I'm looking at an elementary school grammar book for my daughter which says:

A word that tells which about a noun is an adjective. A word that tells whose about a noun is also an adjective. Example:

Carl's brother is in fourth grade.

Carl is a noun because it names a person. But Carl's is an adjective because it tells whose.

To use a noun as an adjective that tells whose, put 's after it. This is called the possessive form of the noun.

Later it gives a related example:

His brother is in fourth grade.

His takes the place of Carl's so His is an adjective.

In the teacher section it talks about the second example (His brother) as being an example of possessive pronouns, which are also called pronominal adjectives as they are pronouns in essence but adjectives in function.

It also says:

A, an, and the are adjectives that are used before nouns. These little words can be called noun markers. Whenever we see a, an, or the, we know that a noun will soon follow.

Now I don't remember learning any of this when I was a kid, so I want to verify that the book is correct in how it explains these words as adjectives. Is this considered correct in modern English and is there anything I should add to the explanation?


Unfortunately, this is not how modern linguists usually use the term "adjective" when describing English grammar. Sources like the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002) use the word "adjective" to refer to a class of words, not to a function.

The definition "A word that tells which about a noun is an adjective" is too broad. Consider this exchange:

Q: Which plate would you like to buy?
A: The one with the blue flower pattern.

Here, the phrase "with the blue flower pattern" tells us which plate the second speaker would like to buy. But "with the blue flower pattern" is not an adjective. It is what is called a "prepositional phrase"; the "head" of the phrase is the preposition "with".

My point is that not all words that tell you "which" noun you are talking about belong to the "adjective" word class.

Words like a, an, the, his, Carl's do all function similarly. In modern grammars, the term used to describe this function is "determiner": "Carl's" is the determiner of the noun phrase "Carl's brother".

"Carl's" is not considered to be an adjective in this context. It would be more accurate to call it a noun: traditionally, a word like "Carl's" is described as being the "genitive case" form of the noun "Carl". "Genitive" marking can be added to noun phrases, not just to single words: we can turn the noun phrase "My older brother" into the genitive "My older brother's". "Possessive" is an alternative term that may be preferred because it is not as obscure as the term "genitive".

  • Thanks. Do traditional linguists call these adjectives? Is "determiner" a more modern term? This grammar book is for nine-year-old children so I don't think they are ready for terms like "determiner" and "genitive". At this point they have learned the terms nouns, pronoun, verbs, and adjectives so things are still being kept quite simple. – Nick Feb 16 at 13:45
  • @Nick: To keep it simple, I would call "Carl's" a "possessive noun" and "his" a "possessive pronoun". I don't know of a simple but accurate way of describing the "determiner" function. It's true that "determiner" is somewhat recent terminology (it appears to have first been used in the 20th century), and articles like "the" and "a(n)" often used to be categorized as adjectives. I'm not sure whether there is any traditional basis for calling a word like "Carl's" an adjective. – sumelic Feb 16 at 14:10

Not a language professional, here, but yes that is all correct, though I am a little surprised that they call articles "noun markers" nowadays.

  • Thanks. I looked and it actually does say in the teacher's guide that they are also called articles. They say "they always mark the coming of a noun, and they can never be used except before the noun they tell about. Sometimes other adjectives separate these words from the nouns they are marking." – Nick Feb 15 at 21:37
  • Perhaps they think "noun marker" is a good term to indicate that a noun is coming up? It is a more "traditional" grammar book so if that is an older term that may be why. – Nick Feb 15 at 21:38
  • Great, then that is also accurate. I actually like that they explain articles to young students in this way, nowadays. – Nathan Young Feb 15 at 21:38

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