The shop is five minutes away.

According to the dictionary, away is an adverb. An adverb modifies a verb. In the above example, what word does away modify? Why is away not an adjective?

The shop is five meters tall.

tall is an adjective in the second example. It modifies five meters (does it?). So why is away an adverb?

  • 1
    Are you sure that away cannot be an adjective? Dec 20 '13 at 12:22
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    @Kris that use of away as an adjective (i.e. "away game") is very different to the use in "five minutes away". Dec 20 '13 at 13:19
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    "Tall" modifies "shop" in the second example. Better put, "five meters tall" modifies "shop".
    – tylerharms
    Dec 20 '13 at 14:10
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    I'm seeing it differently: "away" refers to is..."is away". How far away? "About 5 minutes" away. Dec 20 '13 at 14:29
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    @Vilmar: J Lawler says: 'Executive Summary: Calling something an "adverb" is a confession of ignorance.' I go with treatments reserving the term for 'something that modifies a verb - tells us more detail about the action / process described by the verb' (so no adjective- or adverb- modifiers and no 'sentence adverbials'). Even then there are grey areas. Dec 20 '13 at 17:36

Sometimes away can be an adjective.

The OED has an adjectival sense for away in its sense 11a:

11 a. Of the position attained by removal in place: In another place; at a distance; at (a stated) distance, off. spec. In reference to games or matches played away from the home ground. Hence as adj.; also as quasi-sb., a win away from home.

On of whose provided citations is quite similar to your own example:

  • 1881 Blackmore Christowell xxxix, — His home was some miles away.

Then again, you can find people these days who will try to convince you that something like ago is not an adverb but a postposition. If you’re on their side, then I see no difference between “five minutes ago” and “five minutes away”. I’m pretty sure that whatever they are, ago and away are doing the same job in those two phrases.

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    This is GR; the word is listed in dictionaries as an adjective as well. The Q is based on insufficient research.
    – Kris
    Dec 20 '13 at 13:08
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    @Kris And that merits a downvote precisely why?
    – tchrist
    Dec 20 '13 at 13:11
  • repeating my comment @Matt My point was about the title and about Why is away not an adjective? in the body.
    – Kris
    Dec 20 '13 at 13:40
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    I've also voted to close the question as GR.
    – Kris
    Dec 20 '13 at 13:41

"Five minutes [' journey] away" is a deictic locative predicate, as John Lawler argues. I'm not sure how proximal – possibly distal.

The implication (see his answer) is that insisting on using 'adjective' or 'adverb' (or 'preposition. . .') labels out of the bag-of-eight for all words in this type of construction is doomed.

'. . . is here / five miles away / five minutes away'

seems to rule out adverbial classification for such constructions, while

' . . . lies/stands here / five miles away / five minutes away'

seems to require it.

However, the deictic tie-in is not typical of either adverbials or adjectivals.

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    It's a quantified predicate, with a TIME is MOTION metaphor thrown in for good measure. I.e, It's 10 minutes away is normal, but not *It's away. Any directional predicate can be quantified this way, implying human motion. I.e, It's a few miles/minutes/a short/long drive away/from here/to the store. Etc. Dec 20 '13 at 20:04

'Away' is an adverb because it is modifying 'five minutes'. 'Five minutes away' is clearly different from 'five minutes old' and you couldn't simply write 'The shop is five minutes'.

How about this one? "They rode away". Adverb again, I would say.


Away is definitely not an adjective because you will never say
"*The away man" or some other such thing.

It also can't be an adverb modifying the verb in this example because adverbs don't come after "to be" "*The building is greatly"

SO it is either a preposition or an adverb modifying a prepositional phrase, I don't have the time to completely figure it out but I'll leave my data for everyone else to work with.

I'm going to modify your examples so they're more similar if that's alright with you:
"The building is ten feet tall"
"The building is ten feet away"

Let's see what we can do here.

"The ten feet tall building is brown"
"*The ten feet away building is brown"

"*The building ten feet tall is brown"
"The building ten feet away is brown"

Weird! Seems like "away" and "tall" behave differently in different contexts. WHAT ELSE?!

"The building is ten feet into the alley"
"*The ten feet into the alley building is brown"
"The building ten feet into the alley is brown"

Now we're onto something!

"There is a building ten feet into the alley"
"There is a building ten feet away (from right here)"
"*There is a building ten feet tall"

It would appear that in this usage, "away" is an abbreviation of "away from (something)". Furthermore, it seems that when you don't say "from X", the X is automatically defined as "the origin of the speaker" whereas:

"There is a building five minutes away from my office"
"There is a building ten feet away from the mall"

Without the parenthesis, "from right here" is the implication.

Now that's all pretty soft evidence. But now check this out:
"The shop is ten feet away (from the store)"
"The shop is ten feet past the store"
"*The shop is ten feet past"

While 'away' implies the rest of the prepositional phrase and so does not require it, 'past' does not, yet functions the same:

"The shop ten feet past my house"
"There is a shop ten feet past my house"
"*The ten feet past my house shop"

Past is certainly a preposition:
"I walk past the store every day"

But of course, "away" precedes a preposition. Prepositions sometimes come two in a row, but rarely. It can precede other prepositions as well:

"I wanted to get away with it"
"I went away to the Bahamas"

In fact, I can't think of a single instance in which "away" exists entirely by itself without implying another prepositional phrase!

HOWEVER I also can't think of any other adverbs that modify prepositions. (EDIT: This is clearly super wrong! Really eatin my apples for this one. I hope I get a chance to come back and rethink it.)

SO in conclusion, away is a very complicated potentially preposition.

Hope that helps!

  • 5
    You would never say the asleep man, the alike men, the alone man or the alive man, either. But those are all adjectives. Some adjectives can only be used predicatively; search for alone in this webpage. Dec 20 '13 at 14:36
  • But the downvote isn't Peter's. Dec 20 '13 at 15:05
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    Not my downvote either, but you can certainly win an away game, even though you're actually more likely to win a home game. Dec 20 '13 at 15:28
  • You should just throw your fourth-to-last sentence away. Dec 20 '13 at 16:06
  • An away game is an "away from home game", my friend. What else could it be? Like I said, the following preposition is implied, this would be an implication. "These men are alike" implies "each other" "These men are alive" implies nothing "These men are alone" implies nothing BUT you're right. The subject test isn't sufficient to prove something isn't an adjective. So that would be my mistake.
    – McGurk
    Dec 20 '13 at 23:39

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