I am thinking of complex descriptive "noun phrases" (I think they are called):

The hugely-oversized aircraft-carrier plane.
The yellow-spotted night lizard.
The intricate and overwhelmingly-complex masterpiece.
The sturdy walking stick.

In the first:

  • aircraft is a noun by itself
  • carrier is a noun
  • plane is definitely a noun because it is at the end of the phrase
  • hugely is an adverb
  • oversized is an adjective

But is aircraft considered also an adjective to the "carrier" noun? Or what about "aircraft-carrier" itself as an adjective to the "plane" noun?

In the last one, "overwhelmingly" is quite a complex word, it is:

  • overwhelm (verb)
  • -ing
  • -ly

Converting a verb into an adverb basically. How do other languages deal with this word as part of a noun phrase? (Like both atomic languages like Vietnamese or Chinese, and agglutinative languages like Turkish).

Using google translate to Vietnamese on "overwhelmingly-complex masterpiece" gives:

kiệt [fierce] tác [platter] [together: masterpiece] phức tạp [complicated]

I don't know what to make of that haha, probably wrong. Are these component words considered adjectives to some main noun?

Basically, when is something in a noun phrase considered a verb/noun vs. an adjective/adverb?

  • Nouns can be used as modifiers, and they can be derived into adjectives, but that doesn't mean that nominal modifiers are adjectives. That said, while in your first example "aircraft-carrier" is definitely a noun, I'd say that phrase is not natural English, as we just wouldn't naturally put "plane" after it. The only other example that actually contains a noun modifier is the second one.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 22 at 0:11

1 Answer 1


You question is basically "what do these part of speech terms 'mean'?", or "how can we tell what part of speech a word is?". My first syntax teacher failed to change my belief that part of speech is semantically determined. Later on, I say that there is a difference between lexical POS properties of roots, and derived semantic effects coming from combining elements.

"Aircraft" is a noun, as we can determine from various slot-filling tests. It can combine with other things in a fashion that "modifies" the meaning of another word. It can modify verb like "sell; clean" so that we can say that it is quasi-adjectival in "sells aircraft; cleans aircraft", saying what he sells of cleans. It can also combine with another noun (in a N-N compound) thus "aircraft manufacturer; aircraft salesman; aircraft carrier...". The semantic function from the parts to the whole is pretty much the same in adjective-noun combinations as it is in noun-noun compounds.

Some words in some languages are not even definitely noun or verb in the lexicon. English is an example, and "plate" is an example in English. We know that "plate" as a verb historically derives from the noun "plate", but I think that admitting a class of POS-indeterminate words in English would not be the end of the linguistic universe.

  • Er, why would it quasi-adjectival when functioning as the object of a verb? Was that descriptor meant to go in the next sentence where aircraft modifies another noun? Sep 22 at 7:51
  • It limits the scope of the verb, just as "blue" in "blue shirt" limits the scope of the noun. Syntactic frame definitions tell us that it's not actually an adjective, despite the overlap involving the concept "modifier", hence it is "quasi-adjectival".
    – user6726
    Sep 22 at 15:08
  • Why do you equate semantically modifying a verb with an adjective? If it's necessary or desirable in the first place, why not equate it with an adverb? But in any case, what is the point of POS if you don't differentiate them from grammatical or semantic relations? Just stick to semantic relations! Sep 23 at 0:25
  • 1
    There isn't really much point to POS, at least not in detail. Most structures that show up in English speech have been done plenty of things to, and their convoluted derivations are full of nodes with no formal POS, since they're transitory and decay into neutrinos like other imaginary phenomena.
    – jlawler
    Sep 23 at 16:42

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