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Adverb or adjective? Or something else?

This question came up a couple days ago at work, and spurred a lively, if puzzled, debate:

In the following sentence, what is the function of the word “black”?

The barista served the coffee black.

“Black” doesn’t seem to be adjectival, modifying “coffee”, because of the position: there’s a semantic difference between “served the coffee black” and “served the black coffee.” But it hardly seems adverbial, describing the manner in which the serving was done.

The same question applies to “painting the wall blue” and other similar constructions.

It seems to me that the adjectives here act like a kind of double accusative, but I thought double accusatives were typically used with verbs like “make.” So I really don’t know what kind of construction it is; I just know that I use it a lot.

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Weird placement, but an adjective is an adjective. "Served the black coffee" and "Served the coffee black" are both the same sentence, though with a different feel.

It's not similar to "blue" in your follow-up section. I don't know what blue is in this example, but switching the phrase to painting the blue wall makes it take on a different meaning.

automator June 23, 2006, 7:55am

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Firstly, I would suggest that coffee black and wall blue ARE similar constructions. Just like painting the wall blue does not mean the wall is already a blue wall, but is describing the method of painting, causing it to be blue, so is the serving, or preparing of the coffee described in the former example, not the state of the coffee per se. It's a little confusing only because coffee is already black prior to being prepared. I'm not 100% sure, but it would seem that in both cases, black and blue are functioning as adverbs.

porsche June 23, 2006, 10:26am

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I disagree.

"Painting the wall blue" seems to make blue function as an adverb. In this case, someone is causing a wall to turn blue.

"Painting the blue wall" makes blue funtion as an adjective; the wall being painted happens to be blue.

But serving coffee black or serving black coffee are the same. Let's keep talking coffee. You can "serve coffee with cream," but you can't "serve with cream coffee" (though I suppose you could "serve, with cream, coffee"). Black is the state of the coffee, but not the state of the service of the coffee.

automator June 23, 2006, 11:49am

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I honestly don't think "serving black coffee" and "serving coffee black" are the same thing at all. To my ears, "serving coffee black" is akin to "serving coffee with cream" - it describes a manner of presentation.

Just as you cannot say "serving with cream coffee" you cannot say "serving coffee hazelnut" (though you can, of course, say "serving hazelnut coffee"). Hazelnut is clearly the state of the coffee, but black can be the manner of service (can't it?).

FlapJack June 23, 2006, 2:56pm

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I think that this is a special case because of the color element, which both of the examples have in common.

The meaning of serving coffee black and serving black coffee are ultimately the same; either way, the customer gets a cup of black colored coffee without any additives. However, serving black coffee refers more to the product itself, whereas serving coffee black indicates that there was the potential to alter the process of serving it by adding something else to it.

Then again, there is not so much wrong with putting an adjective after the noun. You can "put something right" (verb, noun, adjective) and "make a child good" (verb, noun, adjective).

Black acts like an adverb but remains an adjective, in my opinion.

I'm no pro, just my two cents.

esholloway June 24, 2006, 6:19pm

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Let's use a different adjective, like cold.

1. The barista served the cold coffee.
2. The barista served the coffee cold.

Cold in the first sentence describes coffee irrespective of the the barista.
Cold in the second sentence describes one of multiple possible states the coffee was served by the barista.

Mark another vote for adverbial use.

Awazaredo June 24, 2006, 7:15pm

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"To serve black" is a variation on "to serve". It is a variation on the act of serving.

wordbody June 26, 2006, 1:48pm

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I'm not sure we're describing the verb here. To me 'black' is describing the cofee in both cases. Putting the adjective after the noun simply emphasises it's state.

Soup June 27, 2006, 4:46am

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I'm not sure we're describing the verb here. To me 'black' is describing the cofee in both cases. Putting the adjective after the noun simply emphasises it's state.

Soup June 27, 2006, 4:46am

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Perhaps it helps to see a question framed before it:

How was the coffee served?
The barista served the coffee black.

