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Concourse 2

Gradience: determiner, pronoun, adjective, adverb or what?

blurred boundaries

This guide concerns the problems one encounters when attempting to assign words and phrases to specific classes.  The problem is especially obvious with the catch-all adverb category.  Gradience in language is a polite way to say we don't really know what sort of a word this is.  An even more polite way to say this is to call it categorical indeterminacy and accept that boundaries between word classes are sometimes fuzzy.

Some words have characteristic of more than one word class so, for example:

  • that is a demonstrative determiner which has a plural form (those) making it a bit like a noun because in English determiners do not usually inflect for number (as they do in many languages)
  • little is a determiner (and sometimes a pronoun) which has comparative and superlative forms (less and least) making it work like an adjective.
  • In
        He is running
    the word running is clearly a verb but in
        Running is good exercise
    the word is operating as a noun but still looks like a verb (and retains its meaning).

In this guide, we are specifically concerned with words that that appear, by some definitions and in some environments, to be adverbs and then pop up again elsewhere as pronouns, determiners or even adjectives.

To see what the problem is, try assigning a word class to the items in black in these examples and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

I have seen enough
eye open
Because the verb is transitive, this use of enough is the object of the verb and is a pronoun.  It can be replaced by any other pronoun or a noun proper:
    I have seen that film
    I have seen them
They have discussed this enough
eye open
In this sentence enough is acting as an adverb because it is modifying the verb discussed.  We can replace the word with something more obviously adverb-like:
    They have discussed this frequently
or an adverbial prepositional phrase
    They have discussed this for two hours.
Did he give you much trouble?
eye open
Here the word much is modifying the mass noun trouble so it is acting as a determiner, specifically a quantifier.
Did you pay much?
eye open
Here there is no following noun so the word much is acting as the object of pay.  It's a pronoun and can be replaced by a noun phrase such as a lot of money.
She doesn't much like him
eye open
Here, the word much is modifying the verb like so it's acting as an adverb, specifically an amplifier.
Is she coming, too?
eye open
In this case, the word too is acting as an adverb, modifying the whole verb clause.  Specifically, it is an additive conjunct.
That really is too much work
eye open
Here the word too is acting as an intensifying adverb modifying the determiner much.
He is too hasty
eye open
Here, finally, we get to the simple adverb use of too as an intensifier for the adjective hasty.
It's on the far side of the house
eye open
The word far is modifying the noun side so it's an adjective.
Did you come far?
eye open
This use of far is not adjectival.  It's an adverb expressing distance.
This is far more important
eye open
Here, the word far is an intensifying adverb which amplifies the force of the adverb more.

Of course, as we noted above, a much wider range of words can slide between classes in most languages so we can have, for example:
    It's a clean car
    Please clean the car
    They are rich
    The rich live over that side of town
    She's running in tomorrow's marathon
    She enjoys running

and so on.
With lexical items such as these, it is not usually too hard to work out the meanings.
However, what concerns us here are what happens when functional words slip across boundaries.
We'll look at a number of these, some of which were exemplified above and consider what it is that the words are actually doing.
Until we know that, of course, it's hard to teach them.


too and very

very tired  

Both these words signify a positive degree of something.  They can function like this:

As adverbs or adverbials:

  1. modifying an adjective:
    1. She's too tired to play
    2. I'm very tired
  2. but not modifying verbal particles so:
    1. we allow:
          They are very frightened
          They are too frightened to go

      because these are adjectival participle forms
    2. but do not allow:
          *It is very altered
          *Conditions have been too changed
      because these are verbal participles.
  3. modifying other adverbs:
    1. She drove too quickly
    2. They went too far
    3. They played the music very loudly
    4. They came too close
  4. modifying a determiner:
    1. Too many people came
    2. Very many houses have been built here
    3. Too little time was spent on it
    4. Very little time was spent on it
  5. but not modifying a verb (as most other adverbs certainly can) so we cannot allow:
    1. *He is very driving
    2. *They are too smoking
  6. The word too can also act as a conjunct adding to what is being said:
        This is cheap.  It will be easy to repair, too.
    but, unlike most conjuncts, too cannot appear anywhere but at the end.
    Very cannot perform this function at all.

As an adjective:
The word very can function adjectivally to mean an extreme end of something or an exact identity
    This is the very bed she slept in
    He lives at the very bottom of the valley

Too cannot perform this function.

