The Grammarphobia Blog

Purple prose

Q: In the sentence “Jack painted his old jalopy purple,” what part of speech is the word “purple”?

A: It’s an adjective.

The modifier here could have been an adverb, as in “He painted the jalopy quickly.” In that case, “quickly” is an adverb because it modifies the verb, “painted.”

But in a sentence like “He painted the jalopy purple,” the modifier is an adjective because it describes the noun “jalopy.”

It’s not an adverb; it doesn’t modify the verb.

If hypothetically “purple” did modify the verb, the sentence would be saying that Jack painted it “in a purple manner.”

That wouldn’t make much sense, unless perhaps he orated in an ornate way while he painted the jalopy.

We’ll try to come up with an illustration where the modifier could go either way—adverb or adjective. Say a sailor is tying a knot: “He made it fast.”

Here, “fast” could be an adverb, meaning that he made the knot quickly.

Or, it could be an adjective, meaning that he made the knot tight.

“Fast” is one of many words that can be an adverb or an adjective; it doesn’t take the typical “-ly” adverbial ending. We’ve written before about these “flat adverbs,” including a posting back in 2006.

In case you’re interested, the expression “purple prose,” meaning ornate or fussy language, first showed up in the early 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first print reference is from a 1901 issue of the North Adams (Mass.) Evening Transcript: “It is probably in the wine and egg period that he composes accounts of Nero banquets and other purple prose matter.”

That usage evolved from the older “purple passage” (1882), which evolved from the even older “purple patch” (early 1700s), which evolved from the much, much older Latin phrase purpureus pannus (purple garment, circa 18 BC) in Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry).

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