English Grammar/Basic Parts of Speech/Adjectives

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Definition[edit]

An adjective is a part of speech used as a modifier that describes a noun or pronoun:

1. Traditional toys are still popular.

2. You have an interesting job.

3. Your suggestions are helpful.

4. You are gorgeous.

Positions of Adjectives[edit]

There are three positions where an adjective can be placed - before a noun, after a noun, or in the predicate. These positions of adjectives are called attributive, postpositive and predicative respectively.

Attributive Position[edit]

An adjective is in an attributive position when it is placed before the noun it modifies. For example,

1. I found some hilarious pictures. (Hilarious pre-modifies 'pictures'.)

2. Clever people won't stay in such an environment. (Clever pre-modifies 'people'.)

However, pronouns cannot be pre-modified.

Postpositive Position[edit]

An adjective is in an postpositive position when it comes after the noun it modifies. Postpositive adjectives are not as common as attributive and predicative ones, but they are found in a number of fixed expressions. They are also used to post-modify indefinite pronouns because pronouns cannot be pre-modified. For example,

1. We have plenty of rooms available. (Available postmodifies 'rooms'.)

2. There is nothing special. (Special post-modifies 'nothing'. 'There is special nothing' is not acceptable.)

Predicative Position[edit]

An adjective is in an predicative position when it is placed in the predicate of a sentence. In that case, it modifies the subject of the sentence via a linking verb or other linking mechanism. For example,

1. Most students are happy. (Happy modifies 'students' via the linking verb 'are'.)

2. She looked sad. (Sad modifies 'she' via the linking verb 'looked'.)


Most adjectives can be placed either in the attributive or the predicative positions. However, a small number of adjectives are restricted to one position only. For example, some adjectives such as 'previous' can only occur in the attributive position. For example, it is unacceptable to say 'this chapter is previous.' Conversely, some adjectives such as 'afraid' can only occur predicatively. For example, it is unacceptable to say 'the afraid students did not say anything.'

Functions of Adjectives[edit]

There are two main uses of adjectives, namely describing and classifying.

Describing Function/Descriptive Adjective[edit]

An adjective can be used to describe the quality of a noun. It helps answer the question "what is X like?", where X is the noun. For example,

1. The quick fox jumps over the lazy dog. ('Quick' describes the fox. 'Lazy' describes the dog.)

Describing adjectives can be modified by adverbs of degree like 'very' or 'extremely'.

Common Descriptive Adjectives[edit]

A common descriptive adjective is not capitalized.
Example:
The sultry Mariah entertained her fans.

Proper Descriptive Adjectives[edit]

A proper descriptive adjective, being derived from a proper noun, is always capitalized.
Example:
I prefer the Chinese deli to the Japanese restaurant.

Classifying Function/Limiting Adjective[edit]

An adjective can be used to classify a noun. It indicates quantity, number or a limit to the word it modifies. It helps answer the question "what is the type of X?", where X is the noun. For example,

1. These two British tourists know how to speak Italian. ('British' tells us the 'type' (nationality) of the tourists.)

Classifying adjectives cannot be modified by adverbs of degree like 'very' or 'extremely'.

2. I prefer red wine to white wine. ('Very red wine' and 'very white wine' are not acceptable, because 'red' and 'white' function as classifying adjectives here.)

Types of Limiting Adjectives[edit]

  • Numerical adjectives may be cardinal (one, two, three,...) or ordinal *first, second, third,...)
  • Identifying adjectives are such, same and similar.
  • Articles are a and an (indefinite articles) and the (definite articles).
  • Nouns used as adjectives modify another noun or a pronoun.
  • Pronoun Used as Adjectives
    • Demonstrative adjectives are this, these, that and those.
    • Possessive adjectives show ownership. They are my, your, his, her, its, our and their.
    • Interrogative adjectives ask questions. They are which, what, whose and whose. When used they should immediately be followed by a noun.
    • Indefinite adjectives are grouped into three:
      • used with singular nouns - another, each, either, little, much, neither and one.
      • used with plural nouns - both, few, many and several.
      • used with singular or plural nouns - all, any, more, most, other and some.
  • Verbs are used with adjectives when they modify a noun or a pronoun. These verbs are usually in the present participle and past participle forms.
  • Complementary adjectives refer to the direct object and tell the result of the action of the verb on the direct object.

Comparatives and Superlatives[edit]

We change describing adjectives into comparatives and superlatives for making comparisons. The comparative form is used when one thing is compared with another. The superlative form is used when one thing is compared with any other thing in the domain of discussion.

For adjectives with more than two syllables, we always add more before the adjective to form its comparative, and most to form its superlative. For example, the two forms of 'comfortable' are 'more comfortable' and '(the) most comfortable'.

For adjectives with one or two syllables, we normally change the ending of the adjective to -er to make its comparative, and -est to make its superlative. For example, the two forms of 'fast' are 'faster' and 'fastest'.

However, there are some of these short adjectives that can only take 'more/most'. For example, the comparative form of 'active' is 'more active' instead of 'activer'.

There are even some of these adjectives that can either take 'more/most' or '-er/-est'. For example, 'commoner' and 'more common' are both acceptable.

Order of Adjectives[edit]

When more than one adjectives are used to describe a noun, they are usually put in a certain order.

Article/Pronoun used as adjective
Intensifier
Quality
Size
Age
Color
Participle
Noun used as adjective
Head noun

Examples:[edit]

1. A beautiful young French woman (but not 'a French beautiful young woman')

2. A large blue paper bag (but not 'a paper blue large bag')

As a rule of thumb, if the adjective is more about personal opinion or judgement, it is further away from the noun. As a result, classifying adjectives are always closer to the noun than describing adjectives. We say 'expensive white wine' instead of 'white expensive wine'. If two adjectives are both classifiers, the order is usually domain specific - based on how people categorise a certain noun.

Exercises[edit]