How to Identify Adjective Phrases

by Elissa Hansen

Adjectives, as everyone learned in grammar school, are describing words. Knowing that gives you a good start as you identify adjective phrases since once you find an adjective, you have found an adjective phrase. All that’s left is figuring out which words the adjective governs. Knowing where adjective phrases appear can help you pinpoint the entire phrase.

Adjective Phrase Forms

Adjective phrases are grammatical units that make up part of a sentence’s syntax. Each adjective phrase includes only one adjective, but English has several possible forms for adjective phrases. They can be as short as a single adjective, such as “blue.” They can combine one or more adverbs with an adjective as in “quite ill” and “very carefully painted.” They can combine an adjective with a prepositional phrase such as “unhappy about the game,” and finally, they can consist of an adjective governing a verb phrase as in “pleased to meet you.” These forms can also combine. For example, the adjective phrase “eager to get away from him” is headed by the adjective “eager,” which governs the infinitive “to get away,” which in turn governs the prepositional phrase “from him.”

Noun Modifiers

An adjective phrase functions as a noun modifier when it comes right before the noun that it describes. “Gray duck” is a simple example with the adjective phrase “gray” modifying the noun “duck.” When more complex adjective phrases act as noun modifiers, they are hyphenated. For example, “ready-to-wear clothing” consists of a noun, “clothing,” modified by an adjective that governs an infinitive, the adjective phrase “ready to wear.” If multiple adjectives modify a noun, each adjective is its own adjective phrase: “Old, forgotten book” has two adjective phrases, “old” and “forgotten.”

In the Predicate

Adjective phrases that come after the main verb and aren’t simply modifying a noun can serve two functions. Predicate adjectives describe a sentence’s subject, as in the sentence “The earthquake was devastating.” The adjective phrase “devastating” modifies the sentence’s subject, “earthquake.” Predicate adjectives follow “linking verbs,” which are forms of “to be” such as “was” or “is,” sensory verbs such as “feels” and a few other verbs such as “become” and “appear.” Adjective phrases that follow main verbs can also be object complements, describing direct objects as “red” describes “nails” in the sentence “She painted her nails red.”

Opening Adjectives

Finally, adjective phrases can introduce a sentence. These “opening adjectives” modify the sentence’s subject, but unlike adjective phrases that act as noun modifiers, they don’t immediately precede the noun. In the sentence “Bold and brave, the knight set forth,” the two adjective phrases “bold” and “brave” modify the subject, “knight.” In contrast, if they were used as noun modifiers, the sentence would read “The bold and brave knight set forth.” Opening adjectives are always followed by commas.


  • The Linguistic Structure of Modern English; Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton
  • Introduction to the Grammar of English; Rodney Huddleston

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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