With pre-modification:
The word very cannot itself be pre-modified so we don't allow:
    *Rather very good
    *Somewhat very quickly
    *Far very urgently

but the word too can be modified so we allow:
    Rather too expensive
    Somewhat too fast
    Far too cheap


With post-modification:
The word too cannot be post-modified so we don't allow:
    *It was too expensive indeed
but the word very can be post-modified with another adverb, indeed:
    It was very expensive indeed

It is worth knowing that some languages do not distinguish at all between the concepts of too and very, using one word for both.



not enough money  

This word is often contrasted with too.  The adverb too signals an excess but enough signals a sufficiency.  However, as we saw above, syntactically, the words function very differently.

The word enough functions as:

An adverb which always follows what it modifies:

  1. modifying an adjective predicatively when it follows the adjective directly
    1. we allow
          The holiday was cheap enough
          They were happy enough
    2. but with attributive use it splits the determiner from the adjective and is slightly more formal
          A cheap enough holiday
          She's a hardworking enough student
          We need some strong enough tape to hold it in place
  2. modifying an adverb
    1. He drove quickly enough
    2. I have walked far enough for one day
  3. modifying an intransitive verb use
    1. It hasn't rained enough
    2. They have talked enough about this

A determiner which comes before what it modifies:

  1. modifying mass nouns:
    1. We don't have enough milk
  2. modifying count nouns:
    1. Do we have enough chairs?

A pronoun with transitive verb uses:
    I have written enough
    They have spent enough


much / very much

not much money  

These would, on the face of it mean almost the same thing but, in fact, much operates somewhat differently from very much

As adverbs:

  1. modifying adjectives but this is rare and some feel rather formal:
    1. participial adjectives only
          She is very much admired
          Some much annoyed passengers
    2. not for non-participial adjective
          *They are much angry
  2. modifying verbs
    1. before gradable verbs only
          I very much hope she will come
          I much regret telling her
    2. not with non-gradable verbs
          *She much accomplished it
          *I much broke it
    3. in the negative only with care and mind
          She doesn't very much care what you do
          I don't much mind him staying here
          *I much care what she does
          *They very much mind the noise
    4. with non-gradable verbs the words only quantify and come after the object:
          I didn't damage it very much
          I don't go to the seaside much
    5. Only the adverb very much can come after object noun phrases so we allow:
          I respect her and Mary very much
      and do not allow:
          *I respect her and Mary much
          *I respect very much her and Mary
      but before nominalised clauses so we allow:
          I respect what she has achieved very much
          I respect very much what she has achieved
      but not
          *I respect what she has achieved much
          *I respect much what she has achieved
  3. much and very much do not modify other adverbs:
        *Is it much far?
        *I sold it very much cheaply

As determiners:

  1. not in assertive forms
    1. we allow
          I haven't got very much time
          Haven't they had very much food?
    2. but not
          *I have got much time
          *They have had much food
  2. only with mass nouns
    1. we allow:
          They haven't had much fun
    2. but not
          *We haven't got much sandwiches
  3. much and very much can also act as determiners to modify the no-series of pronouns:
        What did you say?
        Nothing very much

    so not quite nothing
        Who did he speak to?
        Nobody much

    so not quite nobody
    The items cannot, however, modify the some- or any-series so we do not allow:
        *Anybody much
        *Something much


As pronouns:

Both much and very much can be pronouns, as in e.g.:
    He didn't say very much
    I didn't give him much

but there's a problem of gradience here, too, because it is sometimes difficult to determine whether we have elided or omitted the noun phrase.
If the noun phrase has been omitted or elided, the word is acting as a determiner.
If the word is standing in for a noun phrase, it is a pronoun.
Compare, for example:
    A: How much milk have we got?
    B: Not much (milk)
where the noun milk is uniquely recoverable – nothing else can fill this slot in the sentence – so we have a true case of elision of the noun and much / very much is still a determiner.
    A: What did he buy?
    B: Not (very) much
where it is clear that we are eliding the verb phrase (He bought ...) but almost any verb phrase, noun phrase or nominalised clause is imaginable as the object of the verb:
    He bought a few vegetables
    He bought nothing
    He bought me a small gift
    He bought what he had always wanted to have hanging on his wall

so here we do not have a case of pure elision (because the omitted item is not unique) and the use of much / very much is arguably pronomial.


