The Grammarphobia Blog

Noun sense

Q: My son’s 6th-grade teacher gave a test that included the following question: “Upon receiving a check plus on his essay, Tony gave his teacher a look of triumph. In this sentence, the word triumph is a(n) 1. noun, 2. verb, 3. adjective, 4. adverb.” My son answered “4,” and his friend Eden “3.” The teacher marked both incorrect. I agree with Eden. It seems to me that “look” is a noun, modified by “triumph,” an adjective.

A: “Triumph” here is a noun. It’s also the object of a preposition (“of”), so the phrase “of triumph” is a prepositional phrase. But in the clause “Tony gave his teacher a look of triumph,” it is also an adjectival phrase, since “of triumph” modifies “look.” (What kind of look was it? A look “of triumph.”) But while “of triumph” serves the function of an adjective, “triumph” alone is a noun.

“In triumph” would have been an adverbial phrase if the sentence had been “Tony looked in triumph at the teacher.” (How did he look? He looked “in triumph.”) But again, while “in triumph” serves the function of an adverb, “triumph” alone is a noun.

In short, the answer (noun) was a lot simpler than it appeared on the surface. The adjective of “triumph” is “triumphal” (as in, “Tony gave a triumphal look”), and the adverb is “triumphally” (as in “Tony looked triumphally”).

You might also think of the problem this way: “Tony gave his teacher a cup of milk.” Clearly, “milk” is a noun, even though it’s part of a prepositional phrase, as well as part of an adjectival phrase modifying “cup.” (What kind of cup? A cup “of milk.”)

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