The Grammarphobia Blog

Ulterior purposes

Q: You mention on your blog that “ulterior” seems to appear only in connection with “motive.” I wonder if you can come up with other adjectives that modify only one noun. Is there a word for a term like this?

A: You’re mixing up the media and you’re a bit off on the message.

Pat did say once on the air that “ulterior” is seldom seen without “motive.” But this hasn’t been discussed on our blog, though we once wrote about the history and etymology of “ulterior.”

A Google search shows that “motive” (or its plural, “motives”) is the noun most frequently paired with “ulterior.” The distant runners-up are “ulterior purpose” and “ulterior design” (we counted both singular and plural versions).

These results are pretty much reflected in the pairings to be found in published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Confining ourselves to quotations in which “ulterior” means “lying beyond what is openly stated, avowed, or evident; intentionally kept in the background or concealed,” the OED has these mentions:

“Ulterior demands” (1735); “ulterior intentions” (1825); “ulterior designs” (1850, 1856); “ulterior aims” (1891); “ulterior purpose” (1866, 1877, 1912, 1963); and “ulterior ends” (1952).

The OED’s own editors, in various word definitions, use some of these phrases, as well as “ulterior significance.” 

But there are eight uses of “ulterior motive” (or “motives”), including quotations from 1861, 1942, 1975, and 1980, as well as uses by the OED’s editors.

So it would seem that “ulterior” and “motive” have decided they belong together and have made a go of it, especially in recent decades.

Are there other such words that seem to be wedded to one another? Well, we don’t often see “vim” without “vigor.” Or “flotsam” without “jetsam.” But those are nouns.

We can think of several predictable pairings of noun and adjective. A “dudgeon” is always “high” (so is a “roller”). An “end” is often “bitter,” and an “argument” is “heated.”

What’s more, a “fog” is generally “impenetrable,” a “bystander” is “innocent,” an “escape” is “narrow,” a “source” is “reliable,” a “slope” is “slippery,” and an “image” is “tarnished.”

You’ll notice that the examples we’ve given are notorious clichés. “Ulterior motive” hasn’t reached cliché status, at least not yet. 

This doesn’t precisely answer your question, because those adjectives don’t appear exclusively in those phrases. And we don’t know if there’s a word for such pairings. 

When Pat first became a newspaper editor (we won’t say how many decades ago), she noticed that the phrase “oil-rich Kuwait” was inevitable.

By some mysterious unwritten rule, Kuwait was always introduced as “oil-rich.”

Even today, “oil-rich Kuwait” gets almost 200,000 Google hits.

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