(by) far

how far!?  

The word far is unusual in being both an adjective and an adverb.

As an adjective it is quite simple and the antonym of near:
    Put on the far wall
    It's on the far side of the moon
    The furthest corner of the room

It is quite rare to use the comparative when the word is adjectival:
    ?The further corner of the room
In adjectival uses, by far is not allowed.

As an adverb, the word has two distinct uses:

  1. An adverb of distance but only in non-assertive contexts:
    We allow:
        It isn't far
        Is it very much further?

    but we do not usually allow:
        *It is far
    In this sense, far cannot be pre-modified with by.
  2. An intensifying, amplifying adverb which can be emphasised by the addition of by, especially with superlative forms.  In this form it can:
    1. intensify a verb or phrase signifying preference:
          I would far prefer the red one
          I would far sooner have a rest
          They would far rather stop now
      In this sense, far cannot be pre-modified with by.
    2. intensify a comparative or superlative form of an adjective:
          That is far nicer
          That is far more interesting
          That is (by) far the best way to do this
          They are (by) far the most serious students in the group
      When far modifies the comparative it cannot usually be pre-modified with by:
          *That is by far nicer
    3. intensify comparative, but not usually superlative forms unless modified with by, of an adverb:
          That was far more persuasively expressed
          She drove far more quickly than I could have driven
          That was (by) far the most impressively presented paper

      the usual preference is for much in this form:
          That was much the most impressively presented paper
    4. intensify comparative and superlative forms of quantifiers:
          They have far less money than we have
          There are far fewer people here than I expected
          They have (by) far the most time of all of us

      but not:
          *They have far the least money
      for which, again, much is preferred and is rare
          They have much the least money
      or the by far term is compulsory:
          They have by far the least money


Some other examples of words that live on the borderlines

It is not just determiners, adverbs and pronouns that cause problems by existing on the borderlines between word classes.  Even within established word classes, some items switch between groups.  Here are some common examples.

conjunct or conjunction?
Take these two examples:
    He is tired and getting old.  Yet he works a six-day week.
    I was tired yet happy with my efforts

In the first case, yet is an adverbial acting as a conjunct referring anaphorically to the first sentence.
In the second case, it is a conjunction meaning something like but.
The word so also inhabits this murky area: sometimes a coordinating conjunction, sometimes a conjunct.  For example, in:
    I'm not going to to work so I don't need the car
the word is acting as a coordinator of two main clauses (and the clause ordering cannot be reversed sensibly).
However, in:
    I'm not going to work and don't need the car.  So, you can use it if you like.
the word is acting as a conjunct linking the second idea anaphorically to the first.
Moreover, in:
    I came early so I can help
the word links the reason with the action and is a conjunction
but in
    I came early.  So, I can help
the word links the consequence, not the reason, and is a conjunct.
In spoken language, the second of these would be distinguished from the first by pausing after So, intonation and phrasing.
adverbial, noun phrase or post-modifier?
Three more examples:
    He arrived with his sister
    That old man with the black dog
    The only way to shift this seems to be with a hammer

In the first we have an adverbial prepositional phrase telling us some about his manner of arrival (accompanied by his sister).
In the second case we have a prepositional phrase post-modifying a noun phrase (that old man).
In the final case we have a copular verb connecting a noun with a non-finite verb phrase which in this case can be classified as nominal (because that's the normal non-adjectival subject complement in such sentences).
adjunct or disjunct?
Take these two:
    Politically, that's a suicidal idea
    Politically, the question is one of legitimacy

Usually, an adverb like politically, is classified as a viewpoint or angle adjunct (i.e., one which expresses the field of interest in which the comment is set).
In the first of these examples, however, it is clear that the speaker is signalling how the statement is to be understood and that is the job of attitude disjuncts, not adjuncts.
adjective or noun?
An example:
    The upright chairs will go well with the new table
    OK, I'll get the upright

