Parts of speech
What Does an Adjective Describe?
Adjectives are words that are used to describe or modify nouns or pronouns. For example, red, quick, happy, and obnoxious are adjectives because they can describe things—a red hat, the quick rabbit, a happy duck, an obnoxious person.
How Adjectives Work
Adjectives take many forms. Some common adjectives 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 -y. Some 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, close, deep, slow.
Though we usually think of adjectives as words, these parts of speech are 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 modifiesthe 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 vs. Adverb: What’s the Difference?
We know that adjectives describe nouns and pronouns, while adverbs describe verbs. For example, “lavish lifestyle” is an adjective phrase where “lavish” is the adjective and “lifestyle” is the noun it modifies. “living lavishly” is an adverbial phrase, where “living” is a verb and “lavishly” is an adverb.
However, this difference is incomplete. Adjectives can also be objective complements for linking verbs. For example:
- You seem happy about your new partner.
- I feel bad about eating the last slice.
- She doesn’t feel good enough for him.
In the first sentence, “happy” is an adjective that complements the noun “seems.” In the second sentence, the adjective “bad” complements “feel.”
The lack of knowledge about adjectives being complements for linking verbs is the reason for a common type of grammatical error. Many incorrectly use an adverb instead of a predicate adjective. Instead of saying “I feel bad,” some say, “I feel badly.”
Some of us only know that adjectives go hand in hand with nouns and pronouns. That is why the verb “feel” seems to look for an adverb instead of an adjective.
Consider the adjective “good,” whose adverb counterpart is “well” instead of “goodly.” To “smell good” is a correct statement because it means that someone or something has a good smell.
To “smell well” may also be correct, but it has a different meaning. It could mean someone has a good sense of smell.
In relation to nouns
In general, an adjective goes before the noun it modifies, it most cases it will precede the noun, 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:
And in these, the adjective is emphasized:
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 (galore, extraordinaire), and adjectives are sometimes postpositive when the writer wants to sound poetic.
As most adjectives are placed before the noun that they are modifying, there are some general rules for deciding in which order to list multiple adjectives. The general guidelines are as follows:
- Opinion or quality – such as beautiful or priceless
- Number or quantity – such as few, an or three
- Size – such as gargantuan or petite
- Shape – such as square or oblong
- Age – such as young or aged
- Color – such as red, pink or ash
- Origin – such as Greek or Dutch
- Material – such as wooden or plastic
- Qualifier – the qualifier is an adjective that denotes the item’s type or purpose, some examples are evening bag and cooking pot
This list may vary slightly from style guide to style guide, though the components are the same.
Demonstrative adjectives are used to indicate a particular noun or pronoun in a sentences. The demonstrative adjective is helpful when two or more people or things are being referenced, and the writer wants to clearly pinpoint which person or thing is meant. Some examples of the use of demonstrative adjectives:
this dog bit my toe, but that dog licked my face
these clothes have been washed, those clothes are still dirty
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
The possessive adjective, also known as a possessive determiner, is used to indicate ownership, or it may indicate a close relationship. Possessive adjectives are whose, my, your, our, its, her, his, their. Possessive adjectives differ from possessive pronouns. Remember, a possessive adjective modifies a noun. A possessive pronoun is used in the place of a noun.
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.
A predicate adjective is a descriptive adjective or 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.
Three Forms Of Adjectives
In English, there are three forms of adjectives:
- Positive adjectives (e.g., rich): express a quality of an object without comparing it to anything else.
- Comparative adjectives (e.g., richer): compare two things or groups of things.
- 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
- For comparing two things, the -est suffix is never appropriate, though this rule is often broken in informal speech and writing.
- 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 consonant and add the suffix—e.g., fat, fatter, fattest.
- When the positive adjective ends in a silent e, remove the e and add the suffix—e.g., late, later, latest.
- Adjectives of three or more syllables use more and most instead of -er and -est—e.g., familiar, more familiar, most familiar.
