Organic Syntax

I’m teaching at Brown this semester, and I found accommodation in Providence via airbnb (advertising on yielded nothing at all). I’m sharing an apartment with a gay couple who strongly favor organic foods. They were away for a few days when I used up the last of the household’s organic raspberry preserves. I felt obligated to replace it with a comparable product, but I didn’t know where the original had been bought. I probably should have checked out Gourmet Heaven on Weybosset Street, or of course some branch of Whole Foods, but I happened to be making a basics-purchasing expedition to a massive Stop & Shop the other side of Route 10, and while shopping there I picked up a Nature’s Promise product called Organic Raspberry Fruit Spread.

Why did I not see the obvious syntactic danger? Some grammarian, I thought to myself later, when I saw what I’d missed.

Of course, there was also a lexical red flag: The words preserve, jam, jelly, and spread are all differently defined in American food terminology, and product quality runs from preserves (which contain just fruit) down to spreads (which can have all sorts of gelatins and other additives), with jams and jellies in between. I know this now (I got the lecture from a Whole Foods staff member another day), so don’t explain it to me in the comments. The syntactic point I want to make would be relevant even if the last word had been “preserve.”

As linguists often point out in elementary lectures on syntax, old men and women has two meanings, not just one. The reason can be clarified with bracketing: [[old men] and [women]] represents the meaning where the adjective old as an attributive modifier of men (so some of the women referred to may be young), and [old [men and women]] represents the meaning where old modifies men and women (so younger women are not included in the reference).

In that example, the nouns men and women are in a coordination relationship. But nouns in a modification relationship can also be modified, sometimes by other nouns. For example,  fruit can be used as an attributive modifier of the noun spread, to make a unit representable as [fruit [spread]].

Traditional grammarians talk about nouns being “used as adjectives” in such cases, but that’s a bad way to put it. They’re being used as modifiers, but (as Allan Metcalf rightly stressed in his recent post on this blog) they don’t turn into adjectives. Fruity is an adjective,  fruit never is. Hence we get fruitier and fruitiest but never *fruiter or *fruitest. But I digress.

An additional noun, such as raspberry, can be used as an attributive modifier of the whole unit fruit spread, yielding the phrase [raspberry [fruit [spread]]]. That denotes a fruit spread of the raspberry type.

And the adjective organic could then be used as an attributive modifier of that whole unit, yielding [organic [raspberry [fruit [spread]]]]. That denotes a raspberry fruit spread of the organic type. The very thing I was looking for.

What I failed to notice until later is that there is another possibility.

Organic can modify a single noun like raspberry. The resultant unit can then itself be used as a modifier of fruit spread. That would yield [[organic raspberry] [fruit [spread]]], denoting a fruit spread of the organic raspberry type. Perfectly grammatical; nothing amiss.

The difference is that the stuff referred to by this description needn’t fully satisfy the stringent conditions for being an organic product. Only the raspberries need to pass. And sure enough, the label on Nature’s Promise Organic Raspberry Fruit Spread says:


The water, the pectin, the miscellaneous fruit from which the pectin was made, the citric acid, the lemons from which the citric acid was extracted, and the utterly inorganic calcium chloride can be produced in the usual industrial ways with unlimited use of chemicals. I didn’t bring home an organic spread at all!

Mea culpa. The manufacturers (Foodhold U.S.A. of Landover, Md.) have done nothing wrong. I just didn’t check the list of ingredients to disambiguate the ambiguous syntax of the product name.

I’ll just have to hope that the pesticides and fertilizers in the pectin won’t kill me, and that my housemates won’t either. With luck they’ll read the label as carelessly as I did. The stuff tastes all right.

Return to Top