What is an Adjective Phrase and How to write One?

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What’s an 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. If you recall, a phrase is a group of words that doesn’t have both a subject and a verb.

Consider these two sentences (comments that go with examples are in square brackets):

The girl has blue eyes. [Adjective]

The girl has uncommonly blue eyes. [Adjective phrase]

Note: In the examples, adjective phrase has been underlined, with its head word in bold. Also, noun (or noun phrase) being described by the adjective phrase has been shown in magenta font.

In the first sentence, blue describes the noun eyes and hence is an adjective. In the second, uncommonly blue describes the noun eyes and hence is an adjective phrase. First things first, it’s a phrase because it has more than one word without having both subject and verb in it. And it’s an adjective phrase because it has an adjective, blue, as its head word.

Let’s look at another set of examples of adjective and adjective phrase, this time in the predicate. If you recall the basics, adjectives are broadly classified into two categories depending on their position in a sentence: first, attributive adjective that comes before the noun it describes and, second, predicative adjective that comes after a linking verb. We looked at the first type earlier; now, let’s look at the second type.

The pizza is hot. [Adjective]

The pizza is very hot. [Adjective phrase]

The pizza is too hot to serve. [Adjective phrase]

We’ve two adjective phrases in the above set, both describing the noun pizza. (How to form adjective phrases like above is covered later in the post.)

In simple words, you can understand an adjective phrase to be workers that have come together under the leadership of an adjective to accomplish the task of describing a noun.

In coordinate adjective phrases, there is no head adjective

An adjective phrase can have two or more adjectives joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, etc.). In such cases, the adjectives are weighted equally and hence none is a head adjective. Examples:

The slow and steady tortoise won the race. [None of slow and steady are head adjectives as they’re weighted equally.]

Plenty of unfinished yet manageable work awaits me.

How to identify adjective phrase in a sentence?

A quick, easy way to identify an adjective phrase in a sentence is to see which word in the phrase can replace the entire phrase while still making sense of the sentence. Let’s take the example of sentence we saw earlier.

The pizza is too hot to serve.

If you retain one word at a time in the phrase too hot to serve, only this one would make sense:

The pizza is hot.

You can draw two inferences from this:

  • too hot to serve is an adjective phrase because it can be replaced by an adjective.
  • The adjective hot is the head word in the phrase too hot to serve.

How to write adjective phrases?

An adjective phrase is a phrase that has an adjective as its head word and one or both of a premodifier and a postmodifier. As the names suggest, a premodifier comes before the adjective and a postmodifier comes after the adjective. There is an exceptional modifier (sothat clause) though which comes partly before and partly after the adjective.

Note that in all the examples, the adjective phrase has been underlined and the head word, an adjective, highlighted in bold.

Premodifier

Only an adverb can be premodifier in an adjective phrase. Examples:

The food is very good. [Adverb as premodifier]

The toddler was completely scared. [Adverb as premodifier]

Postmodifier

A postmodifier can be an adverb, an adverb phrase, a prepositional phrase, an infinitive phrase, or even a clause. As you’ll notice in the examples below, the most common of these are prepositional phrases and infinitive phrases. Examples:

He is not fluent enough. [Adverb as postmodifier. This is uncommon though.]

He is not fluent enough to pass the test. [Adverb phrase as postmodifier. This too is uncommon. The adverb phrase, enough to pass the test, has an infinitive phrase, to pass the test, as its own postmodifier.]

He is not fluent in Spanish. [Prepositional phrase as postmodifier]

I am glad to see you. [Infinitive phrase as postmodifier]

I am glad that you came. [Clause as postmodifier]

Premodifier and postmodifier

Since premodifier is always an adverb, only the postmodifier has been explained alongside the examples.

The water is rarely warm enough. [Adverb as postmodifier]

Tom is very good at tennis. [Prepositional phrase as postmodifier]

The water is sufficiently warm to gargle. [Infinitive phrase as postmodifier]

So-that clause

As mentioned earlier, sothat clause, an adverb clause of result, is neither a premodifier nor a postmodifier. Part of it comes before the adjective and part after the adjective. In the example below, so is not a premodifier and that…tongue is not a postmodifier.

The water is so warm that it can hurt your throat. [Clause as modifier]

Examples of adjective phrase

Adjective phrase in all the examples has been underlined, head word has been highlighted in bold, and the noun (or noun phrase) being modified has been highlighted in magenta font. Try figuring out premodifiers and postmodifiers in the phrases on your own. A premodifier, of course, would always be an adverb.

We let the fish off the hook as it was not large enough.

An unusually large fish pulled the bait.

He was seldom late for work.

He is tall like a pole.

My lunchbox was tightly packed.

The weather is so harsh and unforgiving. [Coordinate adjective phrase and hence no head word]

I was happy to have just passed the exam.

The conman was exceptional at fooling people requiring bail.

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

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

The coffee was so hot that it burnt my tongue. [Clause as modifier]

The match was so long that the two players struggled to stand at the award ceremony. [Clause as modifier]

Talented people like him are hard to find.

Tom is lazy beyond belief.

The deep blue shirt is too crumpled to wear. [The adjective phrase deep blue modifies shirt, and the adjective phrase too crumpled to wear modifies The deep blue shirt.]

Adjective phrase is not same as adjectival phrase

As you saw, an adjective phrase is a phrase with an adjective as its head word, and it functions as an adjective in a sentence. However, there are other phrases such as participial phrase, prepositional phrase, and infinitive phrase too that can act as an adjective. All the phrases – adjective phrase, participial phrase, prepositional phrase, and infinitive phrase – that can act as an adjective are called adjectival phrases. It’s a far wider term than an adjective phrase.

Here is a pictorial representation of adjective phrase vs. adjectival phrase.

Difference between adjectival phrase and adjective phrase

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

However, some people use the term adjective phrase to mean adjectival phrase, which, strictly speaking, is not correct.

In the examples below, only the fourth phrase is an adjective phrase (that’s the only one with an adjective as the head word). However, all four phrases are adjectival phrases as they all are functioning as an adjective (while the third phrase is describing Tom, the other three are describing plan).

My plan to watch movie was cancelled at the last moment. [Infinitive phrase]

My plan for the day was cancelled at the last moment. [Prepositional phrase]

Forced by the rain, Tom cancelled his plan. [Participial phrase]

My plan was not good enough. [Adjective phrase]

How adjective phrases help your writing?

Why learn adjective phrase when you have adjective? Why complicate matters?

As you saw in the examples above, an adjective phrase packs in more information than just an adjective, allowing you to express more in the same sentence and adding variety to your writing. Example:

The scenery was majestic. [Adjective]

The scenery was so majestic that it lulled me into sleep, washing away my worries and sorrows for those 15-odd minutes. [Adjective phrase]

Second, if you understand that the entire phrase works as a unit like a one-word adjective does, you’ll avoid putting in unnecessary commas within a phrase just to take a pause, especially in long ones. Example:

The tent is large enough to accommodate ten persons in the night (for sleep), and twenty in the day.

It’s a long adjective phrase, working as a single unit, but it doesn’t require a comma after sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between an adjective phrase and an adverb phrase?

Both are phrases, but they function differently in a sentence. An adjective phrase functions as an adjective, implying it modifies nouns and pronouns. An adverb phrase functions as an adverb, implying it modifies adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. Examples:

That was an unbelievably good shot. [Adjective phrase modifying the noun shot attributively.]

You were unbelievably good in the match today. [Adjective phrase modifying the pronoun You predicatively.]

You played unbelievably well in the match today. [Adverb phrase modifying the verb played.]

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