- Some adjectives of two syllables also take more and most—e.g., active, more active, most active. Some use the comparative and superlative suffixes—e.g., shabby, shabbier, shabbiest. There is no easy way to know which words fall into which category, so they must be memorized.
- Participles used as adjectives take more and most instead of -er and -est—e.g, outmoded, more outmoded, most outmoded; boring, more boring, most boring.
Can You Use a Superlative of Two?
We need at least two subjects to compare to express comparison. But to use the superlative form of an adjective for two subjects is incorrect.
Grammarians in the 18th century believed it was inappropriate to use a superlative of two. One should state that something is better of the two instead of being the best.
Instead of saying, “she’s the tallest among the twins,” it should be “she’s taller among the twins.”
If a group only had Nicole and Nick, Nicole would be smarter, and Nick would be sportier. But it would be ungrammatical to say that Nicole is the smartest.
Many linguists have protested against this grammar rule. But the Dictionary of English Usage calls this a “perfect shibboleth.” It means it doesn’t have any purpose but to separate those who follow the rules from those who do not.
Several writers also used superlatives of two in their pieces. Using it in an informal context may be acceptable as long as the person you’re talking to understands you. But for certainty, always use the comparative degree for two subjects.
Irregular comparative and superlative adjectives
A few adjectives have irregular comparative and superlative forms. These are the most common:
- bad, worse, worst
- far, farther/further, farthest/furthest
- good, better, best
- old (referring to people), elder, eldest
A 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 pronounwe, 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.
A proper adjective is an adjective derived from a proper noun. They usually begin with capital letters—for example:
A 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 parentheses—Charleston (West Virginia) man, the Columbus (Ohio) band.
When Nouns Become Adjectives and Adjectives Become Nouns
Sometimes, we can use a noun to describe a fellow noun. These are called adjectival nouns. Here are some examples of this kind of adjective in sentences:
- It’s a war story (War as the adjective and story as the noun).
- I like my English professor (English as the adjective and professor as the noun).
- She wore a tennis bracelet (Tennis as the adjective and bracelet as the noun).
Remember that “nouns as adjectives” always appear before the actual noun. “Saddle” describes the noun “bag,” but “bag” does not describe the noun “saddle.” Also, “English” modifies “professor,” but “professor” doesn’t modify “English.
But adjectives can also function as nouns. For example, when a person is “rich and famous,” we can simply say “the rich and famous” as a noun. The same is true for “sick people,” whom we can refer to as “the sick.” For example:
- The rich and famous only have access to this private island.
- To shelter the homeless is one of the corporal works of mercy.
- The accused is found guilty.
Adjectives as nouns can be singular or plural. In the first sentence example above, “the rich and famous” refers to more than one rich and famous individual. In the last example, “the accused” is only one person.
You can also use adjectives as nouns without the article “the.” Here are some examples:
- I work in the nursing home to take care of our elders.
- The government should protect minors by raising the age of consent.
Another characteristic of adjectives as nouns is that they don’t use an apostrophe and s (‘s) to show ownership. Instead of saying “the wealthy’s demand,” one can say the long form “the demand of the wealthy.” Instead of saying “the poor’s struggle,” it should be “the struggle of the poor.”
See Also Examples of Adjectives
- For a list of adjectives derived from animals (e.g. asinine, feline), see animal adjectives.
- If you’re wondering how to use adjectives made of multiple words, see phrasal adjectives.
- For adjectives that limit nouns, see definite and indefinite articles.
I hope this has clarified what an adjective is and how to properly use it. The English language is one of the hardest in the world to learn, even for someone who is an English speaker. So, don’t worry if it takes time to learn the ropes of things like types of adjectives, the difference between adjectives, or how to use them to make grammatical sense in writing.
If you have further questions about anything from the use of a single adjective to demonstrative pronouns, let us know!