What is an Adjectival? How It Differs from Adjective?

Most of us have written sentences like these:

I want the book on the upper shelf.

Can you put the vase on the coffee table?

The underlined parts – a prepositional phrase and a noun – are not identified as adjectives like we do hot, green, or happy. Nonetheless, they’re functioning as adjective (or functioning adjectivally) in the above sentences because, like adjectives, they’re describing nouns book and table, respectively. They’re part of larger group (than adjective) called adjectival. We’ll cover them in this post.

Note: In the examples, adjectival has been underlined and noun (or noun phrase) being described by the adjectival has been shown in magenta font.

What is adjectival?

An adjectival is a word or word group (phrases and clauses) functioning as an adjective in a sentence.

Let’s understand this in detail.

We know that words function as adjective

Look for any word in a dictionary, and you’ll find that it belongs to one or more parts of speech, which are nothing but roles the word play in sentences. For example, slow can function as an adjective (He is a slow eater), a verb (The economy has slowed), or an adverb (He easts too slow).

Some words, however, may function as a part of speech for which they’re not listed in dictionaries. For example, accident and beauty are listed as noun in dictionaries, but they can also function as adjective (The police cordoned off the accident site and This year’s beauty contest was cancelled because of pandemic). All words that function as an adjective, irrespective of whether dictionaries designate them as adjective or not, are adjectivals.

But phrases and clauses too can function as adjective

We just saw that words function as adjective. But phrases and clauses too can function as an adjective. We saw an example earlier where a phrase on the upper shelf was functioning as an adjective.

To give you quick background information, words, phrases, and clauses are the three fundamental word-units in sentences, but dictionaries classify only words as parts of speech. However, phrases and clauses too function as one or the other parts of speech in a sentence. Phrases can function as four parts of speech, and clauses as three.

All the phrases and clauses that function as adjective in a sentence are also adjectivals. They constitute a much larger proportion of adjectivals than words. Phrases that function adjectivally are adjective phrases, prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and infinitive phrases. And clause that functions adjectivally is adjective (or relative) clause.

Put simply, a word or word group (phrases and clauses) functioning as an adjective is called an adjectival:


Note: Feel free to use the above and other images in the post, using the link (url) of this post for reference/attribution.

Note the terminology in the above image. Adjective words and noun words refer to one-word adjectives and nouns, respectively.

Of these, adjective word, adjective phrase, and adjective clause have just one function, adjectival. All others have more than one function, adjectival being one of them.

The three groups in the above image – adjectival words (barring noun word), adjectival phrases and adjectival clauses – have been covered separately in depth:

To recap, common understanding of adjective is that any word that is designated as an adjective in dictionaries functions as an adjective. But few more words outside this definition can also function as adjective. A much bigger treasure though lies in phrases and clauses that function as adjective. All words (including those designated as adjective by dictionaries), phrases, and clauses that function as adjective are called adjectivals.

Adjectival terminology

We’ll use the standard adjectival terminology in this post. Here it is:

We can say following three, which are one and the same, about the prepositional phrase in this sentence I want the book on the upper shelf.

  • The prepositional phrase is functioning adjectivally.
  • The prepositional phrase is functioning as an adjective.
  • The prepositional phrase is an adjectival.

You can use the same terminology for any adjectival.

There are other umbrella terms similar to adjectival

Adjectival is an umbrella term for words, phrases, and clauses that function like an adjective. Do we have other such umbrellas? Yes. An even bigger umbrella is adverbial, whose members function like an adverb. And a much smaller umbrella is nominal, whose members function like a noun. Learn about them:

Adjective vs. Adjectival

If by adjective you mean adjective word, then adjective vs. adjectival is same as box 1 vs. boxes 1-7 in the first image.

Some, however, use the term adjective for the core adjective family – adjective word, adjective phrase, and adjective clause. If that’s the case, then adjective vs. adjectival is same as boxes 1, 3, and 7 vs. boxes 1-7.

Examples of adjectivals

Following examples cover all seven types of adjectivals. (Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

1. The boy in blue shirt will speak first in today’s debate. [Prepositional phrase]

2. The boy wearing blue shirt will speak first in today’s debate. [Participial phrase]

3. The boy who is in blue shirt will speak first in today’s debate. [Relative clause]

4. The boy to open the debate is not yet here. [Infinitive phrase]

5. The ruffled boy struggled at the beginning of his debate but then was really good. [Adjective/ Adjective phrase]

6. The boy glanced at the audience, took a sip from the water bottle, and began debating. [Noun]

Note that the adjectival is placed next to the noun it describes in all but one case. In the fifth sentence, really good is placed after the linking verb, one of the exceptions when adjectivals are not next to their nouns. Thus, unlike adverbials, adjectivals are almost always bound to their nouns and can’t occupy multiple positions in a sentence. Also note that, unlike adjective words which mostly come before their nouns, adjectival phrases and clauses are mostly placed after their nouns.

See many more examples of adjectival, categorized under seven categories mentioned in the image you saw earlier:

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Adjectivals can be restrictive or non-restrictive

Restrictive and non-restrictive terms are usually associated with relative clauses, but they apply to all adjectivals, which include relative clauses.

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 will 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.

Michael, grinning from ear to ear, congratulated his teammates on their outstanding performance. [Non-restrictive participial phrase]

The man going up the escalator is the new head coach. [Restrictive participial phrase]

My math teacher, from Bentonville, has won this year’s best teacher award. [Non-restrictive prepositional phrase]

The man from Bentonville has won this year’s best teacher award. [Restrictive prepositional phrase]

More resources:

How adjectivals help your writing?

In the four images below, read each sentence from 1 to 4, and see how progressive addition of adjective words and adjectivals changes flowers and weather, the two participants or nouns, in the image.

The difference that adjectivals make in a sentence

In the fourth, the adjectival adds information that wouldn’t have been possible with adjectives. Adjectivals, in other words, are a much wider canvas than adjective words, and hence they can cover wider variety of adjectival functions.

Now, some of us use these adjectivals without even knowing what they’re called and why they’re important. Fair enough. But knowing full range of adjectivals expands our options, from which we can pick and choose to describe nouns in variety of ways, lending variety to our sentences.

In the following sentences, for example, the same noun ship has been described in different ways using different adjectivals.

The ship, which was damaged by the iceberg and overwhelmed by the rushing water, eventually sank. [Relative clause]

The ship when hit by an iceberg broke its hull plates and eventually sank. [Another relative clause, this time restrictive]

The ship, thought to be unsinkable, sank on colliding with an iceberg. [Past participial phrase]

The captain stayed on the sinking ship till the end. [Adjective]

The ship, on its maiden voyage, sank after colliding with an iceberg. [Prepositional phrase]

Full range of adjectivals can significantly increase your power to describe nouns.

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Anil Yadav

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