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In "Eric is four years old," would you consider "four years old" to be an adjective...

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sharrons | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted August 9, 2011 at 11:22 PM via web

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In "Eric is four years old," would you consider "four years old" to be an adjective because it is describing Eric.

What I mean is are ages considered to be adjectives?

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K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted August 11, 2011 at 6:08 AM (Answer #1)

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This is a complicated question because of the analysis of "four" and the distinction between (1) class of word or phrase and (2) function of word or phrase. In the phrase "four years old," four is a noun, as dictionaries define it to be. Yet it functions as an adjective modifying years and answering how many years: four.

The phrase "four years old" is therefore analyzed as an adjective phrase as it begins with an adjective headword: four. In another approach it might be tempting to analyze the same phrase as a noun phrase with four functioning in the capacity of its other definition as a determiner (actually, determiners at one time were in the word class of adjectives); with years in the position of noun phrase headword; and old finishing the collocation "years old" as a postpositive adjective of the noun years.

The interesting thing is that whether you analyze "four years old" as an adjective phrase or as a noun phrase, the sentence analysis reveals that "four years old" fills the Subject Complement slot and adds additional information to the Subject Eric. Subject Complements may be filled by either (interestingly enough) an adjective phrase or a noun phrase. The result is that whether "four years old" is analyzed as an AP or an NP, the same phrase function of Complement is disclosed.

Adjective Phrase:
Eric (N; Subject) is (V; be- linking Verb) {[AP: four (Adjective Headword) years (N; Complement of Subject) old (Adj; Postpositive Modifier of Complement)]; Subject Complement}.

Noun Phrase:
Eric (N; Subject) is (V; be- linking Verb) {[NP: four (N; Determiner) years (N; Complement of Subject) old (Adj; Postpositive Modifier of Complement)]; Subject Complement}.

However, it is not correct to simply analyze "four years old," in “Eric is four years old,” as an adjective modifying "Eric." Since the words follow the Verb, then they must be described according to their function in relation to "Eric": Subject  Complement. Also, simply calling them "an adjective" confuses the phrase with another function when the words are slightly modified and in prepositive placement as "four-year-old Eric." In this phrase, "four-year-old" is a hyphenated compound word that functions as a single unit in the word class of adjective: "Up at bat was four-year-old Eric." In this usage, the three words have the same analysis as previously: a noun serving as adjective headword, noun, postpositive adjective, but since they are a single compound unit positioned before “Eric,” they function now as a single adjective modifying the noun "Eric."

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