No one knew much about sleep.

In this sentence, what does "about sleep" modify, the verb "knew" or the pronoun "much".

If I change this sentence into passive,

Not much about sleep was known.


Not much was known about sleep.

  • I think it should be the complement of the verb 'know' Aug 25, 2017 at 16:19
  • Tricky question! I'm pretty sure most native speakers would massively prefer the prepositional phrase about sleep to come after the verb (the second of your two passive versions). But if we switch to, for example, Not much of Antarctica was explored (which looks "structurally similar/identical" to me), they'd probably take the opposite view. I think it's just a matter of established idiomatic preference though - it's hard to believe there might be any "rules" in play here (who on earth would know them, in order to "conform"?). Aug 25, 2017 at 17:03
  • Note that it's perfectly okay to say No-one knew much, and also okay to say No-one knew about sleep. Arguably, since both elements can occur independently you might say that if you use both they're effectively equally interdependent (each gives the other a specific meaning that it wouldn't otherwise have had). Aug 25, 2017 at 17:09
  • Isn't much an adverb here, not a pronoun? Further, "about sleep" modifies nothing since it is not a modifier but a prepositional object. Aug 25, 2017 at 22:04
  • @MvLog It's a determiner, I reckon. Sep 29, 2017 at 22:57

1 Answer 1

  1. No one knew much about sleep.

The preposition phrase about sleep is not a Modifier of the noun phrase much in this sentence. It is the second Complement of the verb know. The verb know is taking a Direct Object, much, and a preposition phrase complement about sleep.

We cannot passivise this sentence without changing the meaning because the negation of the sentence depends on the negative subject no one. But if we take the Original Poster's alternative passive sentence, we will see that about sleep cannot be part of the Subject, because it still appears at the end of the sentence in the same position.

  • Not much was known about sleep.
  • Not much about sleep was known. (not good)

This shows about sleep was not part of of the Direct Object in sentence (1) and therefore cannot be modifying the word much.

  • Does your analysis change much when regarding "That much about sleep was known to no one present"? Sep 29, 2017 at 17:12
  • @GaryBotnovcan Good question. My answer is I don't really know. I reckon that it is possible for much to be post-modified by a PP, but it's marked and not usual (why the second of the two examples has a 'not good' as opposed to 'ungrammatical' label). But in your interesting example, there's one of those weird deictic degree adverbs. Whether those actually modify the phrases they occur in or head them seems a bit ambiguous. (For example, the phrases they occur in take complements that are definitely dependent upon them). Erm, so I don't have an answer to your question ... Sep 29, 2017 at 21:09
  • Ok. Much of my experience suggests that there's nothing strange about the construction marked (not good). Then again, you and I employ neither the same dialect nor the same jargon. It could be that much of yours has good reason to object to much of mine. I didn't expect "to know" to license an object complement, but now I'll have to give it some consideration. It must be a limited license, since "I know her a genius" fails, "I know her to be a genius" works, and "her to be a genius" lacks coherence. Thank you. I often rely on you to prod at my blind spots. Sep 29, 2017 at 21:42
  • @GaryBotnovcan I think the construction the OP is using must have a quantifier in the direct object NP (so this is one of those times when a DP as opposed to NP analysis seems more persuasive). A second point might be that the other complement of know in that construction must be a PP or similar (but definitely not an NP for example). Sep 29, 2017 at 22:43

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