Adjectival Phrase

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What Is an Adjectival Phrase? (with Examples)

An adjectival phrase is a group of words that describes a noun or a pronoun. An adjectival phrase is not headed by an adjective, which is how adjectival phrases differ from adjective phrases.
adjectival vs adjective


This distinction between adjectival phrase and adjective phrase is not universally agreed. The two terms are often used interchangeably to refer to any multi-word adjective. Of note, linguistics experts tend to use the term "phrasal attributive" to refer to a multi-word adjective that does not contain an adjective.

In summary, an "adjectival phrase" (as we call it) is sometimes referred to as a "phrasal attributive" by linguistics specialists or as an "adjective phrase" by other grammarians.

Interactive Examples of Adjectival Phrases

Here are some interactive examples to help explain the difference between single-word adjectives, adjective phrases, adjectival phrases, and adjective clauses.

    Here are some points to note.

    (1) There is no adjective in an adjectival phrase.

    (2) There is an adjective in an adjective phrase.
    (In each adjective phrase, the head adjective is shown in bold.)

    (3) There is a subject and a verb in an adjective clause.
    (In each adjective clause, the subject is blue, and the verb is green.)

    Easy Examples of Adjectival Phrases

    In each example below, the adjectival phrase is shaded, and the noun being modified is bold.
    • Is that your dog with the bone?
    • (This adjectival phrase describes "your dog." Notice that there is no adjective in "with the bone.")
    • I am looking for a house near the river.
    • (This adjectival phrase describes "a house." Notice that there is no adjective in "near the river.")
    • She wants a book to read on holiday.
    • (This adjectival phrase describes "a book." Notice that there is no adjective in "to read on holiday.")
    The first two examples above are prepositional phrases (i.e., they start with prepositions). The third example is an infinitive phrase (i.e., it starts with an infinitive verb).

    Real-Life Examples of Adjectival Phrases

    Here are some real-life examples of adjectival phrases. (In these examples, the adjectival phrases are highlighted and the modified nouns are shown in bold.)
    • The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind. But the goodness of a person spreads in all directions. (Indian philosopher Chanakya)
    • (Here, the adjectival phrases are all prepositional phrases. They are all headed by the preposition "of.")
    • The best defence against the atom bomb is not to be there when it goes off. (The 1949 British Army Journal)
    • (Here, the adjectival phrase is a prepositional phrase. It is headed by the preposition "against.")
    • Capitalism is an organized system to guarantee that greed becomes the primary force of our economic system. (Author Michael Moore)
    • (In this example, the adjectival phrase is an infinitive phrase. It is headed by the infinitive verb "to guarantee.")
    • The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. (Author Marianne Williamson)
    • (This example has two types of adjectival phrase. The first adjectival phrase is a prepositional phrase headed by the preposition "in." The second adjectival phrase is an infinitive phrase headed by the infinitive verb "to forgive.")

    More about Multi-word Adjectives

    Another common type of multi-word adjective is the adjective clause. Like all clauses, an adjective clause includes a subject and a verb.
    • The boy who stole my bike has been caught.
    • (The clause "who stole my bike" is a multi-word adjective describing "The boy." It has a subject ("who") and a verb ("stole"). It is an adjective clause (also called a relative clause).)
    Read more about adjective clauses.

    Why Should I Care about Adjectival Phrases?

    Here are two good reasons to care about adjectival phrases.

    (Reason 1) Don't treat the noun in a prepositional phrase as the subject of your verb.

    Be careful when a prepositional phrase precedes a verb.
    • A belt of bullets were buried in the garden.
    • (Here, the subject is not "bullets." It is "belt." Therefore, the verb should be singular and not plural)
    Here is a correction:
    • A belt of bullets were was buried in the garden.
    Here is another example:
    • A combination of factors were the cause of the crash.
    • ("Combination" is singular. The subject is not "factors.")
    • A combination of factors were was the cause of the crash.
    Don't treat the noun in your prepositional phrase (here, "bullets" and "factors") as the subject of your verb.

    (Reason 2) Avoid ambiguity when placing your adjectival phrase.

    Sometimes, it is unclear whether your phrase is an adjectival phrase (modifying a noun) or an adverbial phrase (modifying a verb). Look at this example:
    • Simon fed the shark in the cage.
    • (This is ambiguous. Is "in the cage" an adjectival phrase telling us which shark, or is "in the cage" an adverbial phrase telling us where Simon fed the shark? It is not entirely clear.)
    When you have a situation like this, reword your sentence to avoid the ambiguity. (Don't be surprised if your rewording hacks your original sentence to shreds.)
    • Simon was in the cage when he fed the shark.
    • Simon fed the shark that was in the cage.
    • (These are options. The intended meaning in each scenario is now clear.)
    It is rarer, but this issue also occurs with adjectival phrases in the form of infinitive phrases. For example:
    • I need a weapon to kill a ghost.
    • (This is ambiguous. Is "to kill a ghost" an adjectival phrase telling us what type of weapon, or is "to kill a ghost" an adverbial phrase telling us why a weapon is needed? It is not entirely clear.)
    Let's reword this sentence to eliminate the ambiguity.
    • I need a weapon that can kill a ghost.
    • I need a weapon in order to kill a ghost.
    • (These are options. The intended meaning in each scenario is now clear.)
    When you use an adjectival phrase, do a quick check to see whether it could potentially be modifying something else in your sentence.
    Ready for the Test?
    Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

    This test can also be:
    • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
    • Printed to create a handout.
    • Sent electronically to friends or students.

    See Also

    What is an adjective phrases? 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