Quick question: Is green an adjective, adverb, or noun?
When you’re asked to identify different parts of speech, you probably don’t think much of it anymore. Differentiating adjectives from nouns and adverbs, for instance, is pretty simple most of the time. Nouns identify things, people, places, and concepts; adverbs modify or add nuance to verbs; adjectives add information to nouns. Easy, right?
Well, it’s a little more complicated. That’s because the English language allows some words to have identical noun and adjective forms. Take a look at the following examples:
A green tree grows over there.
Green is my favorite color.
In both sentences, the word “green” appears. It’s not modified (to something like “greener” that would be a more obvious adjective), so what’s the key to accurately identifying the part of speech in each case?
When you see words that are identical in their noun and adjective forms, look at how the word functions in the sentence. In the first sentence above, “green” describes the noun “tree,” so we know it’s an adjective. In the second sentence, “green” is the subject. It doesn’t describe or modify anything, so we know it’s a noun—specifically, a noun that denotes a concept (the color green) rather than a tangible object or person.
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Nominal adjectives can be complicated too.
Adjectives can’t replace nouns, but sometimes nouns can be removed, or elided, from the sentence. When this happens, the elided noun is implicit—readers know what it is. The adjective that remains is called a nominal adjective and fills the role of identifying who or what the sentence is talking about.
Try this example:
Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
“Rich” and “poor” aren’t adjectives that are literally nouns, the way that our earlier example with colors was. Although “rich” and “poor” function almost as nouns in this sentence, they’re still adjectives. And yet, the sentence still makes perfect sense and would pass any grammar checker or proofreading. How is this possible?
The existence of nominal adjectives allows us to leave nouns out and imply them by the context of the sentence or by shared common knowledge and understanding. In the above sentence, for instance, “rich” and “poor” are technically replacements for “rich people” and “poor people.” In the “full” version of this sentence, “rich” and “poor” would modify “people.”
When using nominal adjectives, it’s important to make sure that the context of the sentence is crystal clear in order to avoid accidental misinterpretations of your writing. The above example is easy to interpret because of societal norms (we tend to associate “rich” and “poor” with how much money people have) and the extra context clue of Robin Hood, a story that most readers probably know. But what happens if we don’t have that context? Look at the sentence below:
Jane was the stronger of the two.
“Stronger” is clearly an adjective here, but without any context we’re left puzzled as to what, exactly, Jane is “stronger” in. Was she a stronger job candidate? Did she give a stronger, more persuasive speech? Is she physically stronger? Context is crucial here to make the meaning specific.
There’s one more way to use nominal adjectives without mixing them up with nouns: using antecedents, similar to how pronouns work. In these cases, the same noun is modified by multiple adjectives, so later statements of some adjectives leave out the noun and just imply it.
John liked the red car, but Jane preferred the gray.
Both “red” and “gray” modify “car,” but in the latter’s case, we don’t have to repeat “car” because it is implied.
Learning to use nouns, adjectives and adverbs correctly is one of the most important parts of writing well. Another important thing to master: correct citations! Whether you’re using MLA format, writing an APA citation, trying out Chicago style format, or another style guide, Citation Machine is there for all your formatting and citation needs!