2

It's more headache than it's worth.
It's more trouble than it's worth.

Is this "worth" adjective or noun?

I think the adjective "worth" needs an object after it.

However, there is no object of worth in this sentence.

What is the wordclass of this "worth"?

10
  • 1
    "Worth" belongs to the categories noun and adjective: You should assess your net worth (noun) ~ This painting is worth thousands of dollars (adjective). The adjective takes an NP complement. Your example has the adjective form. We know this because it has "it" as predicand.
    – BillJ
    Dec 25, 2022 at 18:18
  • Note that "worth" is one of just four adjectives that can be transitive, i.e. that take a noun phrase complement (the others are "like, "unlike" and due"). Its adjectival status is clear from that fact that it functions predicatively as complement of the verb "be": it is worth thousands of dollars. The evidence that it is an adjective (or a noun) is clear.
    – BillJ
    Dec 26, 2022 at 9:36
  • @BillJ Its adjectival status would be clearer if worth licensed not only predicative use following be but also attributive use preceding its noun: when something is worth your time it’s not a ❌worth your time thing. (Compare how people can be away/afraid/asleep but never ❌away/afraid/asleep people, or the next town can be three miles away yet never a ❌three-mile-away town). This restriction blocks its use in fused modifier-head constructions: toy trains can be worth a pretty penny and beyond your means but you can’t say that the ❌worth a pretty penny are beyond your means.
    – tchrist
    Dec 26, 2022 at 17:25
  • @Ran Are you clear now that "worth" is an adjective in your examples? As I said, this is proven by the fact that "worth" can be PC to the verb "become", which prepositions cannot.
    – BillJ
    Dec 27, 2022 at 13:15

3 Answers 3

2

Seeing this typical question about parts of speech, with its typically confident assertions in reply that X is this part of speech, or that part of speech, reminds me that such questions have no good answers in English, and even if answered confidently, such assertions carry no information beyond the certainty of the asserter.

In English, pretty much any word can be used for any part of speech, and we have not yet been vouchsafed a vision of the true, the blushful, the Real Parts of Speech for English. Though it is fun to argue about them, like dragons and unicorns and DPs and other mythical beasts. Worth is a really good example of where the POS system falls down.

I published a paper many years ago about the meanings and uses of the English words value, worth, price, and cost, which all stem from the same set of contexts. What it says on p.391 about the grammatical category of worth is:

"the categorial status of worth is a matter of some dispute. It has variously been claimed to be a preposition and an adjective (cf Maling 1983 and McCawley 1985). If it is a preposition, then it must have a homophonous derived noun, since phrases like the worth of the book are common enough. On the other hand, if it is an adjective, then it must be transitive, since it has a complement; this is surely unusual -- or even impossible, according to some theories of grammatical categories. I will have nothing to say about the categorial status of worth here, since the matter is irrelevant to its meaning; let it stand that no matter what category worth may belong to, it is an atypical example of the category."


  • Heny, Frank; and Richards, Barry (eds). 1983. Linguistic Categories: Auxiliaries and related puzzles (2 Vols). Dordrech: Reidel.
  • Maling, Joan. 1983. "Transitive adjectives: A case of categorial reanalysis." In Heny and Richards 1983.
  • McCawley, James D. 1985. Review article on Heny and Richards (eds) 1983. In Language, vol 61, pp 849-62.
1
  • 1
    Thank you very much. I understood you to say that it should be understood as one exceptional usage of the word, an idiom.
    – Ran
    Dec 26, 2022 at 0:05
1

The idiomatic phrases are

It's worth the trouble.

and

It's worth the headache.

where what you call objects are in italics.

More trouble than it's worth (and I would add here more headache than it's worth as a synonym] is an idiom which Cambridge defines as

idiom informal (also not worth the trouble)
If something is more trouble than it's worth or is not worth the trouble, it is not important or useful enough to make an effort doing it.

Worth is one of the few transitive adjectives in English. You can find an extended argument that worth belongs to the category of adjectives in CAGEL pp. 607-608.

These transitive adjectives take what Rodney Huddleston calls noun phrase (NP) complements. LanguageLog explains:

English adjectives generally don't take NP complements. The number of exceptions is extraordinarily small: one example is worth (notice how we say worth my time, not *worth of my time). Such exceptional adjectives have long been noted; Fowler comments on worth in his Modern English Usage (1926), and points out that it could be called a transitive adjective. But such adjectives are extremely rare in the dictionary. And yet some new ones appear to have been creeping into the language.

