Inherent and Non-inherent Adjectives

Most attributive adjectives denote some attribute of the noun which they modify. For instance, the phrase a red car may be said to denote a car which is red. In fact most adjective-noun sequences such as this can be loosely reformulated in a similar way:

an old man ~a man who is old
difficult questions ~questions which are difficult
round glasses ~glasses which are round

This applies equally to postpositive adjectives:

something understood   ~something which is understood
the people responsible   ~the people who are responsible

In each case the adjective denotes an attribute or quality of the noun, as the reformulations show. Adjectives of this type are known as INHERENT adjectives. The attribute they denote is, as it were, inherent in the noun which they modify.

However, not all adjectives are related to the noun in the same way. For example, the adjective small in a small businessman does not describe an attribute of the businessman. It cannot be reformulated as a businessman who is small. Instead, it refers to a businessman whose business is small. We refer to adjectives of this type as NON-INHERENT adjectives. They refer less directly to an attribute of the noun than inherent adjectives do. Here are some more examples, showing the contrast betwen inherent and non-inherent:

Inherent Non-inherent
distant hills distant relatives
a complete chapter a complete idiot
a heavy burden a heavy smoker
a social survey a social animal
an old man an old friend
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