What Is an Adjective Phrase? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives
The Quick Answer
What is an adjective phrase?

An adjective phrase is a group of words headed by an adjective that modifies a noun.

Example:
  • She had extremely menacing eyes.
  • (In this example, the adjective phrase is highlighted and the head adjective is in bold. This adjective phrase modifies the noun "eyes.")

Adjective Phrase

An adjective phrase is a group of words headed by an adjective that describes a noun or a pronoun.

Easy Examples of Adjective Phrases

In each example below, the adjective phrase is shaded and the head adjective is bold.
  • She had extremely blue eyes.
  • (This adjective phrase describes the noun eyes. The adjective "blue" heads the adjective phrase.)
  • She wore very expensive shoes.
  • (This adjective phrase describes (or "modifies" as grammarians say) the noun "shoes." The adjective "expensive" heads the adjective phrase.)
  • Sarah was hostile towards me.
  • (This adjective phrase modifies the noun "Sarah." The adjective "hostile" heads the adjective phrase. Like a normal adjective, an adjective phrase can be used before the noun it's modifying (as in the first two examples) or afterwards (as here).)
adjective phrase

Real-Life Examples of Adjective Phrases

Here are some real-life examples of adjective phrases (with the head adjectives in bold):
  • An overly sensitive heart is an unhappy possession on this shaky earth. (German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
  • (This adjective phrase modifies the noun "heart.")
  • I'm a fairly intelligent person, but I don't think my grades reflected that. (American footballer Barry Sanders)
  • (This adjective phrase modifies the noun "person.")
  • People are so sick of these Twitter tirades. They want to be proud of their leaders. (US politician Tom Perez)
  • (The first adjective phrase modifies the noun "people." The second modifies the pronoun "they." Obviously, adjectives can modify pronouns too.)
  • There is always someone better than you and more talented than you. Always. (Restaurateur David Chang)
  • (The adjective phrases modify the pronoun "someone.")

More about Adjective Phrases

In an adjective phrase, the head adjective can be at the start, the middle or the end of the phrase.
  • I am sad about the result. (start)
  • I am awfully sad about the result. (middle)
  • I am very sad. (end)
The other words inside the adjective phrase are known as the dependents of the head adjective. They are typically adverbs ("awfully" and "very") or prepositional phrases ("about the result").

If you ever find yourself discussing adjective phrases, it won't be too long before you encounter the terms "attributive adjective" and predicative adjective.

Attributive Adjective. An attributive adjective typically sits before the noun it is modifying.
  • The beautifully carved frames are priceless.
  • (The adjective phrase is before the noun it modifies ("frames"). This is an attributive adjective phrase.)
Predicative Adjective. A predicative adjective typically sits after the noun it is modifying.
  • The frames are beautifully carved and priceless.
  • (The adjective phrase is after the noun it modifies ("The frames"). This is a predicative adjective phrase.)
When an adjective phrase (or any adjective for that matter) appears before its noun, it is highly likely to be an attributive adjective. However, an adjective that appears after its noun can also be attributive.
  • The frames beautifully carved by monks are priceless.
  • (The adjective phrase is after the noun it modifies ("The frames"), but this time it's an attributive adjective.)
Even though most attributive adjectives sit before their nouns, the position of an adjective does not determine whether it is attributive or predicative. An attributive adjective sits inside the noun phrase of the noun it modifies, and a predicative adjective sits outside the noun phrase of the noun it modifies. Typically, a predicative adjective is linked its noun with a linking verb (e.g., "to be," "to look," "to smell," "to taste").
  • The dog covered in mud looks pleased with himself.
  • (In this example, the first adjective phrase – even though it's positioned after its noun ("The dog") – is attributive because it appears inside the noun phrase "The dog covered in mud." The second is predicative because it appears outside the noun phrase of the noun it modifies. Note how it is linked to its noun with a linking verb ("looks").)

More about Multiword Adjectives

Be aware that there are other types of multiword adjectives:

Adjective Clause. Like all clauses, an adjective clause includes a subject and a verb.
  • The bread you bought yesterday has gone mouldy.
  • (The clause "you bought yesterday" is a multiword adjective describing "The bread." It has a subject ("you") and a verb ("bought"). It is an adjective clause.)
Adjectival Phrase. The term "adjectival phrase" is often used interchangeably with "adjective phrase," but lots of grammarian reserve this term for multiword adjectives that are not headed by an adjective.
  • My uncle dated the girl with the tattoos.
  • (The phrase "with the tattoos" is a multiword adjective describing "The girl," but it's not headed by an adjective. Headed by the preposition "with," this is a prepositional phrase. It is best classified as an "adjectival phrase" as opposed to an "adjective phrase.")

Why Should I Care about Adjective Phrases?

Native English speakers are great at using adjective phrases. Adjective phrases cause few mistakes. However, here is one notable issue.

(Issue 1) Don't use a hyphen with an adverb ending "-ly."

By far the most commonly discussed topic related to adjective phrases is whether to use a hyphen to join an adverb to the head adjective. For example, some writers are unsure whether they should write "professionally qualified editor" or "professionally-qualified editor? Here's the quick answer: don't use a hyphen.

When an adverb ending "-ly" (and lots do) is modifying an adjective, don't use a hyphen to join it to the adjective. The hyphen is unjustified (in the interest of writing efficiency). However, if your adverb is one like "well," "fast," "best," or "better" (i.e., one that could feasibly be mistaken as an adjective), then use a hyphen to eliminate any ambiguity.
  • She has beautifully-formed feet.
  • (The hyphen is unjustified when the adverb ends "-ly.")
  • She has well-formed feet.
  • (The hyphen is justified to make it clear you mean the adverb "well," i.e., healthily, and not the adjective "well," i.e., healthy.)
In truth, there is often no real ambiguity with adverbs like "well," "fast," and "best," but the hyphen has become a point of style, which is semi-justifiable with the it-eliminates-ambiguity argument. The same is not true for "better" and "more." Often, there is ambiguity. Look at these examples:
  • Alliteration creates better flowing sentences.
  • (There is ambiguity here. Are the sentences better or do the sentences flow better?)
  • Alliteration creates better-flowing sentences.
  • (With the hyphen, it is now clear that the intended meaning is sentences that flow better.)
  • Janet has started eating more nutritious food.
  • (There is ambiguity here. Is Janet eating more food or the same amount of food?)
  • Janet has started eating more-nutritious food.
  • (With the hyphen, it is now clear that the intended meaning is the same amount of food that is more nutritious.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is a phrase? What is an adjective? What are nouns? What are linking verbs? What does modify mean? What is a predicative adjective? What are adjective clauses? Glossary of grammatical terms