Adjective Phrases

Definition

An adjective phrase is an adjective and any additional information linked to it that work together to describe a noun or pronoun in a sentence. The adjective around which an adjective phrase is formed is known as the head word of the phrase.
Some grammar guides consider an adjective functioning by itself to be an adjective phrase, but, in this guide, when we refer to a phrase, we always mean a group of two or more words.
There is also a tendency to combine the terms adjective phrase and adjectival phrase into a single category, but they are not quite the same. We’ll look at this distinction more closely later on in this section.

Attributive vs. Predicative

Adjective phrases can either be attributive or predicative.
Attributive adjectives occur immediately before or after the noun they modify, as in:
  • “You have a very beautiful voice.”
Predicative adjectives, on the other hand, appear after a linking verb to describe the subject of the clause. For example:
  • “Your voice is very beautiful.”

Forming adjective phrases

Any word or words that work in conjunction with an adjective constitute part of an adjective phrase. These are usually made up of determiners or adverbs. Prepositional phrases, infinitives, and noun clauses can also be used as adjective complements to create adjective phrases.
As you will notice in some of examples below, we can also use a combination of different elements together to create more complex adjective phrases.

Determiners

Determiners are used to introduce a noun or noun phrase. There are several classes of determiners: articles, demonstrative determiners, possessive determiners, interrogative determiners, distributive determiners, pre-determiners, quantifiers, and numbers.
Determiners are able to stand alone to introduce a noun, but when they function with an adjective, they create an adjective phrase. For example:
  • “I would like a large soda, please.” (The article a forms an adjective phrase with the head word large to describe the noun soda.)
  • This green pen belongs to me.” (The demonstrative determiner this forms an adjective phrase with the head word green to describe the noun pen.)
  • “I’ve lost my favorite backpack.” (The possessive determiner my forms an adjective phrase with the head word favorite to describe the noun backpack.)
  • Whose black laptop is this?” (The interrogative determiner whose forms an adjective phrase with the head word black to describe the noun laptop.)
  • “The camp gives out welcome packs to each new arrival.” (The distributive determiner each forms an adjective phrase with the head word new to describe the noun arrival.)
  • “She’s such a sweet girl.” (The pre-determiner such forms an adjective phrase with the article a and the head word sweet to describe the noun girl.)
  • Many vintage cars were parked outside the diner.” (The quantifier many forms an adjective phrase with the head word vintage to describe the noun cars.)
  • “They own three gigantic yachts.” (The number three forms an adjective phrase with the head word gigantic to describe the noun yachts.)

Adverbs

Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. When an adverb is used to modify an adjective, the two work together as an adjective phrase to modify a noun or pronoun. If a determiner appears before the adverb, it is also considered part of the adjective phrase.
Adverbs often appear directly before the adjective they modify. For example:
  • “He is a very good swimmer.” (Very modifies the adjective good; together they modify swimmer.
  • The brightly lit room hurt my eyes.” (Brightly modifies the past participle lit (which functions as an adjective); together they modify the noun room.
  • She is wonderfully talented.” (Wonderfully modifies the adjective talented; together they modify the pronoun she.)
However, we can sometimes use adverbs directly after an adjective. This can serve to place emphasis on the relationship between the adjective and the adverb. For example:
  • “The helicopters are controlled remotely.”
In this sentence, remotely modifies the past participle controlled (which functions as an adjective); together they modify the noun helicopters. Because remotely appears after controlled, it puts extra emphasis on the way in which the helicopters are controlled.
We can see how this emphasis works if we reword the sentence:
  • “The helicopters are remotely controlled.”
The sentence doesn’t lose any literal meaning, but there is now slightly less emphasis on the relationship between remotely and controlled.

Adjective Complements

An adjective complement (also called an adjective phrase complement) is a phrase or clause that provides information necessary to complete an adjective phrase’s meaning.
They are most often used with predicative adjectives (adjectives that follow linking verbs to describe the subject of the clause) and can be prepositional phrases, infinitive phrases, and noun clauses. Sometimes these adjectives are modified by adverbs, which also form part of the full adjective phrase.

Prepositional Phrases

  • “I am perfectly content on my own.” (On my own is the complement of the adjective content, which is modified by the adverb perfectly.)
  • “He felt alone in the world.” (In the world is the complement of the adjective alone.)
  • “They seem a little concerned about the direction we’re taking.” (About the direction we’re taking is the complement of the adjective concerned, which is modified by adverbial phrase a little.)
Prepositional phrases can also be used with adjectives (often past participles) that are attributive but appear after the noun, as in:
  • “People wearied by travel often stop here to rest.”
  • “I will not allow a dog covered in mud into my clean house.”

Infinitives

  • “I’m very happy to know you!” (To know you is the complement of the adjective happy, which is modified by adverb very.)
  • “We’re glad to be of service.” (To be of service is the complement of the adjective glad.)
  • “They felt relieved to return home.” (To return home is the complement of the adjective relieved.)

Noun Clauses

  • “We were a little curious why they decided to leave.” (Why they decided to leave is the complement of the adjective curious, which is modified by adverbial phrase a little.)
  • “I’m thrilled that you are coming to visit!” (That you are coming to visit is the complement of the adjective thrilled.)
  • “It’s so wonderful what he does for charity.” (What he does for charity is the complement of the adjective wonderful, which is modified by the adverb so.)
  • “They’re somewhat unsure whether this is the right decision.” (Whether this is the right decision is the complement of the adjective unsure, which is modified by the adverb somewhat.)

Adjective Phrases vs. Adjectival Phrases

The terms adjective phrase and adjectival phrase are often treated as synonymous terms; however, while they are very similar, they are in fact two different things.
A true adjective phrase contains an adjective as a head word, while an adjectival phrase does not have to—it is any phrase that is functioning as an adjective in a sentence, whether or not it contains an adjective as a head word. Therefore, an adjective phrase can be considered a specific kind of adjectival phrase.
Prepositional phrases, for instance, often function independently as adjectives in a sentence, in which case they follow the noun they are describing. For example:
  • “The car on the lawn belongs to my brother.”
  • “Pass me the cup with the handle.”
  • “He wrote a book about modern economics.”
All three of these examples are adjectival phrases—they do not have adjectives as head words. The prepositional phrase in the third example does contain the adjective modern, but it is modifying the noun economics (the object of the preposition about), not the noun book.
Relative clauses (also known as adjective clauses) are also kinds of adjectival phrases. They are introduced by relative pronouns and modify a noun in a sentence. For example:
  • “The man whom I met in the bank was on the same bus as me tonight.”
  • “It’s the nicest thing that I own.”
  • “The song, which he wrote for his wife, is beautiful.”
Quiz

1. Which of the following can be used to form an adjective phrase?








2. True or False: An adjective phrase can only be attributive.



3. Identify what is used to create the adjective phrase (in bold) in the following sentence:
“A man dressed in fine silk walked through the doors.”





4. Which of the following does an adjective phrase require that an adjectival phrase does not?





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