This stems from a discussion over on ELL which has moved beyond being useful to second-language learners. In short, consider the sentence:

It weighs about 5 pounds.

What part of speech is "about?"

Since the verb "weigh" is not having any effect on the "about five pounds," I think it must be intransitive. That leaves the "about five pounds" as a long adverbial phrase, modifying the verb, right?

If that is correct, then isn't "about" an adverb modifying the adverbial noun "pounds?"

Would the answer hold true if we were talking about the price tag on something?:

This shirt costs about 5 pounds.

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    And so the question is mis-titled. It is only about the function of "about". It has nothing to do with whether the verb is intransitive. – Brian Hitchcock May 20 '15 at 6:44
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    "about" modifies "5", not "pounds". – a better oliver May 20 '15 at 8:51
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    You need a sandwich if you weigh about 5 lb. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 20 '15 at 9:06
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    The verb weigh doesn't take an object, but it does take a complement, usually a measure phrase. The noun phrase about ten pounds is the complement of the verb weigh here. The head of this noun phrase is the word pounds. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 20 '15 at 14:25
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    @zeroflagL: No, about modifies the whole measure phrase 5 lbs, not just the number 5. As Edwin points out, this is a quantifier which modifies a measure phrase. It indicates that the measure is approximate, not exact. It's not a preposition in this construction. – John Lawler May 20 '15 at 15:50

Traditionally, words modifying just about anything other than a noun phrase were lumped into the default category: adverbs.

Here, a more analytical approach is to label about as a quantifier modifier, which is obviously its function (if one is in the 'numbers are quantifiers' camp. Those who define numbers as being different from quantifiers on the grounds of precision will find a difficulty with this.)

Collins certainly recognises numbers used before noun phrases as determiners:




6. a. amounting to seventy: the seventy varieties of fabric.

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    Words that modify nouns are adjectives. Adjectives don't modify noun phrases. "He saw a probable UFO"/"He saw probably a UFO". – Greg Lee May 20 '15 at 16:27
  • British Council_Learn English: 'Noun Phrases : Often a noun phrase is just a noun or a pronoun.' Adjectives do modify noun phrases. I didn't claim that they modified all noun phrases. – Edwin Ashworth May 20 '15 at 21:24
  • Often a noun phrase may consist of just a noun or a pronoun, but that doesn't mean it is just a noun or a pronoun. For instance, when an adjective modifies the noun of a noun phrase subject, e.g., "Old hats are tough", even though "Hats are tough" is possible, with a one word subject, the "old" doesn't modify the noun phrase subject, it's inside the noun phrase subject, and within that subject, it modifies the noun "hats". Not the noun phrase. The noun. Adjectives never modify noun phrases. – Greg Lee May 20 '15 at 23:11
  • I'd argue that refreshing in a refreshing cup of coffee is modifying other than the head noun. – Edwin Ashworth May 21 '15 at 13:53
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    yes, I think you're right about "a refreshing cup of coffee". Following McCawley, "refreshing" modifies the N' "cup of coffee", and in turn, that N' consists of the noun "cup" with its complement "of coffee". I usually conflate noun and N' (N-bar) in these discussions, because most people don't know about N', I don't believe in them 100%, and it complicates discussions. But the structure for your example is [NP a [N' refreshing [N' [N cup] of coffee ] ] ]. N' can be replaced by "one", as in "You'd like an old stale cup of coffee, but I'd prefer a refreshing one." – Greg Lee May 21 '15 at 14:57

In short, yes, about is an adverb here. It means approximately, and is used correctly in both your examples.

EDIT: When I say adverb, I mean it modifies the adjective five, not the verb weigh. In English, adverbs can modify not only verbs, but also adjectives and other adverbs. This Oxford entry confirms that it is an adverb indeed.

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    Is it an adverb or adjective? It means approximately. Consider She walked about four miles. It seems to me to be qualifying the noun miles rather than the verb walked. – WS2 May 20 '15 at 7:36
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    @WS2 You wouldn't say "She walked about miles", would you? "About" modifies "four" in this case. – a better oliver May 20 '15 at 8:50
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    @WS2 "Dark" is an adjective because it modifies "red pullover" (so effectively pullover). Or it could be part of the expression "dark red". Mind the difference between "a particular hard task" and "a particularly hard task", or "a bare minimum" and "a barely sufficient minimum". Are "hard" and "sufficient" modified by an adverb or an adjective? – a better oliver May 20 '15 at 10:51
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    In English adverbs can modify just about any part of speech apart from co-ordinating conjunctions. Btw, dictionaries are rubbish at parts of speech! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 20 '15 at 14:20
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    "post-verb noun groups such as appear in 'it weighed a ton'; ... 'the piano seemed an antique' should not be considered objects but are best regarded as belonging to a slightly different category". See the 'Give it me! Write me!' thread. Be aware that 'complement' is used as a generalisation. – Edwin Ashworth May 20 '15 at 21:46

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