Adjectives Don’t Show Number in English

rogersgeorge on September 18th, 2017

In a lot of languages, when you put an adjective with a noun, the adjective has to agree with the noun. Feminine nouns get feminine endings on their adjectives (gender), plural nouns get plural adjectives (number), and so on. If you know other languages, you know what I mean by the “and so on,” such as the effect of case.

English (with a few exceptions, such as court martial, poet laureate, secretary general) puts the adjective right in front of its noun, and it doesn’t matter much what kind of noun. Here’s an example of getting it wrong:

The New York Times (and others) reported on Plimpton 322, a famous four-millennia-old Babylonian tablet featuring a table of Pythagorean triples.

You might argue that it’s a compound adjective (hyphenated correctly, by the way), but it should still be “millennium.” The whole thing is an adjective, so it shouldn’t show number. An example of correctness:

He drives a four-door car and a sixteen-wheel truck.

That incorrect usage, by the way, is from an interesting and well-written site called Math with Bad Drawings. Even if you’re not much on math, give it a look. The bad drawings are actually pretty good, even. Here’s one:

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably do this without thinking; this post is so you’re aware of what you’re doing already, and so you don’t stumble.

 

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

Bad Language Joke

rogersgeorge on December 7th, 2016

That’s bad joke, not bad language, and herein lies a small lesson: Beware using nouns attributively. That’s when you use a noun as an adjective, such as in the title of this post. The reason to beware is because sometimes you can’t tell how that attributive noun is being used, as I point out in the first six words of this post.

(whew!) Finally, here’s the joke:

How to Make an Adjective out of a Noun

rogersgeorge on November 17th, 2016

Tl;dr version: Add -y or -ey. Some of these constructions are common: we have a mess, and things can get messy. You can make a joke out of this, too: What’s brown and sticky? —a stick! Some other suffixes can make an adjective out of a noun, such as -some. Trouble, troublesome. But adding that y is the most versatile, I think. It means “having the characteristics of.” You can use it on any noun. Hence the last word in today’s comic, Betty:

Betty

This is a good example of how to use an optional hyphen. You can put it in to make the meaning clear.

A nice Correct Adjective

rogersgeorge on August 25th, 2016

A quickie post today. I occasionally bemoan the use of introductory adverbs when you want adjectives. You know, using “hopefully” to start a sentence. So it’s nice when I find some writing that doesn’t make this common mistake. This one is from a Scientific American article about tigers (the bold is my emphasis):

Over the next six years radiotelemetry revealed the nuances of tiger behavior by enabling me to spend less time searching blindly for tigers and more time observing them. More important, this approach exposed where the cats wandered.

Yay! He didn’t write “More importantly.”

Don’t you, either!

PS—I ran into this very mistake today, in a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction:

Most importantly, they’d recovered a few dozen wheels. A wheel could be a gear, or part of a pulley, or a component in a steam engine.

PPS—While I’m at it, here’s an article that didn’t beg the question:

Juno is also the first solar-powered spacecraft to explore the outer planets, which raises the question: why solar power?

Another Mistake not Made

rogersgeorge on August 19th, 2016

A solecism that high school English teachers love to warn against is starting a sentence with “hopefully,” as in

Hopefully, we’ll all be in time for the meeting.

This is really just an instance of a fairly common problem, using an adverb when you need an adjective. You see it a lot in the news with “reportedly.” I googled that word recently and was chagrined to see how much it was misused. You can misuse many adverbs this way. Start some sentences with “understandably,” “supposedly,” “thankfully,” and “unexpectedly” for other examples.

Anyway, here’s someone who did it right! I put the correct usage in bold.

That possibility, one would hope, should weigh heavily upon the minds of the Supreme Court justices, who once praised those who “build and create by bringing to the tangible and palpable reality around us new works based on instinct, simple logic, ordinary inferences, extraordinary ideas, and sometimes even genius.”

Dignified sentences like this one are just as easy to read as ones that start with an understandably incorrect adverb.