This question, which I first posed on the ELL site a few weeks ago, remains effectively unanswered. Although there an answer did finally get posted, it seemed to be more of a parody of an answer than a real one, to me at least.

So here goes; please consider this sentence:

I can barely see a foot in front of me in this fog.

As a standalone sentence, it can’t be the answer to a question starting with “What can you...” because “a foot” is here a unit of the length of vision, and so a question it may be the answer to might be “How far can you see in this fog?"

Would I be right saying that *barely° in this sentence modifies can whereas a foot modifies to see? If so, does it mean that it plays the role of an adverb? But can a noun be an adverb? If so, what type of adverb is it in that sentence?

P.S. There’s a related post on the ELL site dealing with the role of a foot in a sentence, but it doesn’t seem to answer my question.

  • 1
    One easy way to test is to try to replace it with something you know is definitely an adverb, like actually or often. How would you say that works? Jun 23, 2018 at 19:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet-- I'm not asking about "bearly" but about "a foot", Jun 23, 2018 at 20:00
  • 1
    Yes, I realise that. But if it were functioning as an adverb, you should be able to exchange it for an adverb and still have a grammatical sentence. Jun 23, 2018 at 20:03
  • I'll alter the example slightly: 'I can't see a foot in front of me' essentially has the same broad form as 'I can't see well' or 'I can't see to the other side of the river' (assuming 'a foot' isn't the kind usually found attached to a leg). Everything after 'see' in these examples shows the restriction on your seeing, and is thus an adverbial. Some call 'a mile' say in 'He walked a mile' an adverbial objective. Jun 23, 2018 at 21:11
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    If you aren't actually asking "Can a noun be an adverb?" then you should clarify your question so it doesn't sound like that is what you're asking. Jun 23, 2018 at 22:16

3 Answers 3


I can barely see a foot in front of me in this fog.

A foot here in English means a single foot, one foot. One foot is a distance. The determiner a is often used in lieu of one.

Barely is an adverb, other adverbs would work here:

I can almost see a foot in front of me in this fog. [substitutions] I can hardly see a foot in front of me in this fog.

Almost, hardly and barely all qualify how the subject I in the sentence can see. Therefore, they are adverbs. These adverbs are often pre-positioned, unlike well which is often post-positioned.

To see a foot is a perception of distance. A measurement of distance. To perceive a distance. See is perceive (Merriam Webster).

Here is a scientific example of this usage:

Because both the incident fast neutrons and the emerging /spl gamma/s penetrate fairly effectively, it ought to be possible to see some distance into the ground.

Substitution for purposes of like structure: to see ten feet into the ground may be substituted in the text above. The seeing (perceiving) action is being performed by a detector.

The verb see means to perceive "with sight" and is transitive here. foot and distance are its complements in the preceding examples. [direct object complement of the verb see]

Ergo, foot is not an adverb or adverbial. One is hard pressed, furthermore, to see it as adverbial given the presence of barely in front of the verb to see.

to see a foot=to perceive a distance of one foot

The OP's sentence is the same as: I can barely perceive a distance of one foot in front of me in this fog.

Answer to question: No, the noun foot cannot be a adverb.

see some distance


Short Answer

Foot is a noun here, not an adverb:

  1. I can barely see a foot in front of me in this fog.

So the direct answer to your main question of “Can a noun be an adverb?” is no, because a word cannot ever be both a noun and also an adverb — at the same time.

We know it’s a noun because it takes an article: a foot, meaning one foot. You cannot do that with adverbs. Adverbs can take very, but you could not say that you can barely see *very foot in front of you. That’s ungrammatical because foot is not an adverb. It’s a noun.

Longer Answer

But at different times? Sure! It’s perfectly normal for the same-spelt word to serve as a different part of speech in one sentence than in other, dissimilar sentences. For example, fast can be a noun or a verb or an adjective or an adverb — provided these are in four different sentences.

Although quite honestly, I can't imagine a scenario under which foot could ever be an adverb. It’s almost always a noun, at least until it comes time for you to foot the bill.

However, that’s not what’s happening in your sentence. In the same way that the to in to foot tells you that the word foot is probably being used as a verb in my footing-the-bill sentence, the words around foot in your sentence give away that it must be a noun.

In particular, you know that foot is definitely a noun because it’s the head of the noun phrase (hereafter abbreviated NP) “a foot in front of me”. That NP begins with the indefinite article a in the NP’s determiner slot.

Syntactically, the NP “a foot in front of me” is composed of the same sorts of components as in the NP “a hand in front of me” or “a wire in front of me”. Imagine this sentence:

The fog was so thick that I couldn't see a branch in front of me until it smacked me in the face.

In both

  • see a foot in front of me
  • see a branch in front of me

You have a noun phrase with an article, the head noun, and a prepositional phrase further describing that noun.

