An adjective phrase (or adjectival phrase) is a phrase whose head word is an adjective, e.g. fond of steak, very happy, quite upset about it, etc. The adjective in an adjective phrase can initiate the phrase (e.g. fond of steak), conclude the phrase (e.g. very happy), or appear in a medial position (e.g. quite upset about it). The dependents of the head adjective—i.e. the other words and phrases inside the adjective phrase—are typically adverbs or prepositional phrases, but they can also be clauses (e.g. louder than you do). Adjectives and adjective phrases function in two basic ways in clauses, either attributively or predicatively. When they are attributive, they appear inside a noun phrase and modify that noun phrase, and when they are predicative, they appear outside the noun phrase that they modify and typically follow a linking verb (copula).
The adjective phrases are underlined in the following example sentences, the head adjective in each of these phrases is in bold, and how the adjective phrase is functioning—attributively or predicatively—is stated to the right of each example:
- a. Sentences can contain tremendously long phrases. – Attributive adjective phrase
- b. This sentence is not tremendously long. – Predicative adjective phrase
- a. A player faster than you was on their team. – Attributive adjective phrase
- b. He is faster than you. – Predicative adjective phrase
- a. Sam ordered a very spicy but quite small pizza. – Attributive adjective phrases
- b. The pizza is very spicy but quite small. – Predicative adjective phrases
- a. People angry with the high prices were protesting. – Attributive adjective phrase
- b. The people are angry with the high prices. – Predicative adjective phrase
The distinguishing characteristic of an attributive adjective phrase is that it appears inside the noun phrase that it modifies. An interesting trait of these phrases in English is that an attributive adjective alone generally precedes the noun, e.g. a proud man, whereas a head-initial or head-medial adjective phrase follows its noun, e.g. a man proud of his children. A predicative adjective (phrase), in contrast, appears outside of the noun phrase that it modifies, usually after a linking verb, e.g. The man is proud.
Adjective phrase vs. adjectival phrase
The term adjectival phrase is sometimes used instead of adjective phrase. However, there is tendency to call a phrase an adjectival phrase in such a case where that phrase is functioning like an adjective phrase would, but does not contain an actual adjective. For example, in Mr Clinton is a man of wealth, the prepositional phrase of wealth modifies a man the way an adjective would, and it could be reworded with an adjective, e.g. Mr Clinton is a wealthy man. Similarly, that boy is friendless (the adjective "friendless" modifies the noun "boy") and That boy is without a friend (a prepositional phrase where "without a friend" modifies "boy").
Similarly, the term adjectival phrase is commonly used for any phrase in attributive position, whether it is technically an adjective phrase, noun phrase, or prepositional phrase. These may be more precisely distinguished as phrasal attributives or attributive phrases. This definition is commonly used in English style guides for writing, where the terms attributive and adjective are frequently treated as synonyms, because attributive phrases are typically hyphenated, whereas predicative phrases generally are not, despite both modifying a noun. (See compound modifier and English compound#Hyphenated compound modifiers.)
The structure of adjective phrases (and of all other phrase types) is often represented using tree structures. There are two modern conventions for doing this, constituency-based trees of phrase structure grammars and dependency-based trees of dependency grammars. Both types of trees are produced here. The following trees illustrate head-final adjective phrases, i.e. adjective phrases that have their head adjective on the right side of the phrase:
The labels on the nodes in the trees are acronyms: A = adjective, Adv = adverb, AP = adjective phrase, N = noun/pronoun, P = preposition, PP = prepositional phrase. The constituency trees identify these phrases as adjective phrases by labeling the top node with AP, and the dependency trees accomplish the same thing by positioning the A node at the top of the tree. The following trees illustrate the structure of head-initial adjective phrases, i.e. adjective phrases that have their head on the left side of the phrase:
And the following trees illustrate the structure of head-medial adjective phrases:
The important aspect of these tree structures—regardless of whether one uses constituency or dependency to show the structure of phrases—is that they are identified as adjective phrases by the label on the top node of each tree.
- Most any grammar or syntax textbook or dictionary of linguistics terminology define the adjective phrase in a similar way, e.g. Kesner Bland (1996:499), Crystal (1996:9), Greenbaum (1996:288ff.), Haegeman and Guéron (1999:70f.), Brinton (2000:172f.), Jurafsky and Martin (2000:362).
- See Ouhalla (1994:34, 39) and Crystal (1997:9) concerning the distinction between adjectives and adjective phrases used attributively and predicatively.
- For an overview of the differences in the use of adjective phrases, i.e. their distribution, see Greenbaum (1996:290ff.).
- See Haegeman and Guéron (1999:71) and Osborne (2003) concerning the distribution of pre- and post-noun modifiers in noun phrases.
- For examples of phrase structure trees similar to the ones produced here, see for instance Brinton (2000), Radford (2004), Culicover and Jackendoff (2005), and Carnie (2013).
- For examples of dependency trees similar to the ones produced here, see for example Tesnière (1959), Starosta (1988), and Eroms (2000).
- Brinton, L. 2000. The structure of modern English: A linguistic introduction.
- Carnie, A. 2013. Syntax: A generative introduction. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Crystal, D. 1997. A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics, 4th edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
- Culicover, Peter and Ray Jackendoff. 2005. Simpler Syntax. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
- Eroms, H.-W. 2000. Syntax der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Greenbaum, S. 1996. The Oxford English grammar. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Haegeman, L. and J. Guéron 1999. English Grammar: A generative perspective. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
- Jurafsky, M. and J. Martin. 2000. Speech and language processing. Dorling Kindersley (India): Pearson Education, Inc.
- Kesner Bland, S. 1996. Intermediate grammar: From form to means and use. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Osborne, T. 2003. The left elbow constraint. Studia Linguistica 57, 3: 233-257.
- Ouhalla, J. 1994. Transformational grammar: From principles and parameters to minimalism. London: Arnold.
- Radford, A. 2004. English syntax: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Starosta, S. 1988. The case for lexicase. London: Pinter Publishers.
- Tesnière, L. 1959. Éleménts de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.