In your two examples, the 2 NP complements are omitted to avoid repetition.

Note: The rest of the adjectives which are intransitive can take complements, but not Noun Phrases complements.

5
  • Thank you. Does the second example statement mean that it is not worth the trouble and is just a trouble?
    – Ran
    Dec 25, 2022 at 16:47
  • The sentence does not contain words with the exact meaning of "is just a trouble", but one could infer that from what is said.
    – fev
    Dec 25, 2022 at 16:51
  • Does the sentence only means that it's not worth the trouble?
    – Ran
    Dec 25, 2022 at 16:53
  • Yes, I think I have just explained that.
    – fev
    Dec 25, 2022 at 16:54
  • Yes; it's an adjective in the OP's example. Importantly, "worth" has "it" as predicand and hence is an adjective, not a noun.
    – BillJ
    Dec 25, 2022 at 18:20
0

Dictionaries mention "worth" as an adjective. (Cambridge, Collins, Longman, Mcmillan, American Heritage)

However, not all are as categorical.

(OALD) worth adjective [not before noun] used like a preposition, followed by a noun, pronoun or number, or by the -ing form of a verb

The SOED, while still considering this word to be an adjective, makes an important distinction.

(SOED) pred. a. (now usu. w. prepositional force)

Merriam-Webster goes all the way and defines "worth" as a preposition.

From a syntactic point of view this is a word that qualifies only with difficulty to only one of the criteria for adjectives; out of the four features it can be said that only the possibility of finding it in predicative use can be considered. It does not qualify nouns in attributive use (a worth thing), premodification by "very" is not possible (very worth) and finally it does not stand the test of comparisons (more worth than, "worthy" does). As to predicative use, there is much that can be said that shows that this also is dubious; the following are not possible, yet correspond to true predicative use.

  • They are wotrh. This machine is worth. It seemed worth.

In my opinion such constructions stem from the oversimplification of longer constructions in which "worth" is the noun, and they have now an idiomatic status in the language.

  • It is of the worth of ten shillings. (most common construction)
  • It is of a worth that compensates the trouble of taking the trip. (figurative)
  • It is of a worth that pays back the trouble of talking to him. (figurative)
  • It is of a worth that pays back the trouble. (figurative)
15
  • "Worth" is not a preposition. "Worth" belongs to the categories noun and adjective: You should assess your net worth (noun) ~ This painting is worth thousands of dollars (adjective). Exceptionally, the adjective takes an NP complement. The OP's example is an adjective because it is predicative in that it relates to a predicand, i.e. "it".
    – BillJ
    Dec 25, 2022 at 18:45
  • @BillJ Your opinion can be taken into account, certainly, but it is indubitable that this word is a problem; on top of the three references in my answer, there is another one that is not negligible; here is what CoGEL says: "[c] The prepositional status of "worth" is confirmed by the fact that it can govern a noun phrase, a nominal -ing clause with a genitive subject, and a nominal relative clause (but not a that-clause or a to-infinittve clause): San Francisco is worth frequent visits/visiting frequently. _The bicycle is not worth what you paid for it.". (1/2)
    – LPH
    Dec 25, 2022 at 19:55
  • @BillJ There is an extremely disturbing fact in this akcnowledgement of the word as an adjective in what would be predicative use: it is meaningless without a completing part, whereas it is never question of such a condition for adjectives (they stand alone). (2/2)
    – LPH
    Dec 25, 2022 at 19:56
  • The adjective "worth" is unusual in that it licenses an NP complement. There are three other adjectives that do that, namely "like, "unlike" and due". Adjectival "worth" also takes gerund-participial (ing) clauses. You really should obtain a copy of CGEL (Huddleston & Pullum). It's vastly superior to any other grammar. As the authors say, it is the specific properties associated with predicative function (it readily combines with "become") that establish that "worth" belongs to the adjective category.
    – BillJ
    Dec 26, 2022 at 14:40
  • @LPH (SOED) classifies worth as an adjective, but states that it is usually used with a preposition.  In the example sentence "It's more headache/trouble than it's worth.", "than it's worth" can be considered a very exceptional true predicate usage of the adjective "value".   An extremely exceptional true predicate usage of the adjective "worth" is one that, like common adjectives, does not require a preposition after "value." And this true predicate usage is not tolerated in general sentences such as "They are worth." but only in idioms, such as the example sentence. Is this correct?
    – Ran
    Dec 26, 2022 at 15:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.