The Grammarphobia Blog

Purple prose, part 2

Q: I’m puzzled by your posting about the color purple. In the sentence “Jack painted his old jalopy purple,” I’d say “purple” is a noun, not an adjective.  Isn’t “purple” a noun in the sentence “Jack painted his old jalopy two different purples” (meaning two different shades of purple)? If it’s a noun there, why isn’t “purple” a noun in your posting?

A: In sentences like “Jack painted his old jalopy two different purples,” or “He painted it a purple that would knock your eyes out,” or “She turned two shades of purple,” the word for the color is a noun.

But it’s an adjective in “Jack painted his old jalopy purple.”

Here, “purple” is a predicate adjective, modifying “jalopy.” It’s analogous to the adjective “happy” in “He made Susan happy.” (The adjective modifies the noun “Susan.”)

There’s a temptation to label “purple” an adverb (modifying the verb “painted”), along the analogy of “He painted it quickly.”

There’s also a temptation to label “purple” a noun. But here’s a test. What possible noun could be substituted in that spot?

The only appropriate words are other adjectives of color (“green,” “blue,” “black,” etc.), or else adverbs/adverbial phrases (“quickly”/“in a hurry”).

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