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I read this recently in The Economist:

At the end of the summit, the French and European officials had claimed a points victory over the Germans by getting them to agree more firmly to a target date of January 1st next year to entrust the European Central Bank (ECB) with the ultimate authority to supervise the euro zone’s 6,000-odd banks.

"Points" is a plural, and I suppose it doesn't function as a noun in this sentence since it's following the article "a", so is it an adjective adorning "victory"?

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As you see, there are (so far) two answers, and they are both right. It is a noun but it's used as if it were an adjective, so we call it something else. And by the way, your reasoning is very sound; you just didn't know the terms. +1 –  StoneyB Oct 21 '12 at 1:50
You could call points the (noun-) modifier. Though it's a noun itself, that doesn't prevent it from modifying the actual noun in the sentence, which is victory. With the modifier, the sentence's noun (-phrase) is points victory. –  Kris Oct 21 '12 at 4:26

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

When a noun is used this way it is called an attributive noun or noun adjunct.

One big difference between attributive nouns and adjectives is that while an adjective is predicative, i.e., a big dog is big and is a dog, a points victory is not points, but rather it is a victory when using points as the determining factor.

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As DavidSchwartz said, when you say a "points victory", "victory" isn't modified in any way, which is exactly how I feel. If you simply say they "claimed a victory over...", I can understand it, but when a "points" is added, I'm then confused. You can say "a overwhelming victory", because when you use an adjective to modify the word "victory", it makes sense. But in this case using a noun to modify "victory" doesn't make sense to me, and that's why I doubt if it is a modifier at all. Do you really understand what this phrase mean? If so, could you please elaborate it for me? –  zwangxian Oct 22 '12 at 1:56
@zwangxian, yes, points tells what kind of victory was had. The winner of a points victory is declared by comparing the number of points each side has accumulated. This may or may not align with other types of determinations. For example after a boxing match a winner may be declared based on the number of points each boxer was awarded by the judges, but someone just watching the fight may believe that the other guy should have won based on the damage done by his punches. A "points victory" is usually a technical victory only and and is thus not as satisfactory as an out and out victory. –  Jim Oct 22 '12 at 2:47
But there are also non-intersective adjective/noun structures. A heavy smoker is not necessarily heavy, a good dancer may not be good, and a fake diamond is certainly not a diamond that is fake (though there are grounds for reclassifying fake's POS here). A former pupil is no longer a pupil, though 'former' is of course not a noun here. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 2 at 23:50

As I've mentioned in a comment to another post, it's probably fairer to say that "adjective" ~ "noun" form ends of a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive categories.

However, on balance, reasons for saying that "points" is more "noun like" in this case would include:

  • the fact that "points" is marked as plural, whereas e.g. the plural is not possible in "a yellow/*yellows victory"
  • the prosodic difference between "a points victory" vs e.g. "a clear victory"
  • the ungrammaticality of "*the victory was points" vs the grammaticality of "the victory was clear"
  • the ungrammaticality or oddness of "*the score, points victory" vs the grammaticality of "the clear, resounding victory"
  • combined with the observation that canonically "adjective-like" words go before canonically "noun-like" words, the observation that "a clear points victory" is grammatical, whereas "*a points clear victory" is not.

None of these obesrvations on its own would be a "smoking gun", but combined, they suggest that "points" is towards the "nouny" end of the spectrum in this case.

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The first reason stands. / Notice the prosody in this time, it was not a single, but a double victory. / An utter victory v. *the victory was utter; and conversely was that victory knock-out or points?—it was points, but it was good! / ?It was a Napoleonic, Pyrrhic victory; and ?it was a double, clear victory v. it was a clear double victory. / A clear Pyrrhic victory v. *a Pyrrhic clear victory. –  Cerberus Oct 22 '12 at 6:26
In short, I think it is possible to cast doubt on such reasons. The only two that I think stand beyond doubt are 1.) points is normally a noun, as shown in your first example; 2.) it is here used to modify a(nother) noun, which is normally the typical function of adjectives. I think those are the two most important points to consider, and based on that I think points cannot be near either end of the spectrum. You could argue for its being closer to one end than the other, but not a great deal. You could say it is more like an adjective in this sentence, because it modifies a noun here. –  Cerberus Oct 22 '12 at 6:31
I do think you have clearly and cleverly demonstrated that points is not an ordinary adjective here—but, then, neither are many other words that we normally call adjectives. I personally prefer to say that a word can be both noun and adjective rather than that it is in a spectrum, because I think being one does not necessarily detract from being the other as well. Similarly, I feel that a participle is both verb (internally) and adjective (externally), and a girl is both woman and child (not somewhere in a spectrum). But that doesn't really matter. –  Cerberus Oct 22 '12 at 6:41
I agree with much of the above. Where I believe my position differs is that I think you can usefully define a scale (in reality, a set of features) with "canonical nouniness" at one end and "canonical adjectiveness" at the other, and that in this case "points" lies quite heavily towards the "canonical nouniness" end of the scale. –  Neil Coffey Oct 22 '12 at 16:51
It is worth bearing in mind that when we talk about "categories" like noun, verb, adjective etc, in reality what we're probably talking about is words that in the typical case share some canonical set of features. Or put another way, what we actually have is a multi-dimensional scale or spectrum between all of the categories. Or put another way, there aren't really any "categories" at all. –  Neil Coffey Oct 22 '12 at 16:53

