Today, I'm answering a reader's question about possessive nouns.
I’ve come across this situation a few times, and I can’t find an explanation.
The old lady’s books were burned.
What is “old?" It seems to be an adjective modifying another adjective ("lady's"), but since that’s not possible, is there another term for it? Or would we consider “old lady’s” some sort of compound adjective modifying the noun “books” and leave it at that? I’m intrigued, and any help is appreciated!
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Elyse, English Teacher
That's a great question! Before we dive deeper into Elyse's question, let's have a quick review of what nouns and adjectives are.
name people, places, things, or ideas.
modify nouns and pronouns.
are nouns that show ownership. (You can also think of them as showing possession.)
Mom's keys, lady's books, building's doorbell
The keys belong to Mom, the books belongs to the lady, and the doorbell belongs to the building.
I can't find Mom's keys
is a possessive noun. It's telling us whose
keys we're talking about.
is functioning as an adjective modifying the noun keys
Isn't that strange? It's not functioning as a noun. It's functioning as an adjective!
Possessive nouns function as adjectives.
We even diagram these nouns as adjectives. (That means they go under the noun that they are modifying.)
I can't find Mom's keys!
Check out the sentence below and focus on the word my
I can't find my mom's keys!
What is my
You might be confused because my
is an adjective, but it doesn't seem to be modifying the noun keys
. After all, they are not my
keys, they are my mom's
seems to be modifying mom's
, and mom's
is functioning as an adjective. But wait! Adjectives don't modify other adjectives! What is going on here?
Where do we diagram my
? What is it doing?
The trick is that these kinds of nouns can be modified by adjectives. Even though they function as adjectives, they maintain some of their "noun-ness" and can still be modified by adjectives.
on a slanted line under mom's
. It will look just like an adverb, but since you're smart, you'll remember that it's actually an adjective modifying a possessive noun.
Old is modifying lady's, so it's an adjective modifying an adjective! The trick is to think of lady's as a possessive noun that maintains some of its "noun-ness" even though it's acting as an adjective. It's "noun-ness" makes it able to be modified by adjectives. Diagram old under lady's.
I hope that helps. I'm happy to hear that you're enjoying our materials! Thank you for letting me know.
There you go. Now you know that these kinds of nouns function as adjectives, but they can also be modified by adjectives. Crazy!
Would you like to learn more? You'll find these pages helpful.
Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar.
Like many, I adore your program. I have a BA in English, an MA in Psychology, and am a certified TEFL instructor. Yet NONE of those marvelous programs taught me grammar!
Thank you, Elizabeth. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. (You're a rock star!)
My students, by the way, also adore your program!
- Michelle, Adult ESL Teacher