First and Second Declension Adjectives and Adverbs

Adjectives are so called because they are “thrown towards” the nouns which they qualify (adiectivus, -a, -um being an adjective constructed from the preposition ad and the verb iacio, iacere, ieci, iactum 3 i-stem “throw”). The close affinity in declension between nouns and adjectives led ancient grammarians to label the two parts of speech as “nouns substantive” and “nouns adjective”. These categories remained standard in English grammar until the 18th century, when Joseph Priestley (see also the Fetutinae to Chapter 17), who is generally credited also with the discovery of oxygen (which he named “de-phlogisticated air”), separated nouns and adjectives in The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761).

Almost all adjectives belong to one of only two declension systems, either first and second declension, introduced here, or third, introduced in Chapter 9. Some adjectives, however, do not decline at all, regardless of the number, gender and case of the noun which they qualify. The majority of such adjectives are cardinal numbers; see Chapter 10.

In some languages, such as German and Old English, the agreement of adjectives is subject to complicated variations in declension, as in

In all of these sentences, the masculine noun Mann is in the nominative singular, but the adjective occurs in three different forms, the choice being determined by factors other than the simple principle that adjectives agree with their nouns in gender, number and case. Latin does not have this complication; if a noun is masculine and in the nominative singular, there is only one masculine, singular, nominative form of the adjective to go with it.

In some languages, the position of an adjective relative to its noun may determine its sense; for example, in French un grand homme means “a great man” but un homme grand means “a tall man”, in Italian un semplice soldato means “a mere soldier” but un soldato semplice means “a private soldier”. Such variation occurs occasionally in English: “Mythology is not part of history proper (i.e. as strictly defined)” does not mean the same as “Mythology is not part of proper (i.e. genuine) history”. Latin does not use the position of adjectives to indicate a particular sense.

Other than in some fixed phrases (“time immemorial”, “body politic”) and in verse (“Columbus sailed the ocean blue”), adjectives in English usually precede their noun, except when used attributively (“I thought the pig stupid”). Many people avoid expressions such as “He is an expert in matters culinary” as being rather pretentious. The Major-General’s song in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance combines the poetical and the pompous: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General,/ I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,/ I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical/ From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical”.

No doubt it is true that “when there are two or more adjectives cooccurring in attributive position, the order of the adjectives is to a large extent determined by their semantic properties” (R. Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language [1985] 43), but few people could explain why the order of the adjectives in “I have a big, fat, absent-minded pig” is preferable to that in “I have an absent-minded, fat, big pig”. Native speakers of English have internalised the rules for word-order and generally apply them unerringly without analysis.

In Latin also, certain adjectives tend to precede others, and the possible variations are rather greater than in English, since the same noun may be qualified by adjectives positioned both before and after it. As with English word-order, it is preferable to learn the intricacies of Latin usage through observation than through rules.

In Latin prose, an adjective is normally placed either immediately before or, more commonly, immediately after the noun which it qualifies. Since both positions are equally permissible, there is potential for confusion. Quintilian cites as an example of ambiguity the case of a man who stipulates that his heirs should set up statuam auream hastam tenentem, which can mean either “a statue holding a golden spear” or “a golden statue holding a spear” (Education of the Orator 7.9).

The conventions governing word-order in Latin poetry are rather different; adjectives are separated from their nouns very much more often than not. In particular, poets tended to avoid juxtaposing adjectives and nouns when both words have the same prosody, as in domino misero cibum bonum dant servi magni. That placement occurs only eleven times in almost 2,500 lines in Ovid’s Amores, and in some instances a particular effect may be intended; at 1.13.7, somni pingues (literally “fat sleeps”) perhaps suggests lethargy.

Adjectives as Nouns

Some adjectives evolved into nouns in their own right, with the ellipse of a particular noun. For example, the adjectives grammaticus, -a, -um “grammatical”, medicinus, -a, -um “medical” and musicus, -a, -um “musical” produced the first declension feminine nouns grammatica, -ae “grammar”, medicina, -ae “medicine” and musica, -ae “music”, with the third declension feminine noun ars, artis “art” (see Chapter 8) to be understood. Similarly, patria, -ae fem. 1 “fatherland” is derived from patrius, -a, -um “ancestral”, with terra, -ae fem. 1 “land” to be understood, while dextra, -ae fem. 1 “right hand” and sinistra, -ae fem. 1 “left hand” are derived from dexter, dextra, dextrum “on the right” and sinister, sinistra, sinistrum “on the left”, with the fourth declension feminine noun manus, -us “hand” (see Chapter 11) to be understood.

