A Curious-Minded Look at Nouns With-ed
Words like talented and glossy-paged represent a curious feature of English: adjectives that seemingly take the past participle verbal ending -ed, but that do not derive from verbs. Various questions may arise when confronted with such adjectives. Why can you say talented when there is no lexicalized verb to talent? Why does a glossy-paged book sound natural but a paged book, a concreted wall or a five-houred drive sound strange? Read on for answers to these queries, along with various observations about this type of adjective.
What’s in an Adjective?
Adjectives composed of a noun (or noun phrase) and the suffix -ed have several names1 in linguistic literature, and for brevity and consistency, this article will call them possessional adjectives.
Possessional adjectives, as their name suggests, have evolved to denote “with/having” (e.g. bushy-tailed, red-buttoned), “characterized by” (e.g. absent-minded, broken-hearted), or “resembling” (e.g. ox-eyed Hera, a baby-faced teen). This explains why the modifiers in concrete wall and five-hour drive, which denote “consisting of”, take a different form.
Possessional adjectives have a moderately literary flavour, and so more colloquial expressions, like one-trick pony, and mundane expressions, like box-spring mattress, double-flue chimney and four-door car, tend to be unsuffixed. Metaphorical terms in the possessional-adjective structure abound, such as lily-livered for “cowardly” and open-handed for “generous”. We also see possessional adjectives regularly accompanied by the literary prefix be- (meaning “wearing” or “covered by”), such as in besuited and bespectacled and even in mock-literary neologisms like betoupeed and beculotted.
A Look at Structure
We see possessional adjectives sporting several different morphological constructions:
|bare noun + -ed||a conceited remark, pajamaed2 kids|
|adjective + noun + -ed||a bad-tempered child, a broad-shouldered athlete|
|adverb + noun + -ed||a well-intentioned remark, a socially minded startup|
|noun + noun + -ed||a pout-lipped model, a dad-bodded guy|
|number + noun + -ed||a three-eyed creature, a two-pronged approach|
Bare or Modified
Possessional adjectives, like all adjectives, are used when providing information that is not already obvious. A bearded man sounds natural, because bearded provides information not contained in our prototypical understanding of man. Paged book, by contrast, sounds odd: pages are taken to be an intrinsic quality of books. The Gricean maxim of quantity can explain the linguistic oddness of modifiers that provide information we already assume ‘goes without saying’:
Be as informative as you can, and give as much information as is needed, and no more.
Paged becomes meaningful only when modified (e.g. glossy-paged, many-paged) or in special pragmatic contexts, such as the rare case when one needs to distinguish the modern concept of books from pageless pre-codex devices like the diptych.
A Long and Productive History
Evidence shows that possessional adjectives have appeared in English since its inception. The Oxford English Dictionary traces two distinct -ed suffixes. One, the participial suffix, attaches to verb stems (e.g. sadden, bleach) to form the past tense or past participle (e.g. saddened, bleached) and appears in Old English as -ed, -ad, -od and -ud; the other is the subject of this article and appears primarily as -ede (e.g. þrihlidede “three-lidded”), but is often spelled just like the participial suffix in Old English (e.g. þribeddod “three-bedded”).
The Interplay Between Participial and Possessional -ed
The two -ed forms have been conflated throughout the history of English. Several literary figures of the 18th and 19th centuries, including Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, criticized the use of “objectionable epithets” like talented due to the perceived ungrammaticality of adding a verbal suffix to a noun.
I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented…Why not shillinged, farthinged, tenpenced, &c.? The formation of a participle passive from a noun is a licence that nothing but a very peculiar felicity can excuse.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Table-Talk (1836)
Possessional adjectives can convey a passive notion, just as is found in the past tense of verbs (think saddened, opened, etc.). A recent example is the move from the adjective transgendered to the current, accepted adjectival form transgender:
The most common objection to [transgendered]…is that the “ed” makes it sound like “something has been done to us,” as if they weren’t the same person all along.
“Why It's Best to Avoid the Word 'Transgendered'” by Katy Steinmetz, published in Time Magazine in 2014
Compound adjectives, including the possessional type, were abundant in Shakespeare’s writing.
King Lear 2.4.151 (1605–1606)
jealousy…is the green-eyed monster...
Othello 3.3.165-66 (1603–1604)
Possessional adjectives are still frequently and creatively employed, likely because they can pack a punch into what otherwise would be a wordier expression. Try rewording the following phrase without using possessional adjectives—can you make it sound as pithy?
[Sweden’s] finance minister, the earringed and formerly pony-tailed Anders Borg
a 2014 article published in the UK’s The Spectator
The -ed suffix is a fascinating example of a form that plays two morphosyntactic roles in English: its primary role as an inflectional marker on verbs and its secondary role as a possessional adjective, a deriver of adjectives from nouns. Possessional adjectives can teach us a lot about the English language through how its speakers coin, use and interpret them. We hope our linguistically minded readers enjoyed this brief delve into the storied language that is English!
1 : These noun + -ed adjectives are variously named possessional adjectives, -ed ‘having’ forms, derivational compound adjectives (for the forms composed of two or more words like lion-hearted) and denominal adjectives (for the one-word forms like bearded).
2 : When the final element before the suffix ends in a vowel, the -ed suffix can be spelled as ed or ‘d (pajama’d or pajamaed).