That’s Right

How and why would an adjective meaning “correct” turn into an adverb meaning (1) “accurately” or (2) “completely” or (3) “immediately”? I recently spent an hour with my class on English grammar at Brown University trying to figure that out. It was an instructive reminder of how interesting undergraduate teaching can be when the students are smart.

The item we were looking at was right. Ignore the fact that it’s occasionally a verb (you can right wrongs) and sometimes a noun (you have certain inalienable rights); it is primarily encountered as an adjective, as in the right answer, but in right under our noses it’s an adverb modifying the preposition under, and there it can’t be replaced by “correct.”

As an adverb, right seems just about totally restricted to the role of modifying prepositions. Linguists have used it as a syntactic litmus test for prepositionhood, in fact. But not all prepositions allow right. Which do, and why? And what is the essential meaning modification that it supplies? And does that relate back to “correct”? These were the topics I wanted my students to address.

Adverbial right is most natural with the most central and obvious prepositions:

[1] a. The bus was right on time. ["accurately"]
b. We walked right around the lake. ["completely"]
c. He went right in and bought it. ["immediately"]

But it doesn’t work with all prepositions. These examples seem extremely odd (I mark them with an asterisk to mean something like “ungrammatical, or at least semantically unacceptable”):

[2] a. *He survived right despite his injuries.
b. *Don’t leave home right without your American Express card.
c. *We saw several right of my friends.

What’s more intriguing is that there are cases of the central locative and temporal prepositions that, counter to the trend, are thoroughly unacceptable with right:

[3] a. *He was found wandering right around in a stupor.
b. *Her husband is now right under a restraining order.
c. *I kept it secret right out of concern for your feelings.

The class discussion slowly homed in on an idea about what differentiated the good and bad cases. The key elements of meaning for the modifier right seem to be these:

  • accuracy of spatiotemporal targeting (right on my toe)
  • completeness of spatiotemporal traversal (right through the wall)
  • immediacy of spatiotemporal connection (right at the start)

What’s the connecting thread? And how does it relate back to what right means when it’s an adjective?

It has to do with optimal satisfaction of a typical scenario involving the spatial or temporal relation that the preposition expresses. Optimal here doesn’t necessarily mean good; it means simply fitting the scenario well:

  • You describe a hammer as dropping right on your toe if it scores a direct, central hit on the bone. That’s bad, but stereotypical for a classic hammer-dropping-on-toe incident.
  • You’d describe a bullet as going right through a wall if it disappeared out the other side leaving a hole and some drifting dust. Bad for the decor, but just right for a stereotypical and fully completed wall-penetrating incident.
  • An incoming phone call comes right at the start of your favorite TV program if the phone rings during the opening credits. Bad, if it’s a long call you didn’t want, but optimal for wrecking the totality of your enjoyment.

The way correctness links to the special preposition-modifying use of right, then, is that there can be an absolutely right way to instantiate a spatial or temporal relation (or metaphorical analog thereof). Right lays emphasis on the instantiation being exactly the right one for the job.

Where there is no prototypical or central case to fit, as with the scenarios in [3], right is hopeless: There is no correct way of wandering around in a stupor, so [3a] seems unacceptable. Yet [1b] is fine, because there is a standard, proper way to walk around a lake (you do a complete unidirectional circumnavigation).

The limitation to prepositions is syntactic (i.e., it’s about what’s allowed to be put together with what, regardless of meaning), but the limitation to scenarios where there is a way of achieving optimal satisfaction of the stereotypical case is semantic. Both aspects are essential to understanding what’s going on.

As the suggestions by my students helped in working this out, I began to see things more clearly than I had before. At times like this, teaching is more than just a tolerable way to make a living; it’s a pleasure and a privilege. And just think, they pay us for doing it.

[Sorry about the important typo in the first version: the asterisk means ungrammatical, not grammatical.]

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