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What is an Absolute Adjective?

The “grammar” taught in US schools over the years has by far done more damage than good. It was written by prescriptive grammarians (as opposed to descriptive linguists) who prescribed rules based on logic rather than an understanding of the actual rules of the language. I came across a wonderful example of their influence while trying to find a few examples of absolute adjectives Saturday. They also are perfect examples of the dangers of the Internet that lurk within its wonders.

Within the first 20 returns of my googling “absolute adjective”, I found three mutually incompatible definitions.

1. At the Summer Institute of Linguistics, we are told that an absolute adjective is an adjective which functions as a noun, e.g. the rich, the poor, an empty. This is an ancient prescriptivist definition; in fact, any qualitative adjective may be used as a noun in English. 

2. The Wikipedia claims that absolute adjectives stand alone and do not belong to a larger construction, as happy is an absolute adjective in “The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going.” This is simply an adjective phrase; they are consistently placed after the noun they modify in English.

3. The prescriptive grammarian at About.com defines them as adjectives, like infinite, unique, complete, or dead, that cannot be compared or intensified (no more infinite or very infinite. (I know the author is a presciptivist because he thinks a noun is a person, place, or thing.)

I was once discussing rather critically the performance of a college in the Russian Program with my dean. The dean, quite seriously, told me that she had it on good, objective authority that my colleague (a native speaker) spoke Russian better than me. My response was swift: “But we didn’t hire her to speak Russian.”

We had, of course, hired my colleague to teach Russian and the two activites are not the same at all. Teaching requires a strong understanding of the grammars of both languages and how they interrelate (if they do). A native-speaker’s knowledge of their native language is all unconscioius.

For some reason, many people believe that if you speak a language, you know it well enough to teach it to others. High school and college teachers are hired on the basis of the assumption that anyone speaking a language can teach it. But now hiring is a moot issue: the Internet provides an enormous university where anyone can build a virtual classroom and begin teaching whatever they like however they please. This is one reason I started yourDictionary and alphaDictionary, as reliable, authoritative language (grammar and dictionary) resources. alphaDictionary still is.

Now that I have this point off my chest, tomorrow I will share my thoughts on absolutely fascinating lives of absolute adjectives. They are far more intriguing than their representations in prescriptive grammars.

One Response to “What is an Absolute Adjective?”

  1. Edwin F Ashworth Says:

    This is a rather late response!

    I agree that prescriptivism taken too far is counter-productive and damaging, but must argue that having no agreed rules would be an even more serious state of affairs. We’d have chaos. I quite often have to ask people to re-phrase what they have just said so that I can understand what they really mean.

    The grammarians seem to take even more liberties with the English language than teens do. The different (and conflicting) definitions given for the term ‘absolute adjective’ is one example, as you point out.

    I’d rather like the Wiktionary definition to be standardised – an accepted use of adjectives in a position (in commonly-used structures) other than attributive, predicative or postpositive.

    Most authorities would not agree with you that “adjective phrases . . . are consistently placed [immediately] after the noun they modify (in English). Here are some valid counter-examples:

    The very hot blue stars are extremely luminous.
    It was cold, bleak, biting weather. (Nordquist)
    Messi is a very, very talented footballer.

    And, tweaking the parenthetical adjective phrase from Wikipedia:
    “Happy with his lollipop, the boy did not look where he was going.”

    Edwin Ashworth

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