But in the branch case, that NP is serving the grammatical role of being the verb see’s direct object. As you correctly observed, that’s not what’s happening in your own sentence: nobody is seeing a foot. The grammatical role of your NP is instead adverbial. It says where you could barely see, not what you could barely see.

When the NP is acting as a verb’s direct object, it is not “modifying” that verb. A verb’s arguments (such as its subject or its various objects) are not considered to be “modifiers” of that verb. They’re just arguments, not modifiers.

With the sentence that has the NP *“a branch in front of me”, if you exchange that whole NP with the pronoun him, you still have an NP acting as the verb’s direct object:

  1. I could barely see a branch in front of me in the fog.
  2. I could barely see him standing right in front of me in the fog.

That's because the overall syntactic role of the NP has not changed, even though him is a different part of speech than branch is. Neither of those is “modifying” the verb; they are not acting adverbially. They’re just serving as the direct object, as an argument.

But your NP is not the verb’s direct object. Instead it is being used to describe the verb just as any other adverbial expression might. Here are several syntactically equivalent examples:

  1. I couldn’t see a foot in front of me in the fog.
  2. I couldn’t see very far in the fog.
  3. I couldn’t see clearly in the fog.
  4. I couldn’t see well in the fog.

Each constituent (that is, each sentence element) there which I’ve marked in bold is syntactically equivalent — because each of those four is an adverbial use. That is not the same thing as saying that each one is an adverb!

Parts of speech apply only to single words, never to longer phrases. So you can’t say that very far “is” an adverb. It isn't. It's an adverbial phrase. Here in very far, far actually is an adverb, but in a a foot, the word foot is just a noun. If it were an adverb, it would forbid determiners like a and accept the adverb very as a modifier, but it does not.

Here’s another example:

  1. He called me often.
  2. He called me quickly.
  3. He called me the first Friday of every month.

Although often and quickly are adverbs, the NP “the first Friday of every month” certainly is not. But we can use that NP as an adverbial modifer of the verb call.

It’s important not to confuse syntactic roles with parts of speech. You have to look at the larger grammar of the sentence to see that entire multiword phrases can act as interchangeable syntactic constituents just as much as a single word can be such. The Wikpedia article on Adverbials says:

In English, adverbials most commonly take the form of adverbs, adverb phrases, temporal noun phrases or prepositional phrases. Many types of adverbials (for instance: reason and condition) are often expressed by clauses.

  • James answered immediately. (adverb)
  • James answered in English. (prepositional phrase)
  • James answered this morning. (noun phrase)
  • James answered in English because he had a foreign visitor. (adverbial clause)

An adverbial is a construction which modifies or describes verbs. When an adverbial modifies a verb, it changes the meaning of that verb. Word groups, which are also considered to be adverbials, can also modify verbs: for example, a prepositional phrase, a noun phrase, a finite clause or a non-finite clause.

There are no adverbs in the NP this morning, only a demonstrative and a noun, but the entire phrase is still being used as an adverbial syntactic constituent just as much as the adverb immediately was.

This is the same class of confusion as we see when people mistakenly call gerunds “nouns”:

  1. Giving me a ride home saved my life that day.
  2. Friends saved my life that day.
  3. She saved my life that day.
  4. How and when I left saved my life that day.

There you see various different types of NPs, each acting as the subject of the verb saved. Sure, friends is a noun, but she is a pronoun not a noun — and giving is a verb not a noun. That doesn’t mean those NPs can’t all be subjects. They can and are. They just aren’t all nouns is all.

Same with you and adverbs versus adverbials.

Just like how the NP “giving me a ride” is not an actual noun, your NP of “a foot in front of me” is not an actual adverb. That doesn't stop them from serving as syntactic constituents in grammatical roles that in other sentences could be filled by a single word of the appropropriate part of speech. They’re always still noun phrases, not nouns or adverbs.

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    You had me going there. But now, after some deep thought, ... Jun 25, 2018 at 0:15
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    ... I think that a foot in front of me is actually a preposition phrase (if you agree that in front is a compound preposition/PP). The NP a foot is behaving like a modifier of that PP. Consider I couldn't see in front of me / I couldn't see far in front of me / I couldn't see two inches in front of me. It's very common for measure NPs to function as modifiers within PPs: two years after the war / three feet beyond the wire / miles above the earth etc. I don't know if I've persuaded you. Tons of useful and helpful grammar info in this post. (+1, but I' sure it's a PP) Jun 25, 2018 at 0:22
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    Btw, Long Answer, para 3, give away perhaps? (instead of give way) [Or maybe that's a pond thing ...] Jun 25, 2018 at 0:22
  • @Araucaria Yes thanks, it’s give away; we always say yield here for “give way”. :) If you see something coming a mile away, do you think there’s a preposition there somewhere?
    – tchrist
    Jun 25, 2018 at 0:34
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    I don't buy the adverbial syntactic constituent at all. And I don't understand why everyone is so keen to make it adverbial.
    – Lambie
    Jun 25, 2018 at 13:49

NP stands for noun phrase
PP stands for prepositional phrase

I can barely see [a foot], [in front of me], [in this fog.]

