Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

sbj: fathers
        det: our
vrb: brought forth
        obj: nation
                det: a
                adj: new
                adj: *conceived*
                        adv: <in>
                                obj: liberty
                cnj: and
                adj: *dedicated*
                        adv: <to>
                                obj: proposition
                                        det: the
                                        adj: -that-
                                                sbj: men
                                                        det: all
                                                vrb: are created
                                                        cmp: equal
        adv: <on>
                obj: continent
                        det: this
        adv: ...?

I'm working on this but can't wrap my head around the phrase in bold. I know that it's adverbial phrase of time, but what kind of phrase is it exactly? What part of speech is 'ago'? Sources don't seem to agree.

  • 1
    Adjective. Compare: Four score and seven years earlier. Dec 14, 2015 at 22:20
  • 3
    Related: Postpositions in English and ago
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Dec 14, 2015 at 22:21
  • @Kit: I was (trying to) post that link at the same time as you. Which I think is a duplicate, but I've reached my daily closevote limit. Dec 14, 2015 at 22:24
  • You might analyse it as an adverb, because its placement and meaning converge on adverbiality, and similar words are also commonly called adverbs (asunder, away, etc.). However, it is originally a participle, and other words with a similar etymology are also commonly called adjectives (awake). Asunder and away have a different origin, that of prepositional phrases, which are like adverbs. Participles are inherently often used praedicatively, which means "in between adverb and adjective in meaning", but are truly adjectives. So you could argue either way, but I think adjective wins. Dec 14, 2015 at 22:40
  • 1
    It's probably best not to over-analyse. I'd stick with analysing the temporal phrases (in italics) in He was born forty years ago / He will still have his curls ten years from now / It departs in ten minutes as adverbials. Dec 14, 2015 at 22:48

4 Answers 4


"ago" in its current form is a preposition of time, as it describes the relationship between two nouns: the current time and a past event. "Four score and seven years ago" is therefore an adverb prepositional phrase, with the object being the noun phrase "four score and seven years" and the preposition being "ago".

  • 2
    How about 'adverbial postpositional phrase'
    – AmI
    Dec 21, 2015 at 18:35

It is a good question, but the function word "ago" does not fit into one of the traditional word classes. The important thing is to understand that "ago" derives from the past participle "agone", a compound verb of to go meaning to pass.

"ten years ago" was "ten years have gone/agone". So this explains why "ago", which functions like a preposition, is placed after the noun group it is connected to.

There are a lot of terms as to the word class of ago. But they don't explain much. It is necessary to understand the origin of ago.


"Ago" as it is used at present can function as adverb, adjective or preposition.

As adverb: Long ago (modifying adjective)

As adjective : Years ago (qualifying noun)

As preposition : Dinosaurs died out 65
million years ago.(linking a noun phrase)

Though born out of "agone", in its present day usage, 'ago' is more an adverb or preposition than an adjective (in a restricted sense). 'Ago' refers to completed event in the past. Preposition — though the literal meaning may be misleading —are words that precede(mostly)or follow (they are just a handful!) a noun phrase and form adverbials with them. Some prepositions like 'before', 'about' or 'around' can be placed in either position. An example of postposition is AGO

In the phrase FOUR SCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO, 'ago' is a preposition linking the noun phrase 'four score and seven years' to the rest of the sentence. Had it been an adverb, it would not serve this linking function.

So the phrase is prepositional in construction irrespective of the position of " AGO" relative to the compliment,'four ... Years' , and adverbial in function.

  • I just wrote a comment contradicting you on this point, and then I realized you are probably right. I had finished my comment by mentioning cases and how 'ago' is not a case... and then I realized it doesn't seem grammatically to be an adverb so much. So I took the trouble to do some research and refuted myself: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporal_case
    – JMW
    Jun 20, 2021 at 4:41
  • Prepositions, postpositions, adpositions... I'm no modern grammarian. I'm tempted to just call these all 'clitics'. You have phrases like "noun phrases" and you can alter their case using 'adpositions'. Let's just keep it simple. Once you break a phrase into constituent parts you get into murky territory. A 'phrase' - like an NP or a VP can replace a single word in a sentence structure. Easier just to say that these phrases behave like 'words' that happen to have spaces in them. Otherwise you get into 'syntax' and it might be just pointless complexity.
    – JMW
    Jun 20, 2021 at 4:54

I vote adjective as "Four score and seven years" is a noun phrase. Had Lincoln said "Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence eighty-seven years ago...", then I would vote adverb.

  • why would you vote adverb for the second case? "Our fathers brought forth a new nation on this continent four score and seven years ago" or "87 years ago, Jefferson wrote..." Ago will be an adjective in both cases, right?
    – Munir
    Dec 17, 2015 at 4:33
  • But adjectives don't go with noun phrases -- they go with nouns.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 17, 2015 at 4:41
  • @GregLee: But how does the phrase "four score and seven years" function any differently than the phrase "87 years"? Why would the vote not be the same for either case?
    – John Y
    Dec 17, 2015 at 4:46

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