The Great Croissant-Eating Controversy

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, a reader who signed his email “J.” gave us a detailed critique of what he calls the “zombie rules” of grammar—the gripes against such things as split infinitives and dangling prepositions that “fuel ... people’s misconceptions (and their nervous cluelessness) about English.” This next reader, Chris, has a rebuttal from his experience as an ESL teacher:

I find that adhering to grammar rules, however zombified they may be, is important for me in teaching university students—the reason being that once they complete their studies, they will be on the job hunt, and their English abilities will be on trial. The likelihood that a future employer might be a follower of zombie rules to English grammar is quite high, so rather than that student be judged at the most crucial time for them, I attempt to nip it in the bud early if possible.

NB: In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten can DEFINITELY still be looked at as something other than a verb with the verb left or went having been elided. For example,

The croissants were left uneaten by the partygoers.

This seems to act more as an adjective disguised as an adverb, similar to hungry in “The children went hungry for three days.”

Just my tuppence.

Which brings us back to the so-called verb that started it all: In the context of this list from our newsletter’s “Verbs” section:

Walking Dead autopsied, croissants uneaten, scare machine terrifies, diva reigns Supreme

… can “croissants” be read as a passive verb, according  to J.’s argument? Or is it, as Ruby first pointed out, actually an adjective? Another reader, John Williamson, lays out his case in great detail:

Here are some considerations:

a. If we were to say this:

Sentence 1: The uneaten croissants were finally discarded.

we would see that the verbal structure in this sentence employs a passive form: “were discarded.” “The croissants” is the subject and “The uneaten croissants” is the SP (subject phrase).

Since an SP consists of a determiner (the), any number of adjectives, and some number of nouns, gerunds, etc., but not any embedded verb forms;  and since Sentence 1 already has a well-formed verb structure (“were discarded”); then the tentative conclusion is that in Sentence 1, uneaten is an adjective and not a verb form.

b. It’s normal in English for adjectives to precede the subject noun, although there are many instances when it might follow, e.g. “athlete extraordinaire,” “the person responsible,” “battle royal,” “devil incarnate.”

Thus, the NP (noun phrase) “croissants uneaten” could just as easily be construed as “uneaten croissants” and, as shown above, “uneaten croissants” can arguably be construed as an adjective-noun combination. Therefore it’s arguable that “croissants uneaten” is also an adjective-noun combination, with the adjective following the noun.

c. Your correspondent J. also makes this argument:

Although it appears in many of the same syntactic positions as adjectives, uneaten does not meet most of the criteria for adjective-hood (an asterisk indicates that something is ungrammatical):

  • It is not gradable: *more uneaten, *most uneaten
  • It cannot be modified by words like too and very: *very uneaten croissants
  • It doesn’t work with a verb like become: *The croissants became uneaten.

I don’t think that’s the way to look at it. The adjective uneaten has a binary meaning, i.e. something is either eaten or it’s not. (We’ll ignore the brief interim during which it is transitioning between the two states.) Thus, eaten is an absolute state, as is uneaten.

Consequently, adverbs of gradation (more, most, too, very) simply don’t apply. This is precisely parallel to the rule that tells us not to modify the adjective unique with the adverbs very, more, etc., since ‘unique’ is absolute.

Now, can we say that something is “partially eaten” (and therefore “partially uneaten”)? Of course, but it is understood that the part that is eaten is absolutely eaten, and the part that is uneaten is absolutely uneaten.

As for “The croissants became uneaten,” of course we don’t say it that way, but saying

Sentence 2:  The croissants were eaten.

conveys the same meaning, except with more felicity.

d. Finally, as to this comment:

To get a better sense of all of this, compare uneaten to a past participle that has clearly become an adjective, like embarrassed.

The adjective embarrassed is not used in a binary-state way. One could argue that one is either embarrassed or one is not, but the fact is that we do modify this adjective in a gradation:

Sentence 3:   I was slightly/somewhat/quite/greatly/mortifyingly embarrassed.

Conclusion: My arguments lead me to assert that “croissants uneaten” is an acceptable English noun phrase and that uneaten is not a verb, but an adjective.

Personally I’m on the side of the adjectives—though I take full responsibility for having prompted this debate by advertising uneaten as a verb in the first place. I draw this conclusion not only from the guidance of my trusty arbiter, the Merriam-Webster dictionary (or just Merriam, as my college friends and I called her), but also from the fact that I’m unable to translate “croissants were uneaten” into an equivalent construction using the active verb uneat. (Side note: If anyone out there has found a way to boldly uneat where everyone else has eaten before, please let me know: My colleagues share a lot of snacks here at The Atlantic, and I’m constantly late to the party. (Side note to the side note: If there’s no such thing as a split infinitive, what happens if you try to split an infinitive that doesn’t exist?))

But I’ll give J. this: In “Walking Dead autopsied, croissants uneaten,” uneaten does work in parallel with autopsied—each describes what’s being done, respectively, to the hit TV show and the croissants. Though uneaten may not be a verb itself, it functions in context as a past participle. That, anyway, was my excuse when I tried to pass it off as one.

I know it might seem petty, or trollish, or a waste of everyone’s valuable time to spend these paragraphs arguing over the character of a single word. (Apologies to my editor.) But this debate underscores for me something much bigger, and more important: A word, as Knox pointed out last week, is functional—a mechanism for meaning-delivery. But it’s not a machine; the right metaphor, I think, would be something much closer to human. A word has an essential identity in its definition, and carries that everywhere; and yet it’s a shape-shifter, context changing its meaning and its grammatical function. Words are like people— multifaceted and messy and hard to pin down. And isn’t that kind of beautiful?