Adjective phrases: answer to exercise

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Let me return to the issue of wildly incompetent grammar text writing and the question (which I posed here) of whether and how you can find three adjective phrases in the following list of word sequences:

  1. thank you said Jim
  2. Janet ran home
  3. the poor injured duck
  4. a shivering and frightened
  5. give me that
  6. with a heavy bag

If you would like the answer, read on.
I'll give you the bottom line up top: it is impossible to find three adjective phrases in the list, whether you use modern definitions, or traditional definitions, or the bungled definitions in the book I took the above exercise from (Pupil Book 4 in the Nelson Grammar series, by Wendy Wren, published by Thomas Nelson, now Nelson Thornes Ltd in the UK; ISBN 0-17-424706-0). The book said that "Three of the examples [above] are adjective phrases and three are sentences" and told the pupil to "Find the three adjective phrases" and write out the sentences with correct punctuation and do various other things.

1."Thank you," said Jim is a declarative clause, though not a canonical one (it exemplifies quotative inversion, a construction that pops the subject at the end; The New Yorker resolutely refuses to employ this no matter how acute the stylistic need for it). It has nothing to mark it as subordinate, so it can also count as a sentence.

2. Janet ran home is a canonical declarative simple intransitive clause, hence also a sentence.

3.The poor injured duck is the spanner in the works. It would be called a noun phrase in modern terms. But traditional grammar didn't really have the notion of a noun phrase, and would have treated this as a noun with two adjectives and a definite article dependent upon it. But what is clear is that nobody could call it an adjective phrase under any definition. In modern terms, an adjective phrase is a head adjective together with any complements it might take and any modifiers that might be modifying it (a phrase like so nice to her or sufficiently proud of our athletes or extremely large or large enough to put it in, where I underline the head adjective). Complements follow the head. If there is no complement, an adjective phrase can typically be used as an attributive modifier, as in an extremely large building. Most adjective phrases can also be used as postpositive modifiers, as in anyone sufficiently proud of our athletes. In traditional terms, in an unfortunate confusion of function and category, a phrase is called an adjective phrase if and only if it modifies a noun. The book we are discussing uses a version of that definition. But the poor injured duck does not satisfy it. The phrase cannot modify a noun. Examples like An extremely large balloon floated past and Any bucket large enough to put it in would be all right or He seems so nice to her are grammatical, but examples like *A the poor injured duck balloon floated past or *Any bucket the poor injured duck would be all right or *He seems the poor injured duck are not. In the case of the poor injured duck, then, the sequence given is neither an adjective phrase nor a sentence, and we already know that the exercise is impossible.

4.With a shivering and frightened we encounter a word sequence that is not a phrase at all under any modern definition, because it does not serve as a unit. The first word is the indefinite article, and it does not form a constituent together with the coordination of adjectives that follows. That is why you cannot put the whole sequence in a postpositive context: *Anyone a shivering and frightened should see the doctor or after seem (*He seems a shivering and frightened). But under the book's very loose definition, "A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a verb", this would count as an adjective phrase, because it modifies a noun, which means we have found the first of the three we seek in our doomed quest.

5.We now move on to Give me that, which is clearly an imperative clause, hence also a sentence. (We now have all three sentences: (1), (2), and (5).)

6.The last word sequence given is with a heavy bag. Under modern conceptions, given that with is a preposition and a heavy bag is its complement, this is a preposition phrase. But under traditional definitions, and the one in this book, recall that it is an adjective phrase if and only if it modifies a noun. Well, when we consider it on its own, it has no noun to modify, so the definition either doesn't apply or says it isn't one (this is part of what is so silly about definitions of phrase types based on what they might do in particular syntactic contexts). But since it can modify a noun (lady with a heavy bag), and it can also modify a verb (walk with a heavy bag), it can be said to meet the definition of both an adjective phrase and an adverb phrase, under the traditional definition (which really should have been abandoned more than a century ago, and is never employed by modern grammarians). So under the traditional conception this can be called an adjective phrase, and we have found our second one.

But that's it. So the answer is that there is no answer. No one can find three adjective phrases in the list given, under any known definition.

Good luck if your kid is told to do this impossible homework.

And good luck if you have found yourself a nice job doing inaccurate peddling of inadequate centuries-old grammatical analysis and passing it off on educational authorities as sensible stuff to base lessons on.

One other thing. Today it was announced that in England it is no longer going to be legal to have your kid opt out of obligatory sex education. All I can say about that is that if sex were taught as incompetently as grammar is taught in the schools… But let's not even go there.


  1. Sarang said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    "The poor injured duck pate lay in an amorphous defeated mess on his plate."

    [Cute, if rather desperate, Sarang! I had not forgotten about the existence of duck paté; but your idea it won't work in modern terms (clever though this piece of example invention is). If duck is used as a modifier of paté, you get a new nominal, duck paté; but then the poor injured duck is not a phrase of any sort. However, I guess it is in the terms of the goofy book, where any old string of words can be counted as a phrase, and anything that modifies a noun is ipso facto an adjective. So Sarang has made a clever play, and wins a point! (But I think we can be sure Wendy Wren did not have this arcane gastronomic possibility in mind.) —GKP]

  2. JS Bangs said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    If sex ed were taught like grammar

    Which of the following can result in pregnancy?

    1. Kissing with your mouth open

    2. Eating too much lasagna

    3. Vigorous exercise

    The answer, clearly, is (2), because eating too much lasagna will make you gain weight, which as we all know is a sign of pregnancy.

