with Bob.
*Amy and Bob are very friends.

Amy is somewhat friends with Bob.
Amy and Bob are somewhat friends.

*Amy is overly enthusiastic friends with Bob.
?Amy and Bob are overly enthusiastic friends.

Amy is not friends with Bob.
Amy and Bob are not friends.

Along the lines of "Best friends" and "good friends", it seems that idiomatic expressions involving "friends" can work:

Amy is close friends with Bob.
Amy and Bob are close friends.

*Amy is caring friends with Bob.
*Amy and Bob are caring friends. (ungrammatical except to say that they care for their friends generally, not simply that they care for each other).

Suppose Amy spends part of her year in Texas, and part of her year in Michigan. Bob spends part of his year in Oregon, and part of his year in Michigan. We may speak of Amy's "Michigan friends" and say
Bob is one of Amy's Michigan friends
Amy is one of Bob's Michigan friends
but not
*Bob is Michigan friends with Amy
and not
*Amy and Bob are Michigan friends.

In fact, when I say it, it sounds to me like I'm coining a new official category of friend, a "Michigan friend".

As another point, your phenomenon also works with "in cahoots with":
Amy is in cahoots with Bob.
Amy and Bob are in cahoots.

Maybe a bit more distant is
Amy is dating Bob.
Amy and Bob are dating.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Kevin Iga said...

Upon further reflection, the modifiers that work fall into two categories:
1. They are actually modifying the verb "to be": "are not friends", "are somewhat friends"
2. They form an idiomatic expression with "friends" : "are good friends", "are close friends".

And with that, I leave you a comic strip about friends:

8:37 PM  
Anonymous slplssgrdstdnt said...

Some random thoughts on the topic...
On first reading, I found the phrase "X is a friend to Y" a little odd, and thought it was perhaps an dialectal thing. But on further reflection, I realised that there was a distinction in my head between the above and "X is a friend of Y('s)". It seems like the latter truly refers to the [[friend]] relation, whereas the former refers to something more like a 'status' (e.g. it is parallel to "X is a burden to Y").
About adding "best"... I think "best" alone presupposes uniqueness, but adding "best of" does not. Thus, "Jan is best of friends with Sven" just means Jan and Sven are very good friends. At least in my idiolect.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous emmie johnson said...

I got it. Cool post and many thanks for the interesting explanation.
emmie johnson

2:13 AM  
Anonymous A.S. said...

Sorry for coming late to the discussion and thanks for this great posting on a really neat linguistic pattern.

I think it's clear, though, that reanalysis as an adjective doesn't really work. First, as Mark points out, this is a productive pattern. In addition to the examples he mentions, you can also find [BE partners with], [BE acquaintances with], and many others, including [BE {brothers|sisters|cousins} with]. Second, as Kevin Iga observes, this ‘adjective’ doesn't really behave like an adjective with respect to the modifiers it allows.

I think the most plausible analysis is that this is a construction in the sense of construction grammar, i.e. a form-meaning pair whose form and/or meaning doesn't follow from general rules. The formal idiosyncrasy is the one you mention: the number mismatch between subject and complement. The semantic idiosyncrasy is that, as Craig has pointed out, only nouns that refer to a reciprocal relationship can occur in this pattern/construction (at least I haven't been able to find any cases with non-reciprocal referents).

The fact that many instantiations of the construction sound weird or at least surprising and that some of them are extremely rare seems to point to the fact that the construction is still relatively young, i.e. that speakers have only recently begun to schematize away from the model “be friends with”.

8:07 AM  
Blogger The Pedantic Prick said...

I think it has its roots in the expression "Let's be friends", which is grammatical (Let us be friends), or perhaps "We are friends", and from there the "friends" got reanalyzed into a predicate.

(I apologize if I'm stating the painfully obvious, but it looked like no one else had suggested this.)

8:24 AM  
Anonymous craig said...


I'm not sure how old the movement away from the "be friends" model is, but the OED lists examples of "(singular of verb 'to be') friends with" going all the way back to Shakespeare:

596 SHAKES. 1 Hen. IV, III. iii. 203, "I am good Friends with my Father, and may do any thing."

And it's got a modifier and everything! Is it possible that this expression is yet another of Shakespeare's contributions to the language?

8:33 AM  
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