What is an Adjectival Phrase? [4 Types]

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You must have seen sentences like these.

Plenty of unfinished work awaits me. [Adjective]

Plenty of difficult work awaits me. [Adjective]

Note: In all the examples, adjectival phrase has been underlined. Also, noun (or noun phrase) being described by the adjectival phrase has been shown in magenta font. Last, all comments that go with examples are enclosed in square brackets.

Both unfinished and difficult are adjectives, describing (or modifying) the noun work. Let’s consider another set of examples, where different types of phrases describe a noun.

The tiger’s attempt was too feeble. [Adjective phrase]

The tiger’s attempt at dethroning his rival off his territory was met with stiff resistance. [Prepositional phrase]

Surprised by his rival’s strength, the tiger retreated. [Participial phrase]

The tiger’s attempt to grab his rival’s territory was met with stiff resistance. [Infinitive phrase]

In the above sentences, the underlined parts are phrases because they’ve more than one word without having both subject and verb. Second, these phrases describe the noun (or noun phrase) in magenta font. Since describing nouns is a function of adjectives, these phrases are functioning as an adjective. Combining the two (phrase and adjective), a phrase that functions as an adjective is called an adjectival phrase.

Before we jump into details of adjectival phrase, here is a quick context. Adjectival phrase is one of the three pillars of adjectival family, the other two being adjectival words and adjectival clauses. In this post, we’re covering adjectival phrase, the middle pillar in the image below:

(Feel free to use this image for own use, using the above link for attribution.)

What is adjectival phrase?

An adjectival phrase is a phrase that functions as an adjective in a sentence. (In other words, it’s an umbrella term for all phrases functioning as an adjective.) Since only adjective phrase, prepositional phrase, participial phrase, and infinitive phrase can function as an adjective, they constitute adjectival phrase when functioning as an adjective.

Adjectival phrase

(Feel free to use this image for own use, using the above link for attribution.)

If you notice, this image is nothing but the middle pillar of the earlier image of adjectival family.

Note: There is similar umbrella term for phrases functioning as adverb. It’s called adverbial phrase.

Adjectival phrases – just like adjectives – come next to the noun they describe.

Some think that an adjectival phrase should contain an adjective, but that’s true of only one adjectival phrase, adjective phrase (adjective shown in bold in the first example). Look at the other three adjectival phrases in the examples above; you may or may not find adjectives in them.

Let’s take the four adjectival phrases briefly, each of whose example was covered in the last set of examples.

1. Adjective phrase

An adjective phrase is a phrase that has an adjective as its head word (or the most important word), and it functions as an adjective in a sentence. In the sentence below, for example, the phrase has an adjective feeble as its head word, and hence too feeble is an adjective phrase.

The tiger’s attempt was too feeble. [Head word in bold]

Note that an adjective phrase is the only adjectival phrase that must have an adjective in it. Other three may or may not have.

Learn more about adjective phrase:

2. Prepositional phrase

A prepositional phrase is a phrase with ‘preposition + noun’ combination. Unlike an adjective phrase though, which always functions adjectivally, it can function adverbially as well as adjectivally. Here we’re concerned only with its adjectival role.

The tiger’s attempt at dethroning his rival off his territory was met with stiff resistance.

3. Participial phrase

A participial phrase is a phrase that starts with the present participle or past participle form of verb. Like a prepositional phrase, it too can function adjectivally as well as adverbially, with the former being more common function. Here we’re concerned only with its adjectival role.

Surprised by his rival’s strength, the tiger retreated. [Participial phrase starting with past participle form surprised.]

A participial phrase functioning adjectivally can usually come before as well as after the noun. So, this too is fine.

The tiger, surprised by his rival’s strength, retreated.

4. Infinitive phrase

An infinitive phrase is a phrase that starts with ‘to + verb’. It can function as a noun, an adjectival, or an adverbial. Here we’re concerned only with its adjectival role.

The tiger’s attempt to grab his rival’s territory was met with stiff resistance.

This infinitive phrase though is not an adjectival phrase as it is not modifying a noun.

It is advisable to travel light. [Infinitive phrase as complement to adjective advisable]

Adjective phrase is not the same as adjectival phrase

If you noticed, adjective phrase is one of the four phrases we covered. When functioning as an adjective, the four phrases are collectively called adjectival phrases. And the phrase with its head word (or the most important word) as adjective is called adjective phrase.

Adjective phrase, clearly, is one of the adjectival phrases. In other words, adjectival phrase is an umbrella term for all phrases functioning as an adjective, and one of its constituents is adjective phrase.

