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Serenity Carr, Assistant Editor
Nouns that act like Adjectives
Friday March 5th 2021
Question
Is the word 'garden' an adjective when used in the sentence, "I walked to the garden wall"? — Pamela, Canada
Answer

A noun is a person, place, or thing. An adjective is a word that describes a noun.

In the sentence "There was an ugly duckling" the adjective "ugly" describes or modifies the noun "duckling."

Many nouns can be used to modify other nouns, just like adjectives modify nouns. Look at these noun-noun pairs: wine glass, city street, coat closet, book fair, and business meeting.

In the "garden wall" example, even though 'garden' is modifying 'wall' it is still a noun.

 

But if a noun can do what an adjective does, why don’t we just call it an adjective? Because nouns that modify other nouns can't actually do everything that adjectives do. They are still nouns, but when they modify other nouns we call them attributive nouns. Attributive means "joined directly to a noun in order to describe it."

 

Attributive nouns can't do two things that adjectives can do:

First, most adjectives have comparative (-er/more) and superlative (-est/most) forms.

There was an uglier duckling.

They saw the ugliest duckling.

This duck is rounder than the others.

This is the roundest duck.

But attributive nouns do not have comparative and superlative forms. You can't say "It was a booker fair than the last one" or "It was the most book fair I've ever been to."

 

Second, adjectives can often come after the noun they modify.

The duckling was ugly.

Attributive nouns must come before the noun the modify.

You can say "there was a garden wall" but never "the wall was garden."

 

I hope this helps.

 

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