Nouns that Modify
Enough of you have asked about this situation that I believe there must be others who have the same question. The question arises early in the Jensen’s Grammar book, in lesson 6 to be exact. At least that is where it first shows up; the exercises that cause the questions occur later on.
So what are we talking about here? In brief, nouns can do one of six things in a sentence. Five of their functions are quite normal and noun like. The sixth function, however, is decidedly different; in fact, it is a situation where the noun acts much like a typical adjective in that it modifies a noun.
The difficulty comes in that many of you and your children have fixated on the fact that adjectives modify nouns. That is true, but adjectives are not the only words that can modify a noun. Verbs and nouns can also modify nouns. Granted, they don’t do it very often, and it isn’t what we think of them doing on a regular basis, but they can do it. By the way, noun markers also modify nouns. In short, just because a word modifies a noun, that doesn’t automatically make it an adjective.
Now it is important for you to know that there are various schools of grammar. The traditionalists, also called prescriptive grammarians, are those who hold to the old definitions: a noun is a person, place, or thing; an adjective modifies a noun, and so forth. That is all well and good, but other schools also exist: the structural grammarians, the stratificational grammarians, and the transformational or generative grammarians. Most of you were trained in the traditional school; so was I.
My books, however, represent a blend of three of these schools. Stratificational grammar deals with levels of thought and is more philosophical, so I did not consciously incorporate it in the books. The other three schools are all represented. A look at the two charts in the beginning of Jensen’s Grammar will give ample evidence of each school.
So much for all the theory and background, now let’s get to the nuts and bolts with some examples to help you see what I am really talking about. First I will give you a series of sentences.
1. Joe’s dog chased the cat.
2. My dog chased the cat.
3. The barking dog chased the cat.
4. The big dog chased the cat.
5. The guard dog chased the cat.
In each case we have a simple subject, dog. It is a noun, and it obviously has words in front of it in each sentence that modify it in some way. Are all of the words that modify dog considered to be adjectives? Even the traditionalists would not answer in the affirmative. They, too, would have some exceptions.
Case by case, let’s look at the sentences. In the first sentence, Joe’s modifies dog. Joe is a noun; here it happens to be possessive. It is a case of one noun modifying another one, and most folks identify it as such. The second sentence has my modifying dog; the traditionalist would call my a pronoun; I call it a noun marker. Neither of us would call it an adjective.
In the third sentence we find two words in front of dog: the and barking. The is called an article, a peculiar adjective according to the traditionalist. I call it a noun marker; so do the transformationalists. Barking also modifies dog. The traditionalist will hedge; he will call it a participle, a verb form acting as an adjective. In the early stages I simply call it a verb while acknowledging that it does modify the noun. In Jensen’s Grammar the verbals are dealt with extensively toward the end of the book.
In sentence four we all agree; big is an adjective that modifies dog. In sentence five, the traditionalist will say that guard is an adjective because it modifies dog. I contend that it is a noun modifying dog. Do you not find the inconsistencies interesting? A possessive noun like Joe’s is not an adjective even though it modifies a noun, but a regular noun like guard is an adjective because it modifies a noun.
If you were to look at the form words chart in the beginning of Jensen’s Grammar, you would see that there are many tests to determine a part of speech. Function is only one of them. Let’s run through the tests for guard. We’ll do the noun tests, and then we’ll do the adjective tests.
1. Guard names something.
2. It can be marked by a noun marker: the guard.
3. It can perform the various functions such as subject, object, and modifier.
4. It fits in the test frame: The guard is good.
5. It can be plural: one guard, two guards.
6. It can form a possessive: the guard’s shirt.
7. It does not have a derivational suffix.
From the above we can see that guard fits six out of the seven tests for a noun. That is pretty conclusive evidence that guard is a noun. Now let’s see if it could be an adjective.
1. It limits; not very often but it can in sense that it was used in sentence #5.
2. It usually describes a noun; no, that is not its usual function although we do find it doing so in sentence #5.
3. It does not fit the test pattern: He/it seems guard. This is significant because the test frame tells us if a word could be that word class.
4. Let’s try the forms of degree: guard, guarder, guardest. It doesn’t work.
5. Again there is no derivational suffix.
Guard basically fails the adjective tests while passing the noun tests. By the definitions given, it must be a noun. Just for drill, let’s put guard through another set of paces, that of function, noun test #3 above.
1. The guard is handsome. – S
2. I saw the guard. – O
3. I looked at the guard. – OP
4. I gave the guard a wink. – IO
5. My brother is a guard. – SC
6. The guard station is over there. – MOD
In every case according to my system, guard is a noun. In each case it is performing a different task; those tasks are listed to the right of the sentences. Consistency is the key here. Guard is a noun which is capable of performing each of the functions a noun may perform, and that includes modification.
Some people just cannot buy it. My fellow author of the Grammar Land series is one of them. He persists in calling a noun that modifies another noun an adjective. Well, old ideas die hard. It is not easy to give up something that you have learned in favor of something new; however, just because that is the way you have always done it does not make it the best way to continue doing it. If that were the case, none of us would have been born again, but the new life is infinitely better than the old one.
March 3, 2014 / Frode / 0