Adjectives

Adjectives are words used to describe or modify nouns or pronouns. For example, red, quick, happy, and obnoxious are adjectives because they can describe things—a red hatthe quick rabbita happy duckan obnoxious person.  

Adjectives take many forms. Some are formed when we add a suffix to a noun or verb. For example, when we add the suffix -ful to the noun beauty,makes the adjective beautiful, and adding the suffix -able to the verb read makes the adjective readable. Other suffixes often used to create adjectives include -al, -ary, -able and -ible, -ish, -ic, -ical-less, -like, -ous, -some, and -ySome adjectives take the form of participles (verbs ending in -ed or -ing), and many others are not formed from nouns or verbs but are original in themselves—for example, closedeep, slow. 

Though we usually think of adjectives as words, phrases and clauses can also function adjectivally. For example, in the sentence, “The man wearing the hat winked at me,” the phrase wearing a hat modifies the noun man, so it is an adjective phrase. And in the sentence, “The man, who was carrying a book, winked at me,” who was carrying a book is a clause modifying the noun man, so it is an adjective clause.

Adjective placement

In relation to nouns

In general, an adjective goes before the noun it modifies, unless special emphasis on the adjective is needed. In a pair of words, the second is usually perceived to have greater emphasis. So, in these examples, the noun has the most emphasis:

old dog
burnt trees

And in these, the adjective is emphasized:

songs half-heard
words unspoken

Adjectives that come after the nouns they modify are postpositive adjectives. These are rare in English, but there are a few adjectives that are always postpositive (galoreextraordinaire), and adjectives are sometimes postpositive when the writer wants to sound poetic.

With possessives

When an adjective is used to describe a noun denoting something owned, the adjective should follow the possessive noun or pronoun:

my sister’s yellow watch
the girls’ blue shoes
her husband’s warm embrace

Introducing the subject

An adjective, especially a participial adjective, may introduce the subject of a sentence. Such an adjective is usually set apart by a comma:

Running, she made it home in time.

Big and white, the birds land recklessly.

With such sentences, make sure the introductory adjective applies directly to the noun it modifies. Otherwise, the adjective becomes a dangler—for example:

Playing video games, the hours just flew by.

The subject of this sentence is the hours, and it’s not the hours that are playing video games. Most English speakers would infer the meaning of this sentence, but it is nevertheless poorly formed.

Predicate adjectives

A predicate adjective is a descriptive word that, along with a linking verb, functions as the predicate of a sentence. The underlined words in the below examples are predicate adjectives, each applying to the subject of its sentence:

The kittens were unimpressed.

The sky was multicolored.

The stove is very clean.

The haughty bureaucrats visiting the magical village in the middle of the forest on the second day of the Year of the Rat were distracted.

Comparative and superlative adjectives

In English, there are three degrees of adjectives:

  1. Positive adjectives (e.g., rich): express a quality of an object without comparing it to anything else.
  2. Comparative adjectives (e.g., richer): compare two things or groups of things.
  3. Superlative adjectives (e.g., richest): express that one thing has a quality to a greater degree than two or more other things.

Forming comparatives and superlatives

  1. For comparing two things, the -est suffix is never appropriate, though this rule is often broken in informal speech and writing.
  2. To create a comparative or superlative adjective out of a single-syllable adjective ending in a single vowel followed by a single consonant, double the vowel and add the suffix—e.g., fatfatterfattest.
  3. When the positive adjective ends in a silent e, remove the e and add the suffix—e.g., latelaterlatest.
  4. Adjectives of three or more syllables use more and most instead of -er and -est—e.g., familiarmore familiarmost familiar.
  5. Some adjectives of two syllables also take more and most—e.g., activemore activemost active. Some use the comparative and superlative suffixes—e.g., shabbyshabbiershabbiest. There is no easy way to know which words fall into which category, so they must be memorized.
  6. Participles used as adjectives take more and most instead of -er and -est—e.g, outmodedmore outmodedmost outmodedboringmore boringmost boring.

Irregular comparative and superlative adjectives

A few adjectives have irregular comparative and superlative forms. These are the most common:

Participial adjectives

participial adjective is a past participle (i.e., an -ed word) or present participle (an -ing word) that functions as an adjective. Participial adjectives work like any other type of adjective. For example, the participle in each of these phrases modifies the noun that follows:

the emptied boxes
a flashing light
the undulating waves
the crashed jetliner

When a participial adjective appears before the main clause of a sentence, the participle should come directly before the noun in the main clause. Otherwise, it becomes a dangler. For example, this is troublesome:

Once emptied, we put the boxes in the basement.

With this construction, the participial adjective emptied applies to the pronoun we, and we is obviously not what emptied is supposed to apply to. One way to revise this sentence would be,

Once the boxes were empty, we put them in the basement.

Proper adjectives

proper adjective is an adjective derived from a proper noun. They usually begin with capital letters—for example:

Iranian embassy
Spanish galleon
Napoleonic warfare
Germanic tribes
Australian dollar

noun modified by a proper adjective should not be capitalized. For example, Iranian Embassy and Spanish Galleon are incorrect.

In general, it’s best to avoid using a place name as an adjective when the name contains more than one word. You can get away with phrases like New York minute or San Francisco fog, but, especially when the name has a comma, using it as an adjective makes the sentence difficult—for example:

Nirvana, the Seattle, Washington band that had kicked off grunge’s breakthrough into mainstream music, was scheduled to headline the festival . . .

Some writers put another comma after the state, creating clunky sentences like this:

Both candidates mentioned meeting the Toledo, Ohio, man on the campaign trail, and tied him into their economic plans. [Daily Orange]

One way to fix sentences like these is to cut out the state name—the Seattle band, the Toledo man. If the city shares a name with other cities in other states, consider putting the state in parenthesesCharleston (West Virginia) manthe Columbus (Ohio) band.

See also

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