I’m revisiting/studying about adjectives in “Adjectives” at Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing. First I learn that articles are adjectives, but then there follows a paragraph in which all adjectives in a quote from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel are highlighted.

Interestingly, the first thing I noticed was that the articles were not being highlighted as adjectives. Further reading, the farmer is described as one who comes weekly with printed butter, eggs, and milk but this is also not highlighted as adjective.

More importantly I began to contemplate that when more information is provided about any object, it could be regarded as adjective. For instance along the last lines, there is bakery-oven in the wind and I’m thinking in the wind should also be an adjective, but then that may result to concluding that smell of India in the smell of India tea could also be argued to be an adjective, and I’m feeling like I now have a distorted view of what adjectives really are. Could someone help me out? I’m also looking for best possible exhaustive references for learning about adjectives and other parts of speech. Thanks.

  • I know I got away with asking What exactly is an “adverb”?, but I really think this one is too broad. Apart from anything else, some people would say adjectives are just the particular subclass of adverbs that modify nouns (adverbs certainly modify more than just verbs). But the short answer is that if a word or phrase modifies/qualifies a (pro)noun in a specific context, then in that context it's an adjective or adjectival phrase. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 2:19
  • Short answer: an adjective is a single word which 'modifies"--describes--a noun. Getting much more deeply into it than that will almost certainly violate the requirement that "Your questions should be reasonably scoped.". Many books have been written on this subject. A good starting point for traditional treatment is Chapters 20-23 in this. I invite you to support this projected site for English language learners. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 2:29
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    @FumbleFingers: I think this question is fine and interesting, because of the concrete examples. Don't you like my answer? Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 3:46
  • @Cerberus: Each to their own - if OP's "concrete examples" inspire you then I suppose that's good. I have no idea what bakery-oven in the wind means at all, let alone what grammatical classification it falls into. Your idea that OP's smell of India could be seen as a (hyphenated?) adjectival phrase modifying tea is interesting, but I simply don't believe that's what he meant. I notice you didn't address the even more perplexing problem of OP's printed butter (Give it a go! I'd love to see your take on how "printed" can adjectivally modify "butter"! :) Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 4:05
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    @FumbleFingers and Cerberus, wikipedia has it... Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 4:09

1 Answer 1


As to articles, they are conventionally considered a class of their own; but you could say they are much like demonstrative adjectives/pronouns (this/that/these/those), so they are an unusual kind of pronoun; or you could say they are an unusual kind of adjective, because they do modify nouns and cannot normally function as a noun themselves, just like normal adjectives, and just like demonstrative adjectives/pronouns. But we just call them articles. The boundaries between parts of speech / word classes are not always clear: they are just a human invention to better understand language—not a clear-cut Ding an sich (see Kant).

As to who/that... clauses, we call those relative clauses or attributive clauses. The word attributive usually means "modifying a noun or noun phrase". Relative clauses do modify a noun, but they do not exhibit most of the other properties of adjectives. An adjective is normally:

  • A single word

  • Modifying a noun

  • Normally not used without a noun

  • Normally in front of a noun

However, you could say anything modifying a noun or noun phrase is adjectival. In that sense, a relative clause is certainly adjectival. But I just wouldn't call it an actual adjective.

As to an oven in the wind, this does not seem to satisfy enough of the above criteria, but it is certainly attributive, because it does modify a noun (phrase).

In the case of Smell-of-India tea, I think the correct spelling/rendering is like this; when such a phrase is used in front of a noun, it is conventionally hyphenated and considered an adjective. Unless you didn't mean a tea of the type "Smell of India".

  • I think OP's phrases are nonsense, and that it's a bit pointless trying to deconstruct or assign meaning to them. The rest is all true, I'm sure. But to my mind, the only bit that really answers anything you could reasonably call "the question" is "anything modifying a noun or noun phrase is adjectival". Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 4:28
  • huh? what happened to my comment here earlier? Guess it's not important anymore. thanks for your wonderful contribution @Cerberus. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 13:56

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