  3. peter ramus said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    The poor injured duck Daffy rued the day he met Fudd.


  4. Karen said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    Unfotunately, peter, in your sentence "duck" remains a noun and "Daffy" is in apposition to it.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    You're looking very the-poor-injured-duck today.

    Perhaps? I don't want to sound too little-boy-lost, though.

  6. CIngram said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    @ Sarang

    'poor injured duck' then becomes just a list of modifiers, and is not a syntactic unit. I assume that's what GKP means by 'it's not a phrase of any sort.'

    @ peter ramus

    'the poor injured duck' is not modifying Daffy adjectivally, as far as I can see. I think it's in apposition with it, and is still a noun phrase.

  7. peter ramus said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    I stand corrected. Thanks.

  8. CIngram said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    Karen beat me to it.

    Jerry Friedman's example looks good, and is a reminder that, in the right context, a given word or phrase can do just about anything.

  9. Sili said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:39 pm


    In "Give me that book", "Give me that" is obviously an adjective phrase modifying "book", n'est-ce pas?

    All I can say about that is that if sex were taught as incompetently as grammar is taught in the schools… But let's not even go there.

    Why not? The experiment has been made, after all.

    But, yes, I do realise this is LanguageLog, not Savage Love (Thank you for putting me onto that, by the way) or Bad Science (and thank you to Ben's readers for putting me onto you).

  10. Seth Johnson said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    "the poor injured duck" could be a sentence: "He throws an eraser at the group of penniless hospitalized people. The poor injured duck."

  11. Rubrick said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    JS: Hysterical.

    "The poor injured duck" can in fact be parsed as a (garden-path) sentence: "Those who are injured and wealthy get hit by snowballs. The poor injured duck."

  12. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    The poor injured duck hunter was stymied by his son's English textbook.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    @CIngram: Thanks. The only problem with my example is that it doesn't mean anything, since there's an implication that "the poor injured duck" is a familiar phrase. (Which it's rapidly becoming, to a small group of people.)

    Now someone's going to ask me when noun phrases used attributively have to be familiar. I won't know.

    I was thinking there might be a rule that familiar phrases jammed into adjectives can't start with "a" or "the", but I believe "It was an 'A horse! A horse!' moment" could work, at the right moment.

  14. Lazar said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    I feel like I just have to resubmit my absolute version:

    Percy: "The poor are bringing us beef, and the rich are bringing us duck. What, then shall we eat?"
    Claude: "'Tis truly a difficult question."
    Johann (running in): "I bring terrible news! The poor have all fallen into a great pothole and sprained their ankles!"
    Claude (turning to Percy): "I ask you again, Percy, what shall we eat?"
    Percy (after a pensive pause): "The poor injured, duck."

  15. Janice Huth Byer said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    The phrase "adjective phrase" illustrates what the author would call an adjective phrase, only it's not. Any modifier is gratuitous to the lesson, suggesting her mistake was even thinking of adjective phrases. There's a moral in that somewhere. :)

  16. Baf said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    My own first interpretation of the instructions to "find three adjective phrases in the following list of word sequences" was that I was to identify the numbered word sequences that contain adjective phrases, not the ones that are adjective phrases. This makes it much easier: word sequences 3, 4, and 6 contain adjective phrases. Unfortunately, the subsequent quotation from the book makes it clear that this was wrong.

  17. GAC said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    I believe I was taught the same definition of "adjective phrase" in high school. To be more specific, they taught us that prepositional phrases could be adjective phrases or adverb phrases depending on what they modified.

  18. Pat Dennis said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

    My memory is the same as GAC's: ca. 1959, #6 would have been diagrammed as either an adjectival or adverbal prepositional phrase, depending on context. #3 would have been a phrase consisting of the noun "duck," with two associated adjectives, "poor" and "injured," the whole thing beng placed in the diagram wherever a noun can go, again depending upon context, i.e., subject, object or predicate nominative. # 4 would not have been referred to as a phrase.

  19. Danthelawyer said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    Actually, there are three sentences, including the following:

    The hunter shot a duck, which fell to the ground, hurt but not killed. The hunter's partner, a vegetarian, exclaimed, "The poor injured duck!"

  20. ShadowFox said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    One of my favorite pet peeves is elementary math books of varied origins referring to a sequence of numbers and symbols as "an equation" as long as the sequence contains at least one = sign. For example:

    Which of the following equations is true:

    1. 2 + 2 = 4
    2. 2 + 2 = 5

    So grammarians are not the only ones guilty of writing books that make little sense.

  21. empty said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    ShadowFox, do you not call "2 + 2 = 4" an equation?

  22. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    Oh, I thought it was "1.2 + 2 = 4" instead. How embarrassing. That explains a lot of maths tests in my checkered past.

  23. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    Remember 2 + 2 = 5 for sufficiently large values of 2

  24. iakon said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    I feel that I must point out a misinterpretation of yours, Professor Pullum. Yes, back in the days (mid-fifties) when I was being taught English grammar (in Victoria, B. C.), we were told that 'a phrase is a group of words that doesn't have a verb' (in contrast to a clause or a sentence, which do). But this was not a 'definition', merely a description, a clue for grammatical analysis. It seems to me that neither 'phrase', nor 'clause', nor 'sentence' were defined.

  25. Colin said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 6:21 am

    With a Heavy, bag.

    …I've been playing too much Team Fortress.

  26. Tom S. Fox said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    Doesn’t the book contain what it thinks to be the right solution?

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