  • [A foot] is a NP

  • [In front of me] is a PP with a special type of NP compliment called the oblique genitive NP compliment

Referenced from Chapter 5: Nouns and Noun phrases of CaGEL: Head and phrasal genitives

This PP has a special type of complement called the genitive NP. front of me is an oblique genitive noun phrase, where the head genitive is realised as the pronoun me. And the phrasal genitive for me is me's.


a) [my] facial expression - genitive NP

b) [the man opposite me’s] facial expression - phrasal genitive

In the head genitive construction (a) the pronoun is realised as my, but in the phrasal genitive me’s in (b).

pg 479-480


ib [the man opposite me’s] facial expression

iia [my friend’s] father

iib [a friend of mine’s] father

In (iia) and (iib), we have 2 genitives: in (iia) one is again realised as my and the other as friend’s, whereas in (iib) they combine in the single word mine’s. Both me’s and mine’s thus have double-case marking, an inner case and an outer case. In me’s the inner case is accusative, required because pronoun is object of the preposition opposite, while in (iib) the inner case is genitive because the pronoun is functioning in the oblique genitive construction. The phrasal genitive is the outer case, morphologically added to the form that realise the inner case. In examples like [the King of England’s] daughter, the inner case of England is the plain case, which has no morphological marking, but the principle is the same: the outer genitive is added to form required by England within the inner NP “the king of England”.

pg 479-480

I can barely see [in front of me] is oblique because the pronoun “me” can be the object of either the verb (see?) or a preposition (of). English does not have distinct prepositional forms of pronouns. The same set of object pronouns are used after verbs and prepositions (e.g. watch him, look at him). However "of me" is a non-core complement indirectly related to the verb (see) through the preposition "of". "Of me" is a complement of see, but the NP me is an oblique.

Wikipedia defines oblique case as:

(aka. objective case) a nominal case that is used when a noun phrase is the object of either a verb or a preposition

An objective case is marked on the English personal pronouns and as such serves the role of the accusative and dative cases that other Indo-European languages employ. These forms are often called object pronouns, and as serve a variety of grammatical functions which they would not in the languages that differentiate the two; an example using first person singular objective pronoun me:

as the object of a preposition (except in possessives) :

? That picture of me was blurry.

? (cf. That picture of mine was blurry.)

Of me is oblique because object pronouns such as me in English does not have distinct prepositional forms of pronouns. The same set of object pronouns are used after verbs and prepositions.

While “me” can either be an object of preposition with “of me” as a separate PP in “In front of me”


“of me” as an internal dependent/“adjective” in pre-head position of a "foot in front of me"—a word in the pre-head position are traditionally called attributive. CaGEL does not make this clear on page 439—whether it is a complement or modifier.

  • [In this fog] is a PP with a NP compliment

Note that a PP can have a NP complement and a NP can have a PP as complement as claimed by BillJ:

1) I’m looking for my glasses - PP with a NP as complement

2) Where’s the key to the safe? - NP with PP as complement

But PP's do not work as NP's; they are a separate and distinct phrasal category with their own functions.

Source: noun phrases vs. prepositional phrases

To answer your question:

  • Barely is an adverb
  • 'Foot' by itself is a noun (and even if it were a modifier/complement it would only function as an "adjective"). Because of this, function and lexical categories are not the same. Therefore, the lexical category of 'foot' is a noun. Whether it functions as an adverb is debatable and further complicated by the presence of an oblique genitive NP.
  • In terms of categories, 'foot' is not an adverb as it does not have an adjectival base nor can it be suffixed with an -ly ending.
  • 'Foot' could be an an internal dependent (compliment or modifier) in a larger NP “a foot in front of me” which has a PP as compliment: “in this fog”.
  • If above is correct, "of me" is the object to "a foot" in the larger NP "a foot in front of me"; while the object of "see" in "I can barely see" is "in this fog".
  • The verb see could be an oblique ditransitive verb, which takes 2 objects. See’s 2 objects could be “foot” or “fog". More on this concept can be found here.
  • The lexical category noun can never be the lexical category adverb
  • The sentence is just really long.
  • 1
    Not everyone is familiar with abbreviation jargon that is used by linguists and experts. PP and NP need only be written in full the first time then people can figure the rest for themselves. I mean, PP can also stand for Present Participle, Present Perfect, Past Perfect, or Prepositional Phrase.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 25, 2018 at 6:59
  • @Mari-LouA I'll make this clearer.
    – aesking
    Jun 25, 2018 at 11:41

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