I would like to ask about the syntactic analysis of adverbs as what is called "peripheral noun modifiers" in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p436, which is illustrated in the following example:

Possibly the best actress in the world will take the role of Emma.

According to the authors, the adverb "possibly" in the above sentence in one of the interpretations is to be understood as having scope over the noun phrase "best actress" - The person who is possibly the best actress in the world will take the role of Emma.

I'm having trouble understanding this, as semantically the adverb "possibly" clearly serves to hedge the qualification of the actress as the best in the world, not the entire phrase "best actress" - The actress is possibly the best in the world.

A few random examples I picked from Google Books would receive the same interpretation - the modal and temporal adverbs in these examples would be interpreted as modifying the following adjective within the noun phrase rather than the entire meaning of the phrase:

It's a nice neighbourhood. Nice homes, nice gardens, probably nice people who would give you the time of day if you asked.

Freud can be a very annoying person, with his ideas about women, and his sometimes rigid symbol interpretation of dreams.

He has made his Pop elements into a subtle, profound, delicate and at moments very touching and very funny instrument for analysis of a national trauma.

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    I'd be curious about the answer too - it seems rather implausible to me that "possibly" should have scope over the whole NP rather than just the Det + Adj. Sep 9, 2016 at 14:03
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    Maybe the problem is that the adverb comes before the determiner, and it would be tricky to make the whole thing look like a regular NP in a phrase structure tree. In all of the other examples, the Det is before the adverb (in the first example, you probably assume an empty D before "probably") and the adverb then modifies the adjective, so we get the structure [ [.DP D] [.NP [.AdjP [.AdvP Adv] [.AdjP Adj] ] [.NP N] ] ], but with an ordering Adv - D - Adj - NP, it is easiest to assume [.NP [.AdvP Adv] [.NP [.DP D] [.NP [.AdjP Adj] [.NP N ] ] ] ]. I still find this counter-intuitive though. Sep 9, 2016 at 14:10
  • I wonder if the Adv would still have scope over the whole NP if we assumed an underlying form "the possibly best actress" ([.NP [.DP [.D the] ] [.NP [.AdjP [.AdvP [.Adv possibly] ] [.AdjP [.Adj best] ] ] [.NP [.N actress] ] ] ])and then movement of the Adv to a position before the whole NP as an additional modifier. With this, we would get [.NP [.AdvP [.Adv possibly] ] [.NP [.DP [.D the] ] [.NP [.AdjP [.AdvP [.Adv t] ] [.AdjP [.Adj best] ] ] [.NP [.N actress] ] ] ] ] where the trace of the adv is still in the modifier position for the adj but the surface adv is in initial position. Sep 9, 2016 at 14:58
  • (I'm just not sure if that makes sense from a theoretical p.o.v.) Sep 9, 2016 at 15:00
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    @lemontree And just for fun consider that possibly a) possibly doesn't modify best, it modifies the attribution of best to actress, and b) in the world doesn't modify actress, it's either a modifier on best or the complement of best. OR there's a deleted PP of all actresses, and in the world is a post-modifier on actresses--or a complement of all. :) Sep 9, 2016 at 15:46

3 Answers 3


While I support your remarks about the interpretation of probably as a supposed NP modifier, CGEL might still be right about the syntax. Following McCawley's analysis of only as a syntactic modifier which has a semantic focus somewhere within the constituent it modifies, it seems we must distinguish between the syntax and the semantics of such modifiers. Perhaps here probably is indeed a syntactic modifier of a NP, but which has the interpretation of modifying some smaller part of that NP.

Consider what only goes with in

Only the best actress in the world would attempt the role of Emma.  

I believe that McCawley would put only as a syntactic modifier of the NP the best actress in the world but with a semantic focus of just a part of tha NP, perhaps best ... in the world.

Now try

Possibly only the best actress in the world would attempt the role of Emma.  

In the interpretation, possibly is limited in scope to the focused part of the NP.

  • Thank you for the answer Greg Lee! I've added a similar analysis from another source, for further discussion.
    – user5492
    Sep 9, 2016 at 15:41

I've found a similar analysis of adverbs functioning as noun modifiers in this document here:


The author says that the syntactic analysis is supported by the semantics of the phrases he offered as an illustration, as in this example he took from BNC:

The main concern of this chapter is to complete the description of intonational form,including analysis of perhaps the most difficult aspect...

Here's an excerpt from the document:

Moreover, in many syntactic contexts, the peripheral modifier can be analysed as a sentence-level modifier rather than as a part of the NP. This can be illustrated by examples like (28), which are open to the two analyses in (29) and (30). (28) Body language is probably the most important visual cue. (BNC) (29) [ NP Pm [D [...
[N]]]] probably the most important visual clue (30) [ AdvP Adv ] . .. [ NP D [... [N]]] probably the most important visual clue Still, an analysis along the lines of (30) is not always an option. In (31)–(32), the peripheral modifier follows a preposition. This suggests that the adverb perhaps is part of the NP that is the complement of the PP. The idea that in this construction the adverb syntactically belongs to the NP is supported by the semantics: in the examples (31)–(32) perhaps only has semantic scope over the NP inside the PP. In (31), perhaps is used to express doubt about whether the referent is indeed ‘the most difficult aspect’, rather than the analysis or the inclusion of an analysis. In (32), perhaps is used to question the felicity of the description ‘extravagance’ for what is going on. The rest of the clause is fully asserted. (31) The main concern of this chapter is to complete the description of intonational form,including analysis of perhaps the most difficult aspect .. . (BNC)

Again, I'm having difficulty understanding the semantic interpretation of the adverb "perhaps" as "..expressing doubt about whether the referent is indeed "the most difficult aspect". I'd rather read "perhaps" as a softener of the otherwise assertive "most difficult" qualification of the aspect in question, which would in turn obviously affect the syntactic analysis of the phrase. I don't see how "perhaps" raises any sort of doubt regarding "aspect" itself, but it does hedge its qualification as being "the most difficult".

To add to this dilemma I have, examples with adverbs modifying noun phrases which are not pre-modified with adjectives are also common in language, as is the case with partitives like:

a province of Central China and subsequently subjugated all other petty kingdoms and thus became the emperors of perhaps the one of the largest empires of the world


Without the PP, 'possibly' becomes a normal adverb[ial]: "Possibly[,] the best actress will take the role." The phrase comes from something like "She is[,] possibly[,] the best actress in the world" and gets transferred (whole cloth). Your sentence could work with the nuance of spoken form, but as written it is ambiguous ('possibly best' vs 'possibly take').

  • Thank you aml! The authors of CGEL used this example to point out to the ambiguity in the interpretation you mention.
    – user5492
    Sep 10, 2016 at 18:38

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