She plays it cool.

He plays / acts stupid.

The headlines showed you played them proudly.

In Collins, the explanations are:

You can describe how someone deals with a situation by saying that they play it in a certain way. For example, if someone plays it cool, they keep calm and do not show much emotion, and if someone plays it straight, they behave in an honest and direct way.

Why can adjectives like "cool" and "stupid" and the adverb "proudly" modify the verb "play"? What kind of constructions are they? How can I understand them?

  • 1
    Not sure but I think its a difference between what is technically correct and what we say as set phrases. You could use adverb forms for "cool" and "stupid" and to me it still reads OK. – user3169 May 15 '14 at 2:14
  • 2
    Short answer: adjectives following these verbs are predicate adjectives, and don't modify the verb. – John Lawler May 15 '14 at 17:13

In this case, it's because the adjective is functioning as a manner for the verb;

She plays it cool
    Verb     Manner

He plays/acts stupid
   Verb       Manner

The headlines showed you played them proudly
                         Verb        Manner

The probe for Manner (which is a Circumstance) is: How did they do X?

Although traditionally associated with adverbs, adjectives can do this also.

  • He acts smart.
  • He plays dumb.
  • Tensions ran hot.

The reason for this is that these verbs, while usually Behavioural or Material, in this case represent Relational or Attributive processes - note that in each of the above cases, you can replace the verb with "be" or "makes":

  • He is smart.
  • He is dumb.
  • Tensions were hot.
  • She makes it cool.
  • He is stupid.
  • The headlines showed you made them proud (but not proudly)
  • So how to determine which adjectives can be used this way, and which are not? – Man_From_India May 15 '14 at 2:27
  • @Man_From_India Well, typically, we don't use it with adjectives that describe appearance - you wouldn't say He acts/plays green. You could use it with size, but only metaphorically - He acts tall might mean that someone does things only tall/large people would do. Essentially, you can use one of those constructions with any adjective, but in some cases it might be metaphoric. – jimsug May 15 '14 at 2:31
  • @jimsug: is "The building stands tall" a metaphor? – oerkelens May 15 '14 at 7:41
  • @oerkelens nope. Stand can be an attributive or existential process as well, so in this case it's agnate to the building is tall. – jimsug May 15 '14 at 8:00
  • 1
    Yeah, I would simply note that the verbs that govern this construction (act, look, sound, appear, seem, play, work, ...) are perception verbs, and the adjectives are all perceived attributes, so that the construction X Vᵖ Adjᵖ (X looks smart, acts stupid, sounds cool, seems tired, ...) simply means 'X Vᵖ like X is Adjᵖ'. X looks smart means X looks like X is smart'. They're normally substitutable, though there are always odd wrinkles, like any idiomatic construction. Especially those involving sense verbs and flip perception verbs. – John Lawler May 15 '14 at 17:11

As an adverb, "proudly" can modify the verb "play" without a problem. The others aren't actually modifying the verb at all!

There are certain verbs that link an adjective to their subject: "to be" is the most obvious one.

I am stupid. You are cool.

Other verbs, like "play" and "act", do the same thing. The only difference is that they mean the subject tries or pretends to be whatever the adjective describes.

I act stupid. You play cool.

Finally, note that this last one ("You play cool") is unlikely to actually be said by anyone. "Play it cool" has become idiomatic—the "it" doesn't really refer to anything, but it can't be removed or replaced.


I disagree with the answers stating that "cool" and "stupid" are used as adjectives here. If someone "plays it cool," that person might be a "cool" person, but that is not what the sentence is saying. And "cool" can't be a predicate adjective because "play" is not a linking verb!

Moreover, the first comment on the question, stating that the sentences don't change much when the adverb forms of "cool" and "stupid" are used, seems to me to be exactly correct:

She plays it coolly.

He acts stupidly.

Therefore, I believe this is simply an instance in which adjectival forms are used instead of adverbial forms, probably because they simply "sound better".

Another common example of this is the use of "bad" instead of "badly." Rarely does anyone one say "I feel badly" to describe how they feel (though I've seen a grammar book recommend this!), but it seems unlikely that in the sentence "I feel bad", the speaker is trying to describe themself ("I") with the descriptor "bad".

As for "proudly", that's just a standard adverb modifying a verb, which is perhaps the primary function of adverbs.

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