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The Functions of Adjectives and Adjective Phrases in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/29/2013

Adjectives and adjective phrases perform four main grammatical functions in the English language. The following article lists the four functions of nouns and noun phrases and provides examples to illustrate usage. Also included is a printable study sheet of the grammatical functions.

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    Adjectives

    English Adjectives in English are traditionally defined as "words that describe nouns." Adjective phrases are formed by an adjective and any modifiers of complements including adverbs and prepositional phrases. Adjectives and adjective phrases perform four grammatical functions in the English language. The four functions are:

    1. Adjective phrase head
    2. Noun phrase modifier
    3. Subject complement
    4. Object complement

    The following sections discuss the four functions and include examples to illustrate use.

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    Adjective Phrase Head

    Adjectives first function as the heads of adjective phrases. The following italicized adjectives are examples of heads of adjectives phrases:

    • blue
    • grammatical
    • biggest
    • very bored
    • annoyingly loud
    • unbearably annoying
    • rather fond of linguistics
    • really quite enamored with the boy

    Adjectives always function as the heads of adjective phrases.

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    Noun Phrase Modifier

    Adjectives and adjective phrases secondly function as noun phrase modifiers. A noun phrase modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes a noun or noun phrase. The following italicized adjectives are examples of noun phrase modifiers:

    • The black cat drank the fresh cream.
    • The audition calls for young, female actresses.
    • The tiny baby was born prematurely.
    • Finals week results in stressful days for students.
    • Circle the grammatically-correct sentences.
    • My very hyper puppy has destroyed my new pillows.

    Other grammatical forms that perform the function of noun phrase modifier in English include prepositional phrases, verb phrases, adjective clauses, and noun clauses.

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    Subject Complement

    Adjectives and adjective phrases thirdly function as subject complements. A subject complement is a word, phrase, or clause that follows a linking verb and describes the subject. The following italicized adjective phrases are examples of subject complements:

    • My puppy is very mischievous.
    • Christmas cookies smell delicious.
    • The patient appears dehydrated and feverish.
    • The apple pie you made tastes sour.
    • My grandmother was rather forward thinking.
    • The British are fond of fish and chips.

    Adjectives that perform the function of subject complement are also referred to as predicate adjectives.

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    Object Complement

    Adjectives and adjective phrases fourthly function as object complements. An object complement is a word, phrase, or clause that directly follows and describes the direct object. The following italicized adjective phrases are examples of object complements:

    • Judeo-Christians consider Jerusalem holy.
    • The little girl painted her bedroom bright pink.
    • The preschoolers are coloring the trees purple and blue.
    • The jury declared the defendant guilty.
    • We voted her entry most original.
    • Studying grammar makes me happy.
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    Printable Download

    For a printable study sheet of the grammatical functions of adjectives and adjective phrases in English grammar, please download Grammatical Functions of Adjectives and Adjective Phrases.