While I doubt an adjective can modify another one, I'm wondering if it may be possible. Here is the example: "An immaculate black three-piece suit." Most likely, I'd have to use the adverb immaculately to modify black, but I could be wrong. What syntactic parses are possible for “an immaculate black three-piece suit”?

(Also, if someone has an answer as to why bright in “a bright red car” is grammatical, I’m all ears. Bright is an adjective meaning—in that context—vivid and bold [as Oxford defines it], yet it is modifying a second adjective: the color red. Is bright, or any other word describing color, like light in light red, the only adjective that can get away with this?)


Let's say the noun Joe wants to describe is the paper he just wrote. It has more pages than the average, so one adjective is long. We want to modify the way "long" describes the "paper", so we look for some words to make the modification.

Do we want an adjective? No, because "long" is not a noun, though it can be made a noun when you change it to "length". Rather, it is doing something to the word "paper" by describing it, so if we want to modify the description, we need to add an adverb.

For example, if we want to clarify that it is not necessarily among all papers that Joe's is regarded long, but only among this topic, then we might say "Joe wrote a relatively long paper".

  • But there's nothing wrong with "Joe wrote a long paper." Paper is a noun modified by the adjective long. – user305707 Aug 20 '18 at 23:16
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    Right, because "a" does not refer to "long" but to "paper". Since "long" is doing something to the word "paper", the way it's doing that is modified by an adverb. – Post169 Aug 20 '18 at 23:21
  • Sir, "long" isn't doing anything to the noun "paper." It is simply describing what type of paper paper is. – user305707 Aug 20 '18 at 23:23
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    And "describing" is a verb. – Post169 Aug 20 '18 at 23:24
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    "The" refers to "paper", which is a noun and described by an adjective, "long". Because "long" is doing the action of describing "paper" in this sentence, it is effectively a verb, and is thus described by an adverb, "relatively". – Post169 Aug 20 '18 at 23:54

an immaculate black three-piece suit

The absence of punctuation marks this as the 'stacking' of modifiers. Here there are two layers of modification: "three-piece suit" is first modified by "black" to form the nominal "black three-piece suit", and this in turn is modified by "immaculate" to give the interpretation "three-piece suit that is immaculate by the standards applicable to black ones".

By contrast, if a comma is inserted to give

an immaculate, black three-piece suit

then things are somewhat different. Here, "three-piece suit" is modified by a coordination of adjectives, giving the meaning "three-piece suit that is both immaculate and black".

Note: for clarity, I've ignored the compound adjective "three-piece", which is also a modifier.

  • The reason I did not punctuate with a comma is because an and would be inappropriate here. You do not say “an immaculate AND black three-piece suit.” From GMEU: ”When two adjectives modifying the same noun are related in sense, they should be separated by a comma (or else and). So we say a big, sprawling house and a poignant, uplifting film. But when the consecutive adjectives are unrelated, there shouldn’t be a comma—hence a big white house and a poignant foreign film.” Here is something further from GMEU: “If you could use and between the adjectives, you’ll need a comma...” – user305707 Aug 21 '18 at 14:32
  • Immaculate and black are unrelated in sense and therefore aren’t coordinate. – user305707 Aug 21 '18 at 14:49

An adjective doesn't modify another adjective. In the case of the

immaculate black three-piece suit

"Immaculate" can only modify the noun "suit".

In the case of

bright red car

There are two ways to parse this. The first is that "bright" modifies the noun "car" directly. The car is both red and bright.

The second (and more usual) way to parse this is to treat "bright red" as one single modifier. The noun is modified by one colour adjective, and that color is "bright red"

Neither of these involve an adjective modifying an adjective.

The reason why we have color terms like "bright red" is because color terms like "red" can take the grammatical role of a noun ("use red with green to make a Christmas theme"), and therefore we can modify them with adjectives. Then we can take the result and use the compound whole as an adjective.

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