Part of Speech of Words in 'by Approximately Five O'clock'

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Senior Member
Standard Japanese, Sendaian Japanese
Hi. A quick query.

What part of speech are the bold words? Dictionaries say "o'clock" is an adverb. I think "five" is a noun. "Approximately" is an adverb. But does an adverb modify a noun? Grammatically 'No.' Then what is wrong?

You should come back by approximately five o'clock.
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  • languageGuy

    Senior Member
    USA and English
    I think it is helps to consider 'five' as an adjective modifying an implied noun ('hours'). Then 'approximately' is an adverb modifying an adjective.

    "o'clock" functions as an adverb also modifying 'five'.


    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Tricky. If you compare 'We left at five o'clock' to 'We left at midday/sunset/dawn' you see that 'five o'clock' is probably a noun phrase. So 'o'clock' could be the noun heading the noun phrase, with 'five' an ordinary determiner as in 'five hours'. But why is 'o'clock' not plural?

    So instead, 'five' must be the head of the noun phrase, with 'o'clock' a modifier of it. 'Five' was traditionally called a pronoun in this position (head of a noun phrase), but the Cambridge Grammar chooses to analyse it as the same part of speech as it is in 'five hours', that is a determiner. (Which they call a determinative, a word I don't like.) This determiner is the head of the noun phrase.

    A few adverbs do modify determiners: almost none, almost every, hardly any, about five (adverb: compare 'about ready').

    'O'clock' is hard to be sure of, because it only occurs in this position, but if we compare 'five o'clock' to 'five in the morning' and 'five at night', that would suggest to me it could be a preposition. Prepositions after they thing they modify are awkward anyway: 'five hours ago' - preposition or adverb?
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    Senior Member
    United States, English
    o'clock was originally of the clock, which was gradually shortened to the modern form. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation is pretty easy to understand, though the spelling is archaic:

    Ten of the clokke it was tho as I gesse. Chaucer, c. 1386

    So I suppose I would analyze the parts of speech as follows:

    by(preposition) [approximately five o'clock](phrasal object of preposition)

    approximately(adverb modifying the adjective five)

    five(adjective) hours(noun, unstated) [of the clock](prepositional phrase modifying hours)

    of(preposition) the(article) clock(noun, object of the preposition of)

    Whew!!! I'm glad it was only a short phrase!!! ;)


    New Member
    Spanish - Argentina
    What type of adverb is approximately in this case? I mean what semantic implication approximately has in that sentence.


    Senior Member
    What type of adverb is approximately in this case? I mean what semantic implication approximately has in that sentence.
    I would call it an adverb of degree, i.e., an adverb that answers the question, 'To what degree?' I'm quite sure that, in the topic sentence, 'approximately' has the meaning of 'around' or 'close to', as in: You should be back around five.
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