The upright what?  If we call this elision of the noun then the noun itself must be 'uniquely recoverable', i.e., there must be only one possible completion of the sentence.  Here, however, we could complete the sentence with chairs, ones, furniture, sort, sorts, type, types and a number of other nouns and pronouns.  It is not, therefore, simply a case of ellipsis.
It might be a case of simply omitting a noun phrase, of course, but that phrase has to be something describable as upright and it's hard to see how we can have upright sorts as a meaningful phrase.
Perhaps it's best just to call the word a nominal adjective akin to something like the French, the old, the unhealthy etc.  In that case, it has ceased being an adjective at all and is now a noun.  That's how it appears here because it is modified with a determiner, the, and nouns get that treatment.
noun, adjective or classifier?
One example will do:
    He's an English teacher
This is, of course ambiguous.  If we stress the first word, English, we are referring to the subject taught and if we stress teacher, we are referring to his nationality.
In the second case, English is clearly an adjective although it doesn't behave like adjectives should in all cases, having no comparative and superlative forms for one thing.  We can call it a denominal adjective and be done with it.
If we leave the stress on the first element, we still have a problem.  English is the subject he teaches and as such, it's a noun just like literature, physics or quantum mechanics.  It cannot, therefore be an adjective because we can treat it just like a noun by pre-modifying it with an adjective (advanced English, for example) or a determiner (some English) or a post-modifier (English spoken in Canada) and so on.
If we do that here we get the truly ambiguous an advanced English teacher or some English teacher etc.
So it's not a noun either, really.
We can fudge it and call it a classifier (which is just a special form of adjective) or we can ditch the adjective idea altogether and call it a compound noun.  If we do that, we can treat it as a single entity and have, e.g., an old English teacher, a small, hairy English teacher and so on.
What we can't do is shift the adjective and have a conversational English teacher so we are back to having teacher as a noun pre-modified by English, the adjective.
Take your pick.
adverb or preposition?
Take these:
    They went inside the house for dinner
    John came outside the house for a cigarette
    Mary came out of the dining room and joined him and they chatted outside for a while

In the first example, we have inside functioning as a preposition because it has a noun complement, the house.  It can't be an adverb because adverbs don't have complements.  We are OK so far.
The second sentence is also fine.  We have outside the house with the preposition outside having the noun complement the house.  We are still OK.
In the third sentence we have out of the dining room and we can analyse this two ways:
As a prepositional phrase expressing direction as in out of the blue, out of the car etc.
As an adverb, out, (as in she let the cat out) followed by a prepositional phrase saying where from rather than where to, of the house.
We could say Mary came out and leave it there, in which out is acting as an adverb. and we still have the modifying prepositional phrase of the house to tell us more about the verb come out.
It is trickier now because we do not know whether in the second use of outside we have simply elided the complement of outside (the house) so it stays a preposition or are using the word as an adverb (opposed to inside).
The final problem here is that out of functions as a preposition of place and a preposition of direction depending on where it appears
    He got out of the jungle
    That's out of the question
    He left it out of the case

    They got out of the car
    It emerged out of the swamp
    She went out of her mind

adjective or adverb?
This is the final example, although this list of problems could be greatly extended (not least into noun types such as mass vs. count, proper vs. common and so on):
    He rolled it flat
    She cut them small

In both these examples, we have an adjective (flat and small, respectively) but no copular verb to link the adjective to the pronoun.
At first glance, they appear to be malformed sentences because verbs need adverbials to complement them so it should be:
    He rolled it until it was flat
    She cut them into small pieces
In fact, this is a perfectly acceptable use of adjectives playing at being adverbs.
What we have is called a proleptic use and that means we are looking ahead to the result of the action rather than how the action was performed.
That's the technical explanation but we still have adjectives acting as adverbs and sliding across word classes.

The moral of the story

Do not classify words by what they look like or by what a dictionary tells you they are.  Look at what they are doing and teach them accordingly.
Languages use word class similarly because they all arguably exhibit elements of universal grammar such as nouns, adjectives, determiners, adverbs and so on.  The issue is how they do it and then we find a bewildering range of possibilities.  It won't help our learners if we are sloppy or careless about assigning word class indiscriminately, regardless of what a word is actually doing.

Related guides
assertion and non-assertion  to see what the differences are with other words
classifiers and partitives for some more examples of words which perform multiple grammatical functions
determiners for more on this word class
so and such for a separate guide to these two troublesome words, much affected by notions of gradience
adjectives for a bit more on how they work
adverb modifiers for more on intensifiers: amplifiers, emphasisers, downtoners and approximators
adverbials for more on conjuncts, adjuncts, disjuncts and so on
conjunction for more on the word class and links to subordination and coordination
adverbs for the general guide to the word class