What kind of coffee did he serve?
the barista served black coffee.

porsche June 27, 2006, 8:26am

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Okay, it's an adverb. But...Aaaargh!

Soup June 27, 2006, 3:53pm

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"Aaaargh!" is exactly how I felt when I started thinking about this!

FlapJack June 28, 2006, 5:35am

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I almost hate to send poor Soup's head spinning round again, but - I'm pretty sure it's not an adverb, after all ; )

First and simplest argument - a look at my dictionary tells me there is a distinct "adverbial form" of black - blackly. If we were to substitute that in our example sentence, we get :

"The barista served the coffee blackly."

...which has a decidedly different (and more somber) meaning. This would also answer the "simplifying question" of "how was the coffee served", with the adverb quite clearly modifying the [manner of] service (rather than what was served).

Using the abreviated example of "to serve black" to demonstrate its "adverbish-ness" overlooks the fact that we really need a noun in there (coffee) to have meaning (or at least any remotely close to the example).

So, per my dictionary, black must either be an adjective or a noun ("substantivized adjective" ? just wanted to slip that term in somewhere ; ). Now, to be sure which of those we have, let's substitute temperature for color as previously suggested; there we see that hot is only an adjective (granted, cold can also be a noun - but with an entirely different and obviously wrong meaning for the context). And, to double back briefly and substitute the "adverb form" - "the barista served the coffee hotly" - quite a different meaning again (though perhaps a nice one if one is fond of the barista ; ).

So, my vote - adjective.

Jake L June 28, 2006, 7:35am

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It's an adjective. This kind of placement is fairly common and "black" is still a modifier for the word "coffee". It is similar to the construction "The food tasted good." "Good" describes the food itself, not the manner in which it was tasted. Certainly nobody would try make the case that "good" can be an adverb.

Bismarck June 29, 2006, 12:30pm

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I think it's very different from "the food tasted good." There, the verb "tasted" is (almost) copulative, nearly synonymous with "the food was good," allowing the adjective to be in the predicate position. You could not say "the good food tasted" - that would make as little sense as "the good food was." (Unless you intended it to be a Zen koan.)

I think it may be some sort of double accusative, akin to "painting the door blue" or "making me a sandwich."

FlapJack June 29, 2006, 1:33pm

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Whoops! You're right, FlapJack, it's not the same at all. I was thinking of an example that would show that porsche's "how" question is not an adequate test of adverbial function: How did the food taste? It tasted good. In doing so, I wandered astray of the models under scrutiny. "Tasted" IS copular and "good" is simply the complement of the subject.

My mistake, however, reminded me of the actual explanation. These kinds of adjectives are called "object complements". They come after a noun phrase:

The barrista served the coffee.

We were painting the wall.

These are both noun phrases, grammatically complete by themselves without a modifier. The object complement (which, as a part of speech, is an adjective) follows and modifies the direct object within the noun phrase.

Bismarck June 29, 2006, 3:33pm

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Thank You!!! I sensed that my hypothetical barista was doing something like painting a wall blue but I had no idea what that was called. Object Complement. Thank you for introducing me to this new (to me) terminology :)

FlapJack June 29, 2006, 8:00pm

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So now that ya'll got the coffee figured out, what about compound nouns with the word "team"

Why do we say team xbox and team america and other times anfy team or renault team?

Why is the word TEAM at the end of the compound noun and sometimes at the beginning?

xylo July 2, 2006, 11:56pm

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"Object complement" is right (or "secondary predicate") - but there are different kinds of these beasts. And the "coffee" and "wall" examples are different kinds of object complement.

"The barista served the coffee black" is a depictive construction, expressing a property of the object at the time of the main event (verb). Other examples: "I ate the meat raw", "I left Chris angry".

"I painted the wall blue" is a resultative construction - same syntactic structure, but the adjective phrase expresses a property that the object ACQUIRES AS A RESULT of the main event. Another example: "I beat the metal flat." (Resultatives are much less common.)

