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Why can the adjective "bright" modify other adjectives, namely colors?

Why is it grammatical to say "a bright red car"? Bright is an adjective modifying the color red, but it is commonly known that adjectives cannot modify other adjectives; only adverbs and (sometimes) nouns can modify adjectives. And you can't say that bright is modifying car because it's not a bright car: It's a car that is bright red.


  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited August 2018

    @Wordsmith18, since it is perfectly grammatical for the adjective bright to modify the adjective red, it follows that your 'commonly known' rule is incorrect.

    I'm not sure precisely how to frame a valid rule. So far I haven't found anything on the subject in a reference grammar. As a preliminary, I would suggest that we're looking at a requirement that the second adjective should be semantically divisible in some way. For example:

    • according to timein Early Modern English
    • according to (metaphorical) place — an upper palaeolithic hand-axe, a southern French town
    • according to shade — a dark blue suit
  • I've failed to find a solution in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language — which is not to say that there's nothing there to be found. But The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language does have a a suggestion which may satisfy you.

    They treat adjective phrases like bright red as a subset of compound adjectives. This they classify as

    • verb centred — awe-inspiring, easy-going, drugs-related, plain-spoken, drug dependent,
    • noun + nouncolour-fast, bone-dry, ankle deep, accident-prone, self-confident
    • miscellaneous unclassifiedall-time, hands-on, high-rise, inflight, London-Glasgow, no-win

    The class which concerns us is

    • adjective + adjective subdivided into
    1. coordinativebitter-sweet, deaf-mute, shabby-genteel, Swedish-Irish, syntactic-semantic
    2. subordinativedark-blue, icy-cold, pale-green, red-hot, white-hot

    Now this final sub-category would admit bright red — provided that you accept that the presence or absence of a hyphen in the spelling is immaterial. It would preserve the rule that an adjective in attributive position before a noun is a modifier of that noun by treating bright red as a single compound adjective modifying the noun car.

  • DavidCrosbieDavidCrosbie ✭✭✭
    edited August 2018

    Returning to A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, I think I see a solution which doesn't depend on treating bright red as a single compound adjective.

    Analysing noun phrases with complex premodification, they identify two modifying processes

    1. Each premodifier (adjective or noun) modifies the remainder of the phrase to the right.

    a new giant-size cardboard detergent carton

    • detergent modifies carton
    • cardboard modifies detergent carton
    • giant-size modifies cardboard detergent carton
    • new modifies giant-size cardboard detergent carton
    1. A premodifier (adjective or noun) may modifies either the remainder of the phrase to the right or just one element to the right.

    expensive overseas income tax office furniture

    • office modifies furniture
    • tax modifies office (not office furniture)
    • income modifies tax
    • overseas modifies income (or income tax)
    • expensive modifies overseas income tax office furniture

    We don't want to speak of
    office furniture which relates to tax
    tax office furniture which relates to income
    Rather, we want to speak of
    an office which relates to tax
    a tax which refers to income

    So what about a bright red car?

    Let's make it longer

    an expensive brand new bright red Italian car

    • Italian modifies car
    • red modifies Italian car
    • bright modifies red
    • new modifies bright red Italian car
    • brand modifies new
    • expensive modifies brand new bright red Italian car

    We don't want to speak of
    a red Italian car which is bright
    Rather, we want to speak of
    red which is bright

    The Cambridge Grammar solution involved a fresh interpretation of adjective.
    The Comprehensive Grammar solution involves a fresh interpretation of modify.

    I like the CGEL approach which sees modification as a question of syntax rather than semantics.

    • If you insist that all premodifying adjectives must modify the noun in a semantic sense, it usually works — because those are the sort of adjectives that we usually choose. But words like bright as in bright red can't be explained.
    • If you admit that a premodifying adjective may modify in a syntactic sense either the rest of the phrase to the right or just one element to the right, it always works. It works for the usual case of adjectives with a semantic relation to the noun, and it also works for cases like bright red.
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