John Lennon, n attrib.

Occasionally I say things like I don’t believe that adverbs exist or There isn’t really any such thing as an adjective. And, yeah, I’m mostly doing that to be obnoxious, but in truth it’s probably the biggest thing that has broken my idea of grammar—the realization that I was taught an utterly false Schoolhouse Rock notion of the parts of speech that clearly delineates nine (or maybe eight) parts of speech, and that every word could be clearly identified by what part of speech it is.

The OED Word of the Day today is John Lennon, which the OED calls an attributive noun. What the hell? It denotes a particular style of eyewear that is associated with the man—it can’t be used as a real noun at all, but only as a modifier of something like glasses or specs or shades. How is that a noun at all? And the answer is that it isn’t, really, it’s an attributive noun which is a noun only in the sense that it’s not really an adjective.

It’s worth taking a moment, then, to ask: what the hell is an adjective, anyway? And the answer is that there really isn’t any such thing.

The Schoolhouse Rock style answer is that an adjective describes a noun—but is everything that modifies a noun therefore an adjective? No. In the phrase shower curtain, for instance, the word shower is definitely not an adjective, but it definitely modifies the word curtain. Similarly in the phrase shower curtain rod, curtain is not an adjective, nor is shower an adverb modifying an adjective. In the phrase shower curtain rod bracket… in the phrase shower curtain rod bracket screw… in the phrase shower curtain rod bracket screw bin… why are all those modifiers not adjectives? How can you tell?

Fifty years ago Philip Gove, the editor of Webster’s Third, wrote a fascinating article called “‘Noun Often Attributive’ and ‘Adjective’” (American Speech, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Oct., 1964), pp. 163-175) in which he mentions four tests for whether a word is or is not an adjective:

  • Can the word be used both attributively and predicatively? You can say She hung an opaque curtain and The curtain she hung was opaque . You can say She hung a shower curtain but not *The curtain she hung was shower.
  • Can the word be used comparatively? You can say This curtain is more opaque than that curtain but not *This curtain is more shower than that curtain.
  • Can the word take common adverbial modifiers such as very? You can say This curtain is very opaque but not *This curtain is very shower.
  • Can you make derivative words by adding suffixes such as -ly or -ness?. You can talk about the opaqueness of the curtain but not the *showerness of the curtain.

If a word passes all four tests, it’s an adjective. There! Surely adjectives are actual things if there is such a complicated test for figuring out whether there is one or not! Right?

No.

What if a word is clearly used as a modifier and doesn’t pass all those tests—are any of those words adjectives? Yes. Many of them. Some of them. Maybe. Depending on a bunch of things. My favorite bit out of the article I mentioned is that iron is absolutely an adjective—not because it passes the tests, but has because it always been listed as an adjective in dictionaries, so we can’t stop now.

The other point about the tests is that we don’t teach them when we teach people what an adjective is. That wouldn’t make any sense to anyone. Nobody thinks that an adjective is a word that can be used both attributively and predicatively, can be used comparatively, can take certain common modifiers and can be the basis for certain derivatives. That’s not what an adjective is at all! Is it?

The much simpler answer is that there is no such thing as an adjective. We want there to be adjectives—we want there to be simple categories and rules for putting things in them—and so we make believe that adjectives exist. And that’s fine! Like spelling and money and national borders and the reasonable man, it’s a thing that doesn’t actually exist, but it’s sometimes helpful for people to pretend it does.

Thanks,
-Ed.

2 Responses to “John Lennon, n attrib.”

  1. Fred Bush

    I am pretty sure that all of those words would be adjectives in doge. “This curtain is very shower” is definitely a legal sentence.

    reply
    • -Ed.

      Such true, but then I’m not sure ?This curtain is very short is a grammatical sentence in doge. I could well be wrong; I initially learned doge as a dialect of cheezburger, which means that many of my doge sentences has a sad.

      Thanks,
      -E.

      reply

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