Another difference between them is that a resultative can only use an Adjective Phrase, but a depictive can use other things (NPs, participial phrases). So maybe "He served the coffee in a glass" works the same way.

There are other differences between depictive and resultative secondary predicates - but rather than list them, I'll point to the book I pinched most of this from! "Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives" by Mark C. Baker - and you can see the relevant pages on (search for "resultative", and you should find it - pages 219-221).

Oh, and his definition of a depictive secondary predicate makes me think that "cold" might be BOTH adjectival and adverbial: it is "an AP attached to the clause to supplement the meaning of the verbal main predicate, the ‎AP expressing a property of the underlying object of the clause". So it both supplements the verbal predicate and modifies the object noun.

Looks like you can have your coffee and drink it too ... :)

srshead July 13, 2006, 8:40pm

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Depictive. Resultative. I'm in awe. Thank you, both for the info and for the book rec. I took your advice and peeked at it using google books, and I just might have to buy it.

FlapJack July 14, 2006, 7:15am

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To me it's like this...

"The 'bartender' served the coffee black" and "The 'bartender' served the black coffee" are not the same.

The first sentence refers to how the barista usually/always served the coffee (just black). 'Black' is describing the type of coffee he served. Black is not working as an adjective though it describes the type of coffee he served.

The second sentence indicates that the bartender served the black coffee (as opposed to serving the food - which would be the job of a waiter , for example). 'Black coffee' is what he served. Black is an adjective to Coffee.

Try this:

- The bartender server the martini strong (and the waitress served the martini weak) - relates to their ability.
- The bartender served the strong martini (and the waitress served the weak martini) - relates to their task.

The first sentence again indicates (to a great extend) that they "made & served" the martini strong or weak... and the second sentence indicates that they just "served" it that way not necessarily meaning they created as they served it.

The key word here is "served" which is somehow used as an indicator to also "make" (Mom served the food - and as such, she cooked it - or at least that's how it usually is).

By using another verb the idea is better understood:

The football player trew the ball hard ( black).
The football player trew the hard ball ( coffee).

CM July 18, 2006, 3:35pm

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Thank you Bismarck and Stephen S for pointing out the Object Complement (or predicate) function of these words. A lot of confusion results ("these things get us confused"!) when we fail to distinguish between a word's part of speech (adjective, adverb, noun, etc.) and a word's functional role in the sentence (direct object, indirect object, complement, predicate, etc.), especially since any given word can usually play any number of roles or masquerade as any part of speech. Is 'run' a verb ("I ran"), a noun ("We need to do another run of that"), etc.? Then on top of that we have to figure out what functional role the words plays with respect to the other roles in the sentence ("predicate" "direct object" "modifier" etc.).

ccameron7 July 24, 2006, 4:54am

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where can i see the different kinds of adjectives

dK_1116 June 23, 2007, 2:06pm

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I think that there are several confounding issues. In trying to analyze "black", we are getting hung up on these other issues.

First of all, “black” is being used to mean something other than color. Instead, it means “nothing added”. By moving “black” to in front of “coffee”, we are changing the meaning from “nothing added” to “a particular color”. Note that “nothing added” modifies “coffee”, so even though it’s a different meaning, it’s still an adjective.

Second is the issue of the definite article. In “the coffee black”, “the” applies to “coffee”, but not “black”. So there’s a particular cup of coffee, but it can be served in different ways. In “the black coffee”, however, “the” applies to both “coffee” and “black”. Whereas before the waitress had to find a particular cup of coffee and serve it black, now the waitress has to find a particular black cup of coffee. If we get rid of both of those distractions, it becomes a bit clearer. For instance, consider “The waitress served a cup of coffee cold” and “The waitress served a cold cup of coffee”. Still not exactly the same thing, but now the difference is rather minute, no?

UIP April 24, 2008, 7:47pm

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Thankyou Bismarck, Stephen S and UIP. I have no idea how I ended up reading this, but it has made for a very interesting read!

wickedpygmy July 31, 2009, 1:14am

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