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Adjectives and Adjective Phrases

The very old man dances

Simple phrases with only a specifier and head are easy enough to analyze, but they aren't that common outside of basic readers. Our noun and verb phrases can come with various modifiers and complements. Fortunately, these other elements also come in phrases with the same kind of structure as we have discussed so far. As we fill out the possibilities of noun phrases, let us start with adjectives.

Adjective and Adjective Phrases. An adjective is traditionally defined as a word which modifies a noun. This is a very broad definition, and some dictionaries even regard articles (a, an, the) as adjectives. Linguists generally prefer a narrower definition that excludes determiners and certain other kinds of modifiers. We can, however, identify most adjectives by saying that they are words which usually appear in these two sentence positions:

(1) The ________gortch is here.
(2) The gortch is ____________.
The first of these positions, coming between the determiner and the noun as a premodifier, is called attributive. The second, coming after a main verb like be is called predicative. Other words can come in one or the other of those positions, but they can rarely come in both. The here in sentence (1) is a place adverb, and it cannot appear in the attributive position, as in sentence (3). The government in sentence (4) is a noun modifier, and it cannot appear in a predicative position, as in sentence (5).
(3) *The here gortch is here.
(4) The government gortch is here.
(5) *The gortch is government.

Noun modifiers are a particular source of confusion, whether we regard them as nouns given an adjectival use or as parts of a compound noun. (They can also be called attributive nouns because they are in the attributive position.) To distinguish them from true adjectives, we can notice that they also pass our tests for nouns, and we can try the very-test: Can they have an intensifier like "very" as their specifier? By that test, the red in sentence (6) is an adjective, and government is not, even when used in an attributive position, as in sentence (7)

(6) (a) The red gortch is here
(b) The very red gortch is here.
(7) (a) The government gortch is here.
(b) *The very government gortch is here.

Gradability. The reason the "very" test works in such cases is that most adjectives are gradable--that is, they can be placed along a line from more to less. Gradability also accounts for the only characteristic inflection (change of form) found with adjectives: they form the comparative and the superlative, either by taking the -er or -est affixes as inflections or by being preceded by more or most. Applying this test in sentences (8) and (9) shows again that red is an adjective, and government is not:

(8) (a) The redder gortch is here
(9) (a) *The governmenter gortch is here.
(b) *The more government gortch is here.
Both the "very"-test and the ability to form the comparative can be used to distinguish true adjectives from yet another premodifier, the past or present participle, like watching in sentence 10:
(10) (a)The watching crowd was still.
(b) *The very watching crowd was still.
(c) *The more watching crowd was still.
None of these tests works on every possible case. There are adjectives which can only appear in the attributive position and some which can only appear in the predicative position:
(11) My only son is here.
(12) The gortch is awake.
The only of sentence (11) is not gradable, either, so it fails tests which depend upon gradability. Some adjectives which can appear in both attributive and predicative positions are also non-gradable and will fail the "very"-test, while most adverbs are gradable and will pass it. And there are present participles which have been used as adjectives for so long that they pass all adjective tests and might as well be regarded as adjectives:
(13) The very exciting gortch is here.
(14) The gortch is more exciting.

Exercise 1: The Overuse of Adjectives

Writing teachers have a prejudice against adjective-heavy writing. The problem is the same as with intensifiers, and over-use of one kind of word to supply poor word choice elsewhere. You can eliminate many an unnecessary intensifier by finding a better adjective, and you can eliminate many a flabby adjective by finding a more specific or forceful noun (or at least a sharper adjective). Try doing the latter with these examples:
1.01 I was scared by the big dog.
1.02 This was a terrible event.
1.03 The funny story he told made me laugh.
1.04 I don't like greedy people.
1.05 He claimed to have a good reason for his actions.
1.06 Jenny has low morals.
1.07 They got into a big fight over Ariane Caoili.
1.08 This proves that chess masters are not necessarily non-violent sorts.
1.09 Harry is a classy guy.
1.10 The little bird flew away.

Derivational Affixes as Clues. As with nouns and verbs, there are some endings which we are used to seeing on adjectives. Often these are endings which are used to make adjectives out of other parts of speech. The verbs care and watch become the adjectives careful and watchful in this way. Were we to encounter a new word blikful, our knowledge of the -ful endings use in such cases would make us suspect that the new word was an adjective.

Nominal Adjectives. Every once in a while, one will encounter old used as if it were a noun:

(15) The old watch the young dance.
Both old and young are usually adjectives and can still follow very but are without any noun around to modify. Instead, they both follow the as if they were nouns, and they both seem to be serving as subjects of the verbs which follow them. We call such cases nominal adjectives. The "very"-test shows us that these are not nouns, even though they are serving noun functions, which is why we call them nominal adjectives. Besides the "very"-test, we can also distinguish these from true nouns by inserting the word "ones" after the suspected adjective:
(16) The old one watch the young ones dance.

Exercise 2: Nouns vs. Adjectives

Identify the bold-faced word in the following sentences as
A) an adjective B) an adjective serving as a nominal
C) a head noun D) a noun modifying another noun
2.01 The silly professor dances.
2.02 I feel pretty.
2.03 Our basketball coach is good-looking.
2.04 I took the last train from Clarksville.
2.05 John loves Mary.
2.06 This is the worst date I've ever been on.
2.07 The poor will always be with you.
2.08 A university education helps.
2.09 George wants to live the life of the rich.
2.10 My wise uncle advised me not to do that.
2.11 Edward is a cad.
2.12 Mamie is slutty.
2.13 He has found a sweet girl.
2.14 His defense secretary is scary.
2.15 We talked to the student help program supervisor.

More Complex Trees. Our main object in drawing phrase structure trees for longer noun phrases is to show what goes with what. If an adjective or adverb is preceded by a degree word, the two words need to be grouped together and then subordinate to the noun phrase they are a part of. We call this grouping AdjP for Adjective Phrase. We may also want to show that the determiner in our noun phrase refers to all of the rest of the phrase--the head noun and its premodifiers and complements. We can do this by showing an NP as made up of a Det and an N', with the N' containing the head N and its complement. The "N'" is pronounced "en-bar," because if we all had fancier word processors we could write it with a bar over it. Our diagrams here will represent it by an apostrophe, though that can be hard to see on the page.

If we assume that all phrases have the same basic structure, we show out structures for phrases in general by diagramming an XP (for any phrase), and from this the theory can be called X-bar theory. If you use this term in public, people are apt to think you have in mind some X-rated tavern, but it won't do you any lasting harm to learn it. All phrases would look like this:

As you can see from the right side of the phrase structure tree below, drawing in such divisions when they point to no real distinctions in the actual sentence can seem a bit pointless, and we won't always do it. Even in this diagram, we've eliminated a possible Adj-bar level.

How Much of This Will be on the Test?
The main emphasis here has been on defining adjectives as a word class and the adjective phrase (AdjP) as a kind of phrase with an adjective as its head and an intensifier as an optional specifier. Adjectives were defined as modifying nouns in two main ways, attributive and predicative. Gradability and the ability to take comparative and superlative functions can sometimes be used to distinguish adjectives from other kinds of words serving these adjectival functions. They can also be used to distinguish nominal adjectives from common nouns. You should be able to apply these distinctions to new sentences. You should also be refining your ability to draw phrase structure trees. You do not need to know X-bar theory but the name should not strike terror into your heart.