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The question "Not worth the paper it's printed on" - wrong meaning? got me thinking about what part of speech, or lexical class, the word 'worth' takes?

A comment in "Is it worth it?" vs. "Does it worth it?" advises to treat 'worth' as an adjective, but I'm not sure that's right. 'Worthy' is an adjective, but that's not the same as 'worth'.

In the title question you could replace 'worth' with the phrase 'of comparable value to'; what part of speech would that phrase be considered? Are the word and the phrase in the same lexical class?


Edit:

Just to throw another option out, after a stimulating discourse under the answer provided by @Henry:

Wiktionary mentions that used in the context of this question, 'worth' is considered an adjective, but it also notes that

The modern adjectival senses of worth compare two noun phrases, prompting some sources to classify the word as a preposition. Most, however, list it an adjective, some with notes like "governing a noun with prepositional force."

It also notes that

Joan Maling (1983) shows that worth is best analyzed as a preposition rather than an adjective.

If viewed as a preposition, then it is easy to replace 'worth' with another preposition of somewhat equal meaning, such as "Is this apple about $3", "Is this apple under $3", or "Is this apple over $3".

Adjective, infinitive, or preposition? ...or is this a rare case of an old language usage that straddles multiple lexical classes in modern language?

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Lexical categories are just crude tools we use, models by which it is easier for us to understand the workings of language: they are not real things, and they are always imperfect. The boundaries are often blurred. The traditional label "adjective" fits better based on history, etymology etc. of the word; the label "preposition" fits better if you want to use a purely functional classification. Which label we use doesn't really matter that much. I don't see how infinitive could work at all, though. Better stick with adjective or preposition. –  Cerberus Mar 31 '11 at 17:20
    
In your support for prepostion, you have given the example 'about'. In this case, around would be an adverb, interchangeable with 'approximately'. Likewise, 'under' is interchangeable with 'less than', another adverb. –  Karl Apr 4 '11 at 10:34

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted
+150

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) has a lot to say about worth. It is a little like an adjective and a little like a preposition. I will argue both sides, for your entertainment.

Worth is clearly a preposition, because:

  • It requires a noun phrase after it. This is what prepositions are known for. Many adjectives take preposition phrases (afraid of bees, tantamount to surrender) or clauses (mad that you didn’t tell her). Almost none take noun phrases.

  • The vast majority of adjectives can be used attributively—that is, in front of a noun they modify. That is what adjectives are known for. But a worth $5 vanilla shake is wrong.

  • Consulting my adversary’s points below, I see nothing but desperate gibbering really. “Set off by a comma”? “Fronting”? How about basic syntactic properties?

Worth is clearly an adjective, because:

  • There is a simple test that distinguishes adjectives from prepositions extremely well. Adjective phrases set off by a comma at the beginning of a sentence always modify the subject. Preposition phrases sometimes don’t.

    From the beginning, I liked the book. (ok - preposition phrase)

    Consistently excellent, I liked the book. (wrong - adjective phrase must modify subject)

    Worth every penny, I liked the book. (wrong!!)

  • Prepositions are often “fronted” in questions and certain other clauses. Worth isn’t.

    From what country did the U.S. purchase the Louisiana Territory in 1803? (ok)

    Worth what was the Louisiana Territory at that time? (wrong)

    They will want the amount for which they could have sold it last May. (ok)

    They will want the amount worth which it was last May. (wrong)

  • Consulting my adversary’s points above, I see a disappointing failure to go any deeper than the surface—and a few dirty rhetorical tricks. He knows very well that a worth $5 vanilla shake is wrong for the same reason an afraid of bees child and a willing to chip in uncle are wrong: you just can’t put phrases with post-head dependents in that position. And plenty of adjectives can’t be used attributively at all: an afraid child is wrong too.

CGEL calls worth an adjective, but ultimately I think Cerberus is right. The patterns grammarians detect in language are not inviolable laws. Not every word fits cleanly into the categories.

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If you do have a copy of CGEL, see chapter 7, section 2.2, “Prepositions vs adjectives”. It includes most of the information in this answer and a great deal more besides. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 3 '11 at 0:45
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Hmmm, considering "Worth every penny, I liked the book", how about "Worth every penny, the book was instrumental in my financial success." ? –  ErikE Mar 29 '12 at 1:24
    
That's fine. The phrase "worth every penny" modifies the subject of that sentence ("the book"). –  Jason Orendorff Apr 1 '12 at 22:07
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The first adjective claim has a non-parallelism: In constructions like "From the beginning, I liked the book.", the prepositional phrase is more likely to be taken to modify the verb (i.e. "I immediately started liking the book") than the second noun (i.e. "I liked the first page of the book onwards"). If you consider "worth ..." as a PP, then in "Worth every penny, I liked the book.", "worth every penny" would be modifying the verb. But that's wrong for semantic, not syntactic, reasons. –  Mechanical snail Dec 18 '12 at 14:46
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I love it. Things people in COCA can’t do worth shit include: lie, shoot, punch, aim, sing, bake, dance, play that old guitar, drive the grader, and weld an alloy crank case. But I still say it’s an exception to the rule. –  Jason Orendorff Jan 10 '13 at 22:09

Worth and like are a special class of word which don't behave as adjectives on their own, but form adjectival clauses. Or, to put it another way, they are adjectives that require a complement.

E.g. in the following sentences the highlighted clauses act like adjectives:

You look like a million bucks!

A picture is worth a thousand words.


EDIT After reading Edwin Ashworth's comment, I agree that my answer was wrong. I'll leave it up here, though, because I'm not the only person who had this misapprehension -- I actually read this in a grammar textbook somewhere.

