Adjective phrases

Adjective phrases consist of adjectives together with elements which complement or modify them in different ways. Although adjective phrases are potentially complex, in practice most of them have a fairly simple structure. Thus, a typical adjective phrase consists of a head in the form of an adjective sometimes accompanied by degree modifiers, as in the following example:

(1) The poor living conditions make planning your future [almost impossible].

The adjective phrase almost impossible consists of the head impossible and the degree modifier almost.

The function of adjective phrases

Adjective phrases have two primary functions. First, they can be used to modify nouns inside noun phrases, as in the following example:

(2) The scarcity of supplies has become [an increasingly difficult problem].

Here, the noun phrase within square brackets has the noun problem as its head, and the adjective phrase increasingly difficult serves as a modifier. This function of adjective phrases is referred to as attributive.

The second main function of adjective phrases is as predicatives in clause structure, following verbs like be, become, seem, etc.

(3) Maintaining a reasonable level has become increasingly difficult.

This function of adjective phrases is referred to as predicative.

Whether it is attributive or predicative, an adjective phrase always modifies (i.e. somehow provides more information about) a noun phrase (or a dependent clause functioning as the subject of a sentence, e.g. To be a true adult is sometimes difficult.).

See the section on clause structure for more on the predicative function:

Predicative-only adjectives

Some adjectives only occur in predicative adjective phrases. Most dictionaries mark such adjectives as special (e.g. by labelling them "predicative only" or "not in attributive use"). A few examples are given here:


Bill is afraid of dogs.

NOT: *Bill is an afraid boy.


The two brothers are very much alike.

NOT: *The two most alike results were compared.


We are aware of the difficulties

NOT:*We expect more aware attempts in the future. 

The ungrammatical examples in the right-hand column illustrate the fact that these adjectives cannot be used attributively (i.e. to modify nouns in noun phrases).

Adjectives as heads of noun phrases

A somewhat odd function of adjectives is that of serving as heads of noun phrases. In English, this use is virtually restricted to noun phrases that have generic reference (i.e. which refer to entities in general, rather than to specific instances). The following two examples illustrate this use:

(4) We must plan for the future needs of the elderly. [elderly people in general]

(5) In the early 20th century, the study of the supernatural was attracting a lot of interest. [supernatural phenomena in general]

In the first example, reference is made to a category of people who share some characteristic (age in this case). In the second example, reference is made to an abstract concept.

Almost without exception, these two uses are the only ones where adjectives are used in this way in English. When reference is made to a specific individual or a specific group of individuals or specific instances of abstract concepts a nominal head (a noun or a pronoun) is used.

(6) The elderly woman was confused and disoriented.

(7) They insist that the supernatural events described in the Bible are real-world manifestations of God.

A Swedish perspective: Nominalised adjectives (click to expand/contract)

A nominalised adjective is an adjective that is used as if it were a noun, or an adjective that has turned into a noun. In any case, it is something that looks like an adjective, but which is still capable of heading a noun phrase, i.e. it can be the main word in a noun phrase, as in the following three examples:

(1) [The rich] are getting richer.

(2) My friend has studied the sleeping habits of [the unemployed].

(3) [Den store] är min handledare.

As we can see, nominalised adjectives exist in both English and Swedish. However, they can be used much more freely in Swedish than in English, which also means that they are less frequent in English than in Swedish.

In English, nominalised adjectives can only be used generically, either referring to groups of human beings, as in (1) and (2) above, in which case they are always plural, or referring to abstractions, as in (4) below, in which case they are always singular.

 (4) Don't try to do [the impossible].

The word generically roughly means 'in general', so when we utter (5), we are talking about the rich in general, that is, we are not talking about two or three people that happen to be rich.

(5) [The rich] are getting richer.

Neither are we necessarily including every single rich person in the world. (5) can still be regarded as true, even if there should happen to exist a limited number of rich individuals who are actually not getting richer, as it were.

Moreover, it must be pointed out that a statement such as (5) can be used generically in a certain context, so that the rich does not refer generically to basically every rich person in the world, but generically within a certain context or domain, as in the following authentic example from the Independent (Rentoul, 2004; brackets and boldface by AWELU):

(6) Yes, [the rich] are getting richer under New Labour - but then   so are the poor.

Here it is obvious that the author is not concerned with the rich and the poor in, say, Sweden or in the US, but with the rich and the poor in the UK. The nominalised adjectives in (6) can still be said to refer generically, within the relevant domain or context.

In Swedish, there is no requirement that nominalised adjectives have to refer generically. Specific reference is just as grammatical, which means that we can use a nominalised adjective to refer, for instance, to one or a couple of specific individuals in the context. This is what (3) above was intended to illustrate.

This means that we cannot translate Swedish sentences containing nominalised adjectives with specific reference word for word into English. Instead we have to insert an appropriate noun or pronoun that can function as the head of the noun phrase. So, (3) above does not correspond to (7), but to (8), or (9), or something similar:

(7) *The big is my supervisor.

(8) The big one is my supervisor.

(9) The big man is my supervisor.

In a similar fashion, (10) must not be translated as in (11), but instead as in (12). Alternatively, if we are referring to a green car, we can of course use (13):

(10) Den gröna är äldre. 

(11) *The green is older.

(12) The green one is older.

(13) The green car is older.

We must also understand that it does not matter if the nominalised adjective (or the phrase which it heads) is plural; we can still not use nominalised adjectives specifically in English, so the sentence in (14), uttered with reference to socks in a drawer, for instance, does not correspond to (15), but to (16) or (17):

(14) Jag ska slänga de gamla.

(15) *I will throw away the old.

(16) I will throw away the old ones.

(17) I will get rid of the old ones. (or the old socks).      

There is one apparent exception to this ban on using nominalised adjectives with specific reference in English. In spoken English and less formal written varieties, people sometimes leave out (or rather avoid repeating) the head noun when it has just been mentioned in the preceding linguistic context, and it is totally obvious to any reader or interlocutor what has been left out and how the nominalised adjective in question is supposed to be interpreted. In other words, we sometimes have ellipsis in such cases, as (18):

(18) Old dissertations are sometimes better than [new ______].

Even though the practice exemplified in (18) rarely leads to misunderstandings or ambiguity, AWELU recommend the addition of an appropriate nominal head, such as ones in (18), so that we instead get (19):

(19) Old dissertations are sometimes better than [new ones].