No, the noun is not used as an adjective. It's used as a noun. Sequences of nouns can act as a single noun, like "chemistry lab" or "car door".

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"In grammar, a noun adjunct or attributive noun or noun premodifier is an optional noun that modifies another noun, meaning that it can be removed without changing the grammar of the sentence; it is a noun functioning as an adjective." –  Roaring Fish Oct 21 '12 at 6:27
I think that's a simplification to the point of being flat out incorrect. Since this is a function nouns in fact have, they are functioning as a noun when they do it. And it is nothing like what adjectives do. When you say a "points victory", "victory" isn't modified in any way. Instead, the concept of a "points victory" -- a noun in its own right, though one composed of two words -- is invoked. This is not like "green car" means "a car that is also green". A "points victory" is not "a victory that is also points". –  David Schwartz Oct 21 '12 at 6:38
Your argument boils down to 'it is a noun, so when it functions as an adjective that is a noun function, therfore it is functioning as a noun' - a circular argument. It is also a false premise, as 'noun' describes the function, not the word. If it names, it is a noun. If it modifies a noun, it is an adjective. Victory is modified by points. What sort of victory is it? It is a points victory, and distinct from a military victory or a political victory. What sort of car is it? It is a green car, and distinct from a red car or a blue car. –  Roaring Fish Oct 21 '12 at 7:20
"Adjective" is in fact a recent addition to the classical 8 parts of speech. Latin grammarians simply called them nouns (they had the same inflections and agreed the same way as nouns and could be used as nouns freely, as they can in many languages). So relying on definitions of "adjective" is a losing game; they're sometimes attributive (nounlike) and sometimes predicative (verblike). –  John Lawler Oct 21 '12 at 7:21
@RoaringFish: Here, it names. In the phrase "points victory" both "points" and "victory" name the thing referred to, namely a points victory. It is distinct from other victories, but it is also distinct from a blue car, or a points loss. It is nothing like a case where a noun is modified, like a "green car" where the car is modified to be green. A points victory is not a victory that is also points. "Points" works with "victory" to, together, name the specific unified thing referred to, namely a points victory. –  David Schwartz Oct 21 '12 at 7:28

Richard Nordquist, at About Education, supports the belief that there are unresolved difficulties in deciding on whether some usages should be considered examples of 'adjectives' or 'attributive nouns':

• "Webster's New International Dictionary . . . does not call every noun capable of attributive use an adjective but some like cash, land, mind etc. are labelled 'n(oun) often attrib(utive).' However, the distinction between words that are 'n often attrib' and words that are 'adj' is not precise, as the editors themselves claim . . ..

Moreover, even one author may provide different explanations for similar cases. Gove (1964:165), for example, considers the word zero in zero modification an adjective in the light of its attributive and predicative uses, despite the fact that it neither inflects for degree nor admits adverbial modification. However, surprisingly enough, for macaroni salad, apparently similar to the zero modification example, he argues that there appears to be a 'strong feeling' against macaroni as an adjective." (Isabel Balteiro, The Directionality of Conversion in English: A Dia-synchronic Study. Peter Lang AG, 2007)

I'd throw in a plastic spoon and a tantalum rod.

A deeper discussion, including the debate about whether 'gradience' should be accepted as a necessary concept when seeking to allocate POSs to words in given sentences, is given in Pastor Gómez' Nominal Modifiers in Noun Phrase Structure: Evidence from Contemporary English.. I think the views of Denison he quotes are particularly important:

Denison (2001) recognises that diachronically there is a movement of some modifying nouns into the class of adjectives, and that there is thus intersective gradience from noun into adjective by some nouns in modifying position, such as fun and key. In the case of fun, for example, it is used as a modifier in attributive and predicative position (eg a fun home; that new game is fun [to play]). Denison even cites an example with a superlative ending, funnest, pointing out that this is 'a sign of full morphological adjectivehood'....

Denison argues that there is no simple switch from the noun into the adjective category, but rather a series of transitions from one category into the other.'

[Of course, the pure noun fun still exists happily.]

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