If you have a place name such as “The Sierra Nevada Mountains”, does Sierra Nevada act as an adjective? My guess is yes, since they qualify the noun mountains, e.g.: “Which mountains? The Sierra Nevada mountains.” (analogous to “Which dress? The red dress.”)

Likewise for places derived from that such as “The Sierra Nevada Lodge” — does Sierra Nevada act as an adjective there as well?

  • It's a noun compound, like cheese bagel. But that just means a noun acting like an adjective. – John Lawler Jul 25 '15 at 22:11
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    What does “act as an adjective” mean? – tchrist Jul 25 '15 at 23:43
  • Is this a question about word function or parts of speech? I'm confused now. I do like tchrist's answer, though. – michael_timofeev Jul 26 '15 at 0:22

Nouns Modifying Other Nouns

Your question is unclear.

  1. If you are asking whether the noun is modifying another noun, then the answer is yes — but you knew that already or you would not have used the word “qualifying”. Modifying and qualifying are equivalent here.

  2. If the question is whether a noun that modifies another noun thereby becomes an adjective, the answer is no, that does not make it an adjective.

A noun that modifies another noun remains a noun. Nouns can be modified by various sorts of things, and they are not all of them adjectives. Adjectives, however, can only be modified by adverbs.

As Professor Lawler observes, this works just like cheese in cheese sandwich, both of which are still nouns:

  • If cheese were an adjective in cheese sandwich, it would have properties of an adjective like being gradable and accepting adverbs as modifiers.
  • If cheese were a noun in cheese sandwich, it would have properties of a noun like accepting adjectives as modifiers.

Let’s put these to the test. Several, in fact.


Gradability Test

Let’s try inflecting cheese sandwich into the comparative and superlative degrees:

  • I would prefer a *cheeser sandwich.
  • Is that the *cheesest sandwich you have?

Nope: those are both ungrammatical.

Now try it with cheesy, which actually is an adjective:

  • I would prefer a cheesier sandwich.
  • Is that the cheesiest sandwich you have?

Notice those both work.

Adverb Application Test

One modifies adjectives with adverbs. Let’s try a few adverbs with cheese sandwich and see what happens:

  • I’d like a *very cheese sandwich.
  • I’d like a *really cheese sandwich.
  • I’d like an *always cheese sandwich.
  • I’d like a *carefully cheese sandwich.
  • I’d like a *lightly cheese sandwich.

Those all fail. In contrast, those tests work perfectly well with a real adjective:

  • I’d like a very cheesy sandwich.
  • I’d like a really cheesy sandwich.
  • I’d like an always cheesy sandwich.
  • I’d like a carefully cheesy sandwich.
  • I’d like a lightly cheesy sandwich.

Adjective Application Test

If cheese is not an adjective but rather a noun in cheese sandwich, then it should accept adjectives modifying it. Let’s try that:

  • I’d like a moldy cheese sandwich.
  • I’d like a melted cheese sandwich.
  • I’d like a rotten cheese sandwich.

Those work fine, producing sandwiches of moldy, melted, and rotten cheese respectively.

When it isn’t clear which of the two nouns the adjective is supposed to apply to, use a hyphen to clarify:

  • I’d like a rotten-cheese sandwich. (one made of cheese that’s gone off)
  • I’d like a rotten cheese-sandwich. (just a lousy sandwich overall)


Nouns that modify other nouns pass noun tests and fail adjective tests.

Therefore they are nouns, not adjectives.

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    a very full answer for which I commend you. However the question is not "Is the expression an adjective?" it is "Does the expression act as an adjective?" I suggest that, the learned professor's remarks notwithstanding, "cheese" in "cheese sandwich" acts as (i.e. stands in the place of) an adjective. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 25 '15 at 23:36
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    @chaslyfromUK Can you provide a definition for “act as an adjective” which differs from the definition of “is an adjective”? If so, what purpose does it serve? If the definition of “acts as an adjective” is simply “modifies a noun”, then the question reduces to “do nouns that modify nouns modify nouns?”, a nonsensical tautology. Therefore there must be another operative definition here. What is it? – tchrist Jul 25 '15 at 23:39
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    Yep this appears to be the answer. Apparently the term is "noun adjunct", see here: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_adjunct . My confusion was that I thought that anything that modified a noun was an adjective, but this is not the case! – Claudiu Jul 26 '15 at 0:35

In the example you give, the answer is Yes for the reasons you give.

In many cases this is even more noticeable to English speakers, e.g.

The Black Mountains, Wales

The Snowy Mountains, Australia

Incidentally, in Spanish, 'sierra' means 'mountain range so there is a certain amount of redundancy'. Nevertheless you are describing which mountains you mean by prefixing then with a phrase that identifies them uniquely.

I don't think we can generalise for all names.

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    "In the example you give, the answer is Yes." Evidence? – herisson Jul 25 '15 at 22:34
  • @sumelic - Fair question. I've added some justification - how does it look now? – chasly - supports Monica Jul 25 '15 at 22:54
  • That's definitely better. However, as you say, I don't think we can generalize for all names. The Black Mountains or Snowy Mountains are clearly names based off of adjectives. But for "the Sierra Nevada (Mountains)" it might be different. In fact, for me, one difference is that I can use the phrase "the Sierra Nevada" by itself as a noun phrase, while I certainly can't refer to "the Snowy" to mean "the Snowy Mountains." John Lawler and tchrist have provided some arguments for "Sierra Nevada" specifically being a noun rather than an adjective. – herisson Jul 25 '15 at 23:26
  • @sumelic - I take your point. In the case of Sierra Nevada, it actually means Snowy Mountains in Spanish! Therefore it is a special case.. I think SE can only come to a conclusion by voting as it isn't set up for discussion. I'll think about what you say though so thanks. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 25 '15 at 23:40
  • "Adjectives, however, can only be modified by adverbs." How do you explain a bright red apple? Is red a noun there? I don't think so. – phoog Jul 26 '15 at 6:23

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