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Today I was diagramming a sentence when I noticed something that confused me. I had a sentence that was basically like this:

A parent's greatest concern is rearing his children correctly.

"Concern" is obviously the noun there, with "parent's" and "greatest" as adjectives modifying it, but what is "a"? It's an article which I thought were always adjectives, but it looks like it's modifying "parent's", which would have to make it an adverb since you can't stack adjectives, right?

What is it? Can articles be adverbs if they're modifying possessive adjectives? Do you just stack adjectives for some reason? Does it somehow modify the subject "concern" for some reason?

  • It's an adjective modifying concern; the base sentence is "A ... concern is rearing his children correctly.", modified by then adding the adjectives "parent's greatest" in place of the ellipsis. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 3:06
  • @PieterGeerkens: But what if you said "Some parents' greatest concern..."? – Ullallulloo Oct 4 '13 at 3:10
  • Then it is an adjective in the noun phrase "Some parents'" which is in apposition to the base noun concern. See: edufind.com/english/englishtests/… – Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 3:14
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    Articles are articles, no matter where they are. What's the problem? – John Lawler Oct 4 '13 at 4:47
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    Why can't you stack adjectives? My green apple. A big red car. – iterums Oct 4 '13 at 7:26
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A does not modify concern. "A parent's greatest concern" means "The greatest concern of any parent". The A is the determiner signifying a general parent.

Iterums' comment on the question is relevant: it's perfectly possible to have more than one adjective. However, although determiners can be classed as adjectives, "modern theorists of grammar prefer to distinguish determiners as a separate word class from adjectives, which are simple modifiers of nouns, expressing attributes of the thing referred to." (Wikipedia)

A determiner does not express an attribute of the thing referred to. It "serves to express the reference of that noun or noun phrase in the context. That is, a determiner may indicate whether the noun is referring to a definite or indefinite element of a class, to a closer or more distant element, to an element belonging to a specified person or thing, to a particular number or quantity, etc." (Ibid.)

  • Very true. The reason for this discrepancy is discussed in the Wikipedia article on possessive adjectives... (better, possessive determiners) – iterums Oct 4 '13 at 8:40
  • This particular indefinite noun phrase a parent is a generic NP, expressing a defining trait of parenthood. Of course, not all indefinite NPs are generic NPs. But it's certainly true that English articles are not adjectives, and that "modifies a noun" is not the definition of "adjective". – John Lawler Oct 4 '13 at 16:20

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