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In this sentence, does the adjective "warm" modify "tea cup" or just "cup?"

"That is a warm tea cup."

If the adjective "warm" from the previous example modifies "tea cup" then would "warm" modify the entire phrase "cup of tea" in this sentence?

"This is a warm cup of tea."

In this sentence, does "nicest" modify "mean person" or just "person?"

"You are the nicest mean person I have ever met."

  • Yes, "warm" modifies "cup of tea". Same applies to “a warm tea cup” -- there are two layers of modification: first “tea” modifies “cup” to form the nominal “tea cup”, and this in turn is modified by “warm” to give the meaning “a cup that is warm by the standards applicable to tea cups”. And the same applies to "nicest mean person": first "mean" modifies "person" to form the nominal "mean person", and this in turn is modified by "nicest" to give the meaning “nicest of mean persons”. – BillJ Sep 13 '17 at 7:40
  • Mike, how long has the tea been in the cup, please? If it's only just been poured then it'll be a cup of warm tea. If they've had time to equalize their temperatures then really should be a warm cup of warm tea but no-one would ever say that. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 15 '17 at 0:36
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Technically, "warm" modifies "cup." But it's interesting to note that English does have the concept of a compound noun. This means that "tea cup" can be considered a compound noun and, therefore, "warm" modifies "tea cup." The same would be true for "mean person," but it's usually easier to simply separate all the adjectives and nouns.

This becomes more obvious using the example, "cup of tea." Due to the function word "of," "tea" is the adjective modifying "cup." The third definition of "of" from Merriam-Webster states:

["of" is] used as a function word to indicate the component material, parts, or elements or the contents • throne of gold • cup of water

Thus, "warm" is still modifying "cup" in the phrase "a warm cup of tea."

  • Actually, in the noun phrase "cup of tea", the word "tea" is a noun functioning as complement (object) of the preposition "of". The preposition phrase "of tea" then functions as complement of "cup". – BillJ Sep 13 '17 at 6:18

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