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I'd prefer to class look like (and smell like, etc) and be worth as the more closely-bound orthographic words here. Look like can often (though not in your fossilised example!) be replaced by the simple verb resemble, and be worth reasonably often by cost. I'd call these multi-word verbs. As also shown with the expression by and large, if one insists on placing every orthographic word in a definite lexical category, one is going to hit complications. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '12 at 22:28
    
I take your point. –  Pitarou Dec 19 '12 at 0:03

There's another possibility. I think the words loath, worth, fraught, behave like past participles which have lost their verbs.

Worth can take the modifier well, which goes with many verbs.

The voyage was well worth it.

The race was well run.

Well doesn't go with adjectives.

The apple was well big.

Well does go with prepositions

The shot was well in bounds.

but there are other arguments against worth being a preposition. Prepositions can modify verbs:

He gambled over half his fortune.

Past participles and worth cannot:

He gambled worth half his fortune.

Fraught originally had a verb; I don't know whether worth ever did.

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Considering "He gambled worth half his fortune." you can't say "He gambled beside half his fortune." sensibly either. So I don't think this proves worth is not a preposition. And when you say "gambled over half his fortune", over is modifying half, not gambled. Did he really sit on his fortune and gamble? –  ErikE Mar 29 '12 at 1:29
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In some dialects, that is well bad is possible. So well worth might be a remnant of some older pattern where well could generally modify adjectives. Since worth is a rather unusual word in many respects, it would not be surprising if it kept some older constructions as idioms. –  Cerberus Jun 4 '12 at 18:52
    
Fain might also qualify. –  Cerberus Jul 9 '12 at 7:13
    
But "worth" can modify verbs: I can't spell worth shit.. It isn't used often that way, but for semantic reasons (we more often assign worth to objects than to verbs). –  Mechanical snail Dec 18 '12 at 14:33
    
+1 for participle. I'll take it a step farther: participle of a lost deponent verb. –  StoneyB Dec 18 '12 at 22:25

We are used to nouns doing double duty as adjectives when used as a noun modifier ("day tripper"), so adjective sounds like the right answer here. However, I would call it a preposition, based on the fact that it cannot stand alone as an adjective. That is, I cannot think of a way to say something is "worth", without the word being followed by some object:

He is worth. The worth boy was rewarded.

"Worthy" is the right word in both of the above examples.

"Worth" acts as a placeholder for "equal in value to", which is the start of a prepositional phrase.

Does anyone have a counterexample of "worth" working without an object and/or other adjectives that cannot stand alone?

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CGEL lists a few adjectives that cannot stand alone. They are all oddball words. The most convincing ones are tantamount and loath. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 3 '11 at 0:43

This isn't entirely an answer but I couldn't express all of this in a comment. Messing around with the word and phrase seems to show a handful of similar sentences:

Is this apple worth $3?

Is this apple worth an orange?

Is this $3 worth $4


Is this apple worth an orange?

Is this apple [the same as] an orange?

Is this apple [prettier than] an orange?

Is this apple [tastier than] an orange?


Is this $3 worth $4?

Is this $3 [more than] $4?

Is this $3 [at least] $4?

Is this $3 [exactly] $4?


I am not a terminology expert, but it seems that whatever you call the phrase "more than" would be what you are looking for. Namely, "worth" is short for "worth at least" and can quickly be replaced by any other comparator. Most of them seem to have "than" included.

Is this worth that?

Is this more than that?

Is this larger than that?

Other words that provide similar functions without a "than":

Is this over that?

Is this too that?

Is this barely that?

Food for thought. Hopefully this triggers a better answer from someone more versed in the terminology.

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In

Is this apple worth $3?

worth is an adjective, while in

Please give me $3 worth of apples.

worth is a noun. There is an archaic verb, but it is no longer in use.

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I agree with the second example. However, in the first example I cannot replace 'worth' with another adjective: "Is this apple red [$3]" or "Is this apple large [$3]". If you eliminate '$3', you can ask "Is this apple red", "Is this apple large", or "Is this apple worthy", but now we're using the adjective 'worthy' not thw word 'worth'. You can also ask "Is this apple's worth $3", but now it is a noun that could be replaced with a different noun, like 'value'. Is this a case of an infinitive? Is the verb of this sentence 'is worth'? –  oosterwal Mar 11 '11 at 16:17
    
But you could say "Why has this painting been valued at $3 million? I don't think it's really worth $3 million", and I would have thought valued at $3 million would be an adjectival phrase, making worth $3 million an adjectival phrase in the same position, and worth an adjective as the core of the phrase. –  Henry Mar 11 '11 at 16:24
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@oosterwal: You can say "Worth $3 million, this home is out of most people's price range", and things like that. It is not inseparably linked to to be. –  Kosmonaut Mar 11 '11 at 16:55
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@Oosterwal: I agree with Henry. It is just that there are a few (perhaps only one) adjectives that take a postpositional modifier with no preposition. Most adjectives would require a preposition (you are sound of mind, ~ happy with her, etc.), but worth takes a plain modifier. You could say I'm still short a few quid, though the regular order is of course a few quid short; worth might be the only adjective that actually prefers this reverse order unmarked—at least I can't think of any others, except participles and prepositions (we went past the bridge, a girl aged twenty-two). –  Cerberus Mar 11 '11 at 16:55
    
@Henry, re your comment: You can also say why has this painting been in my house and why has this painting been my mother (the latter is syntactically correct though of course semantically, er, unlikely). By your logic, that'd make in my house and my mother adjectival phrases and their heads adjectives. –  msh210 Mar 31 '11 at 21:58

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