It is not coincidental that the Latin names for rivers, mountains and winds are predominantly masculine, those of countries and islands predominantly feminine; the general nouns meaning “river” (fluvius, fluvii 2), “mountain” (mons, montis 3) and “wind” (ventus, -i 2) are masculine, those for “country” (terra, -ae 1) and “island” (insula, -ae 1) feminine. These proper nouns will often have originated as adjectives agreeing with the general nouns.

This explanation holds true, even though many writers prefer the third declension neuter noun flumen, fluminis, and both were current in spoken Latin (hence Fr. fleuve from fluvius, Ital. fiume from flumen). There seem to be no neuter river-names in Latin.

Awareness that such nouns evolved from adjectives helps greatly in determining their gender. When grammatical gender was first discussed in Chapter 2, it was noted that we need to know a noun’s gender principally in order to apply adjectives and pronouns (see Chapters 17 and 18) in the correct gender when they are used with that noun. Since most 1st and 5th declension nouns are feminine, and almost all 2nd declension nouns are either masculine or neuter, and almost all 4th declension nouns are masculine, noun-adjective agreement is for the most part easy. Only the 3rd declension presents a real challenge: nouns in that declension may be of any gender, and there is little or no distinction in form according to gender. Various strategies for determining the probable gender of 3rd declension nouns will be suggested in Chapter 8.

Just as adjectives may be used as nouns, so vice versa. For example, the 3rd declension nouns (see Chapter 8) iuvenis, senex and victor (“young man”, “old man” and “victor”) are regularly attached adjectivally to nouns: hence poeta iuvenis “young poet”, porcus senex “old pig”, Romanus victor either “The victorious Roman” or “The Roman victor”. The comparative adjectives (see Chapter 12) iunior and senior (“younger”, “older”) are constructed from the nouns iuvenis and senex. The emperor Domitian got himself disliked for beginning letters dominus et deus noster hoc fieri iubet “Our lord and god orders this to be done”, but dominus deus “The Lord God” is standard phrasing in the Vulgate edition of the Bible.

Complex Agreement

There can be no totally satisfactory solution to the problem of complex noun-adjective agreement in a heavily inflected language. Such difficulties should not, however, be exaggerated. Even in English, with its remarkably small degree of inflection, it is possible to imagine problems of agreement: “I like Haydn’s and Mozart’s piano sonatas and symphonies. These are the composers and musical forms by whom and by which I am particularly enchanted”. It is not difficult to improve the syntax by saying, with a slight rephrasing: “I like the piano sonatas and symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. These are the composers and musical forms I particularly admire”. We may readily assume that a Roman, often indeed without conscious effort, will have avoided awkwardness caused by the rules for agreement. Only a non-native speaker of English would puzzle over the difference between “I admire Maiden’s Blush, the queen of England’s roses”, where the ’s in “England’s” is possessive, and “I admire the Queen of England’s nose”, where the ’s in “England’s” is an “enclitic postposition”.

“Anyone who doesn’t like horses needs their head examined” may seem to be a solecism, but this use of “they”, “their” etc. with a singular antecedent has been common in informal usage since Middle English, and is a preferable alternative to the gender-biased “he” etc. or the clumsy modern devices “he or she” etc. and “(s)he” etc. To alternate between “he” etc. and “she” etc. is simply bizarre. The rather ghastly form s/he is recognized by the OED 2nd ed. (1989), but, with its general lack of inflection, English is at least spared the inelegance of such German forms as Leser(Innen) ([male/female] readers).

porcus et centum capellae magni sunt “The (one male) pig and the hundred she-goats are big”. Not only in grammar but also in Roman law, the masculine gender prevails:

It was standard practice to place a preposition between an adjective and the noun with which that adjective is in agreement (as, for example, in the phrase summa cum laude “with the highest praise”). Discussing problems of linguistic ambiguity, Quintilian cites the case of a man who stipulated in his will that he should be buried INCULTOLOCO. Without word-division, the sense might equally well be either “in a cultivated place” (in culto loco) or “in an uncultivated place” (inculto loco); if he had wanted to be buried in a pleasant garden, he would have done better to have written CULTOINLOCO (Education of the Orator 7.9).

On being elected to the Fellowship of Queens’ College, Cambridge, new Fellows are required to swear an oath which includes the words iuvabo Collegium in sanis consiliis, which means “I will help the College in sane advice”, but members of the College have probably been saying for the last five hundred years and more that the statutes should be amended to read sanis in consiliis, a greatly preferable word-order.