Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Crash Course in Adjectivals—Modifiers of Nouns

An adjectival (pronounced "add-jek-TIE-vul") is any structure—a word, phrase, or clause—that performs a function traditionally associated with, of course, adjectives: it describes, restricts, or otherwise modifies a noun. An adjectival essentially answers the questions of "what kind?" or "which one?" We have several choices of adjectivals:

1. Single-word adjectives
You're probably most familiar with these, which need the least amount of explanation. Big, small, tall, short, round, wide, ugly, beautiful—these are all simply single-word adjectives and can, depending on how you cast your sentence, appear either before or after (or before and after!) the nouns they modify. Here's an example:

The tall house was ugly.

I suppose if I were to discuss compound adjectives, they would probably find an appropriate place here in this category, despite the fact that they are composed of more than one word. But we've already discussed those enough, so let's move on. ;)

2. Nouns (no, seriously!)
Yes, it may seem strange to hear that nouns are another type of adjectival, but bear with me! While they may appear to be nouns in form, they may very well be adjectives in function. Since I couldn't think of my own, here are some great examples from the seventh edition of Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk:

the brick house
the neighbor boy
a marble bathub
that test pilot
Bill's kitchen table

As you can see, brick, neighbor, marble, test, and kitchen are all nouns, but each is clearly functioning as a modifier of the noun that follows. When you see nouns like these, you should think to yourself, "Noun in form, but adjective in function."

3. Prepositional Phrases
Consisting of a preposition (like on, for, in, of, to, about, around, etc.) followed by an object (which is always something functioning as a noun), a prepositional phrase is able to function as a giant adjective. Keeping in mind that an adjectival modifies a particular noun, check out these examples:

I ate the cake in the fridge.
The store around the corner is great!
Dominick is a person of great integrity.

Can see you what, specifically, these prepositional phrases are modifying? In the fridge is modifying the cake—it tells us which cake the speaker is referring to. Around the corner similarly specifies which store is being discussed, and of great integrity tells us what kind of person Dominick is. We can safely say, then, that these prepositional phrases are indeed adjectivals.

4. Participles and Participial Phrases
These types of adjectivals are derived from verbs. If you recall from my earlier post about infinitives and the "principal parts" of verbs, you'll remember that every verb has a past participle and a present participle form, both of which can function as adjectives. Ready for more examples? Here are some past participles performing the job of an adjective:

The bored students just rolled their eyes.
You must find the stolen artifact!
My exhausted brother crashed on his bed.

Bored, stolen, and exhausted are all past participle forms of verbs—bore, steal, and exhaust—and are able to function as noun modifiers. Now, here are some present participle verb forms:

We have no running water!
The dictator's army went on a killing spree.
I'm taking a cooking class this semester.

These present participle forms—those familiar "-ing" forms of verbs—are modifying nouns and therefore can be called adjectivals.

Now, let's complicate matters a little bit. Because these participle forms are derived from verbs (indeed, they have "verb DNA" in their genes), they can be accompanied by any modifiers or objects that you may otherwise associate with verbs. One of my previous posts discussed direct objects—nouns or noun phrases that receive the action of a verb—which follow transitive verbs. So, for instance, if an adjectival present participle just happens to be derived from a transitive verb, the adjectival would require a direct object. By placing a direct object after your adjectival present participle, you've just upgraded your adjectival to a participial phrase. Confused? Here's an example to examine:

Tell me about the boy eating his pencil.

Here, we have an adjectival present participle, eating, modifying the boy. But in this particular instance, eating is intended to be transitive—it requires a direct object—and so it is followed by his pencil, which is the object receiving the action of eating. A present participle coupled with a direct object transforms the adjectival from a single-word participle to a participial phrase.

Of course, a present participle may not always come from a transitive verb; it may very well be intransitive and thus require no direct object at all. Nevertheless, like any other verb, the participle can still be modified by adverbial structures (which I'll explain in a future post). To see what I mean, look at this example:

I was entertained by the child acting foolishly.

In this case, the adjectival present participle is accompanied by a simple adverb, foolishly, which tells us how the child is acting. It's important to note at this point that a participial phrase (that is, an adjectival participle accompanied by a direct object and/or any modifiers) always follows the noun it is meant to modify. Conversely, single-word participles appear before the nouns they modify.

Before moving on, let's return briefly to past participles and how they can also become participial phrases. These, too, can be modified with adverbial structures. Observe the following:

The plays written by Shakespeare will stand the test of time.

You'll notice that a past participle, written, is intended to modify the noun plays, but this time the participle is paired with an adverbial modifier—by Shakespeare. Once again, the pairing of a participle with any modifier constitutes a participial phrase, and once more, a participial phrase always follows the noun it modifies.

Okay. That was a bit rough. Let's move on to an adjectival structure you're likely more familiar with.

5. Relative Clauses
These are a type of dependent clause—a group of words that contains a clear subject and predicate but cannot stand alone as a complete thought. Relative clauses, sometimes called "adjective clauses," belong to this broad class of clauses. They always begin with a relative pronoun (that, which, who, whose, or whom), whose antecedent is always the noun being modified by the relative clause. Example? Sure.

I drive a car that guzzles gasoline.

Here, a relative clause is used to modify the noun car. The clause begins with a relative prounoun, that, which refers to the noun being modified. We can understand, then, that that is the car and that the car guzzles gasoline. It should be noted, too, that in this particular clause, that (the car) is acting as the clause's subject. You can tell because that is the thing—the actor—performing an action. Another example of a relative pronoun functioning as a subject is this:

She's mad at the teacher who grades unfairly.

Once again, in this relative clause, the relative prounoun who (which stands in for the teacher) is the clause's subject because it is the teacher who performs the action of grading unfairly. This would also be an opportune time to inject a little opinion: while it has become acceptable to use the relative pronoun that to refer to people (you know, human beings), you must drop this habit immediately, for it is most irritating! When referring to people, use who (for a subject) or whom (for an object). Okay, I'm done with the preaching.

Hey, speaking of whom and objects, use this particular relative pronoun when it refers to a person who is the recipient of an action in a relative clause. This example might make this point clearer:

My friend, whom I called earlier, should be arriving soon.

In this case, the relative pronoun whom still refers to the noun being modified, friend, but in this relative clause, the friend is actually receiving the action of the verb called. Thus, it is not the subject of the clause; it is the direct object. The subject of this clause is actually I, as in I called my friend earlier.

This point about objects in relative clauses applies to the relative pronoun that as well, but that can refer to anything other than a human being. And, of course, that can be either a subject or an object.

Finally, I won't say anything about the punctuation of adjectivals, particularly relative clauses—after all, Pat has already discussed this topic somewhat extensively in class. Just remember that the question of whether to place commas around adjectival phrases and clauses is a matter of whether they are restrictive or nonrestrictive.

I think this is enough for one post, and I hope you've found it helpful. If you have any questions or concerns, ask away!

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