Adjectives vs. modifiers

In the teaching of high school English, the terms 'adjective' and 'modifier' seem to be used relatively interchangeably. From the point of view of linguistic theory, this usage reflects a lamentable lack of appreciation for the central linguistic distinction between function and form. Modifiers are linguistic expressions that serve a certain function---namely, to restrict or qualify some other expression. Adjectives, on the other other hand, are members of a syntactic category that is defined by certain formal properties. For instance, it is possible to derive adverbs from many adjectives (heavy, heavily; mere, merely; rough, roughly; sweet, sweetly). Like any other syntactic category, adjectives project intermediate and maximal projections (= adjective phrases, AP, AdjP).

There is no one-to-one relation between modifiers and adjective phrases. Modifiers are not necessarily adjective phrases, as illustrated in (1).

(1) a. Adjective phrase   a very aggressive driver
b. Adverb phrase   They drive very aggressively.
c. Prepositional phrase   the desk next to the window, they arrived on time
d. Noun phrase   They will arrive Monday night

Conversely, adjective phrases are not necessarily modifiers. For instance, the adjective phrase in (2) is the predicate of a small clause.

(2)     We consider this candidate very suitable.

Adnominal and predicative use

In English, adjective phrases that modify a noun typically occur in prenominal position.

(3) a.   a very big box, that blue book
b. * a box very big, that book blue

By contrast, there are other languages that typically require adjectival modifiers of nouns to be postnominal. The examples in (4) are from French.

(4) a.  
une boîte très grande, ce   livre bleu
a   box   very big     that book  blue
b. *
une très grande boîte, ce   bleu livre
a   very big    box    that book blue

Note that English adjective phrases can occur postnominally when they are 'heavy' enough, and even relatively short adjectives are sometimes used postnominally to convey elegance or high style.1

(5) a.   a story unlikely to be true
b. * a story unlikely
(6) a. ?? an unlikely to be true story
b. an unlikely story
(7)     House Beautiful (upscale interior decorating magazine)

A convenient cover term for 'prenominal' and 'postnominal' is adnominal.

The postnominal use of adjective phrases should not be confused with their predicative use, illustrated in (8).

(8) a. Predicate of ordinary clause   This box is very big, that book is blue
b. Predicate of small clause   We consider this candidate very suitable.

It is worth noting that certain adjectives can only be used adnominally, and not predicatively.

(9) a.   the mere fact, her utter surprise
b. * the fact is mere, her surprise was utter

Gradable versus categorical adjectives

Many adjectives have the property of denoting properties that an entity can possess to a greater or lesser degree. Some examples of such gradable adjectives are given in (10).

(10)     beautiful, dark, kind, loud, rich

Gradable adjectives are associated with three so-called degrees of comparison, as illustrated in (11).

(11)     Positive Comparative Superlative

more compatible
more intelligent
most compatible
most intelligent

English is unusual in having two ways of forming the degrees of comparison, an inflectional way involving the use of the bound morphemes -er and -est, and an analytical way involving the use of the free morphemes more and most. Most languages allow only one option or the other.2 For instance, German allows only the inflectional option.3

(12)     Positive Comparative Superlative
dunkel 'dark'
freundlich 'friendly'

kompatibel 'compatible'
intelligent 'intelligent'

The Romance languages, on the other hand, generally only allow the analytical option, as illustrated in (13) for French.4

(13)     Positive Comparative Superlative
belle 'beautiful.fem'
long 'long.masc'
plus belle
plus long
la plus belle
le plus long

compatible 'compatible'
intelligent 'intelligent.masc'
plus compatible
plus intelligent
le/la plus compatible
le plus intelligent

Gradable adjectives can also be modified by means of degree adverbs like enough, exceedingly, overly, too, very, and so on.

In contrast to gradable adjectives, some adjectives denote categorical properties - properties that entities can either have or not have. For instance, integers are either prime or not. Some further examples of categorical adjectives are given in (14).

(14)     dead, married, pregnant, unique

It is possible for adjectives that are basically categorical to have restricted or extended senses that are gradable. For instance, pregnant has a restricted sense of 'visibly pregnant,' and unique has an extended vernacular sense of 'unusual,' rather than the original strict sense of 'one of a kind'. Given these senses, sentences like (15) are expected.

(15) a.   Lois looks more pregnant to me than Delilah.
b.   A more unique present would be hard to find.


1. Originally, English, like the other Germanic languages, allowed adjective phrase modifiers only in prenominal position. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Norman French became the official language of England and remained so for several centuries. In Norman French, as in the other Romance languages, adjective phrase modifiers were primarily postnominal. The word order variation illustrated in (3) and (5) and the stylistic connotations of the postnominal order are thus the result of language contact. See also Note 2.

The situation in English is the reverse of that in Walloon, a variety of French spoken in Belgium. Unlike in standard French, adjective phrases modifying nouns are prenominal in Walloon, the result of language contact with Flemish, a variety of Germanic.

2. Once again, the unusual situation in English is a result of the complicated history of the language (see Note 1). Originally, English, like the other Germanic languages, allowed only inflectional comparison. Contact with Norman French introduced the option of analytical comparison. Most adjectives are associated with one or the other of the options, but usage differs across speakers and sometimes even within the same individual.

3. The hyphen is intended to indicate that further endings must be added before the superlative is a full-fledged word in German.

4. Certain adjectives in Romance do require inflectional comparison. These are irregular adjectives whose comparison involves suppletion (that is, the stems from which the comparative and/or superlative degrees are formed are etymologically unrelated to the positive). Some examples of inflectional comparison in Romance are French bon 'good' versus mieux 'better' and mal 'bad' versus pire 'worse'. Notice that the English equivalents show suppletion as well. Suppletion is not restricted to adjective comparison; the relation between go and its past tense went is also suppletive (went is etymologically related to wend as in to wend one's way.