Adjectival phrases can be restrictive or non-restrictive

Restrictive and non-restrictive terms are usually associated with relative clauses, but they apply to all adjectivals, including adjectival phrases. Most adjectival phrases you’ll come across though will be restrictive.

To remind you the basic difference between restrictive and non-restrictive, a restrictive phrase or clause is an essential part of the sentence as it makes the noun specific, and it comes without commas. If you drop it, the sentence would lose some of its meaning. A non-restrictive phrase or clause, in contrast, is not an essential part of the sentence as it merely adds extra information, and it comes with a pair of commas. If you drop it, the sentence wouldn’t lose any of its meaning.

Ferran Torres, running with the ball, recently signed a hefty contract with FC Barcelona. [Non-restrictive participial phrase. We can drop the phrase, but the meaning won’t change. It’s just extra information.]

The player running with the ball recently signed a hefty contract with FC Barcelona. [Restrictive participial phrase. If you drop the phrase, we wouldn’t know which player we’re talking about. Hence, it’s essential information.]

My dog, in blue collar, can drop a meal to play fetch. [Non-restrictive prepositional phrase]

The dog in blue collar is mine. [Restrictive prepositional phrase]

Learn more about restrictive vs. non-restrictive:

Examples of adjectival phrase

Here are examples of adjectival phrase categorized under the four types of phrases. There is an additional category in the end, comprising of mix of the four phrases. All adjectival phrases have been underlined, nouns and noun phrases being modified have been highlighted in magenta font, and head words in case of adjective phrases, the first category, have been highlighted in bold.

1. Adjective phrase

Sports and other extracurricular activities are essential for our growth and wellbeing.

The saucepan is too hot to touch.

The weather is so harsh and unforgiving. [Two adjectives, harsh and unforgiving, separated by a coordinating conjunction also form an adjective phrase. In such cases, there is no head adjective.]

The match was so long that the two players struggled to stand at the award ceremony.

I was happy to have just passed the exam.

If dangled from the top floor, the rope is long enough to reach the ground floor.

2. Prepositional phrase

Despite effort, my craving for on-demand entertainment hasn’t gone down.

Michelle, with several carry bags in her hand, walked in discomfort. [Non-restrictive]

Can you show me the book on the top left corner of upper shelf?

Few are interested in movies from 90s because of lack of modern-day cinematography.

Actors from film families have higher odds of success in the film industry.

People with both doses of vaccines have much less chance of getting hospitalized because of Covid infection.

Path to greatness is filled with obstacles.

The saucepan just off the flame is too hot to touch. [The second is an adjective phrase]

The politician’s swipe at his rival backfired as he got his facts wrong.

3. Participial phrase

Fuming at another missed milestone, the manager asked for accountability.

Dragging the kill into the river, the crocodiles left the lion hungry.

My dog, wearing a blue collar, can drop a meal to play fetch.

Some 65 million years ago, the devastation caused by a 10km-wide asteroid wiped out more than half of all species.

The road leading to the national park was covered in snow. [The prepositional phrase in snow is not modifying a noun.]

Can you show me the book lying on the top left corner of upper shelf?

The tsunami, triggered by an earthquake, hit the Japanese coastline few hours later.

Spooked by the sound of door opening, the pigeons flew off.

The man found to be Omicron positive has had no travel history.

My Chevrolet, battered by overuse, was in urgent need of servicing.

4. Infinitive phrase

The lion’s desire to have a free meal was foiled by the crocodiles, who dragged the carcass into the river.

Our plans to vacation were put paid by yet another wave of pandemic. [Vacation can be used as a verb.]

All efforts to placate the sulking politician failed.

Only few showed up in the meeting to take stock of security preparations.

Let’s not waste time. I’ve plenty of chores to finish.

It’s your turn to speak.

Despite the judge’s instruction to maintain decorum, some kept murmuring at the back.

After having made so many sacrifices to summit the peak, we can’t turn back now.

Mix of adjectival phrases

Reeling under the Arctic blast, the town is unbearably cold these days. [Both participial phrase and adjective phrase describe the noun phrase the town.]

The conman was exceptional at fooling people requiring bail. [The adjective phrase exceptional at fooling people requiring bail describes the noun phrase The conman. The adjective phrase itself contains a participial phrase requiring bail which describes the noun people.]

Instructions to the rank and file of police force to stay neutral are sometimes not adhered to. [The prepositional phrase to the rank and file of police force describes the noun Instructions. The infinitive phrase to stay neutral describes the noun phrase Instructions to the rank and file of police force.]

The propensity of the virus to replicate is unprecedented. [The prepositional phrase of the virus describes the noun phrase The propensity. The infinitive phrase to replicate describes the noun phrase The propensity of the virus.]

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