Adjective class membership

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This article discusses word class membership for the adjective word class, i.e. what an adjective is, and how adjectives can be identified and distinguished from other parts of speech.

Definition[edit | edit source]

Basic definition[edit | edit source]

To be an adjective, a word must be able to:

  1. modify (alter the meaning of) a noun
  2. be used in predicative position (i.e. after that noun and be) with no change in its essential meaning.

For example, in a big car:

  1. big modifies (changes the meaning of) car.
  2. a big car means the same as a car that is big

and therefore we can conclude that big is an adjective.

Other properties of adjectives[edit | edit source]

In addition to the definition above, it's worth noting:

  1. Adjectives do not mark grammatical case.
  2. Adjectives can typically form adverbs:
    • With the addition of -ly for most adverbs (e.g. normal (adj) -> normally (adv)).
    • With zero derivation from an adjective ending in -ly (e.g. daily (adj) -> daily (adv).
  3. Adjectives syntactically co-ordinate with other adjectives, e.g. the small and brown fox or a dog that is large and hungry.
  4. Adjectives can be syntactically modified with adverbs, even when that doesn't make much semantic sense, e.g. more dead.

Comparison with other classes[edit | edit source]

Adjectives v. modifier nouns[edit | edit source]

To distinguish adjectives from noun modifiers, which meet the modification criterion, we need to use the "predicative test". For example, in flu vaccine, flu is a noun modifier because it can't be in predicative position; *the vaccine is flu is nonsense.

Some words can function as either adjectives or noun modifiers. For example, the meaning of French teacher depends on context; if French is intended to mean "from France", than French is an origin adjective; however, if the meaning of French teacher is a teacher who teaches the French language, then French is a noun modifier meaning "the French language".

Adjectives v. participles[edit | edit source]

Adjectives can be derived from participles with zero derivation to form participial adjectives. That means that in some contexts, it may be impossible to distinguish adjectives from participles when they are in predicative position:

For example:

However, the adverb very can only modify adjectives, so if very is used, then it is part of an adjective phrase with the adjective as its phrasal head.

Adjectives v. possessive case nouns[edit | edit source]

Possessive case nouns vaguely meet some criteria for adjectives. For example, in John's car, John's comes before car, similar to an adjective. John's also meets the predicative criterion: the car is John's. However, John's fails other criteria, namely:

  1. It is obviously a noun, and can't be both a noun and an adjective.
  2. It expresses the possessive case, which adjectives can't do.
  3. It does not modify its head noun, but determines it.
  4. It syntactically co-ordinates with other determiners, and not other adjectives.

Adjectives v. prepositions[edit | edit source]

Prepositions can meet the predicative criterion, however they cannot premodify the noun. Compare the game is up with *the up game.


Adjectives v determiners[edit | edit source]

In traditional grammar, there are two sets of pronouns that were somehow misclassified as adjectives; so-called "possessive adjectives" and so-called "demonstrative adjectives".

Adjectives v. so-called "possessive adjectives"[edit | edit source]

First, so-called "possessive adjectives" (e.g. my, your, his) were somehow classified as adjectives. However, these

  1. Do not modify the head noun but syntactically determine it, so fail the modification criterion.
  2. Mark the possessive case - since adjectives do not mark case.
  3. Correspond directly to other personal pronouns, which they typically resemble other pronouns in linguistic shape, e.g. their clearly resembles they, them, themselves and theirs.
  4. Have no prospect of the addition of neologisms (i.e. belong to a closed class) rather than an open class (the adjective class is open).
  5. Co-ordinate with other determiners, e.g. Tom would like to invite you to his and Susan's party but not adjectives; *It was his and loud party.
  6. Cannot be used alongside other determiners, e.g. *the my party, even though real adjectives can - e.g. the loud party.
  7. Cannot form adverbs by the addition of -ly, e.g. *myly, *yourly, *hisly etc, and neither can be used as adverbs with zero derivation.
  8. Cannot be modified by adverbs.

So-called "possessive adjectives" are in fact pronouns that function as determiners.

Adjectives v. so-called "demonstrative adjectives"[edit | edit source]

Similarly, so-called "demonstrative adjectives" (this, that, these, those) are also in fact pronouns similarly employed as determiners. Again, these:

  1. Do not modify the head noun but syntactically determine it, so fail the modification criterion.
  2. Correspond directly to demonstrative pronouns.
  3. Have no prospect of the addition of neologisms (i.e. belong to a closed class) rather than an open class (the adjective class is open)
  4. Do not syntactically co-ordinate with adjectives; *It was that and loud party.
  5. Cannot be used alongside other determiners, e.g. *the that party, even though real adjectives can - e.g. the loud party.
  6. Cannot form adverbs by the addition of -ly, i.e. *thisly, *thatly, *thesely, *thosely, and cannot be used as adverbs with zero derivation.
  7. Cannot be modified by adverbs.