What is an adjective?
Adjectives are used almost exclusively to modify nouns, as well as any phrase or part of speech functioning as a noun. For example:
- “John wears red glasses.” (Red modifies the noun glasses.)
- “A loud group of students passed by.” (Loud modifies the noun phrase group of students.)
- “Excellent writing is required for this job.” (Excellent modifies the gerund writing.)
Adjectives are broken down into two basic syntactic categories: attributive and predicative.
Let’s compare two examples to highlight this difference:
- “The black dog is barking.”
- “The dog was black.”
In the first sentence, black is an attributive adjective. It is part of the noun phrase and is not connected to the noun dog by a linking verb. In the second sentence, though, black is a predicative adjective. It follows dog, the noun that it modifies, and is connected to it by the linking verb was.
While adjectives usually modify nouns, they can also modify pronouns. This most commonly occurs when adjectives are predicative. For example:
- “That was great!”
- “She is very nice.”
- “A few were late.”
Attributive adjectives can also modify indefinite pronouns, as in:
- “A happy few were able to attend the show.”
- “They were the lucky ones.”
In informal speech or writing, it is not uncommon to modify personal pronouns attributively, as in:
- “Wow, lucky you!”
- “Silly me, I forgot to turn on the oven.”
However, avoid using attributive adjectives with personal pronouns in anything other than casual conversation or writing.
Other categories of adjectives
There is a huge variety of adjectives in English. While many words are inherently adjectival, such as colors (red, black, yellow, etc.) or characteristics (strong, weak, nice, etc.), there are also several categories of adjectives that are formed from other sources. The table below gives a brief breakdown of these different categories of adjectives, along with some examples of how they are used in a sentence. Go to each individual section to learn more.
Category of Adjective
Formed from proper nouns to create descriptive words.
Italian, Shakespearean, Alaskan, Middle Eastern, Nordic
“He writes in a Shakespearean style.”
Created from two or more words that work together to modify the same noun; they are often joined with one or more hyphens.
top-right, last-minute, sugar-free, record-breaking, expensive-looking
“I know this is a last-minute suggestion, but it’s a good idea.”
(also called Demonstrative Determiners)
Used to specify what we are referring to and whether it is singular or plural, and to give more information about its proximity to the speaker.
this, that, these, those
“These cups are very pretty.”
(also called Interrogative Determiners)
Usually used to ask questions about something.
what, which, whose
“Whose computer is this?”
Adjectives that perform the function of a noun in a sentence. They are preceded by the word the and can be found as the subject or the object of a sentence or clause.
the best, the strongest, the blue
“He wants the red car, but I want the blue.”
A subgroup of nominal adjectives, used to refer to a group of people based on a shared characteristic.
the rich, the poor, the innocent, the French, the Americans, the Dutch
“The rich should help the poor.”
Adjective Phrases and Clauses
In addition to the single-word adjectives we looked at above, we can also use adjective phrases and relative clauses (also called adjective clauses) to modify nouns. We’ll look at both briefly below, but to learn more about how they are formed and used, go to their respective sections in this chapter.
The adjective around which an adjective phrase is formed is known as the head word or head adjective of the phrase.
Adjective phrases can be either attributive (appearing before the nouns they modify) or predicative (appearing after a linking verb)
- “You have a beautiful voice.” (head word beautiful plus the determiner a)
- “He is a very good swimmer.” (head word good plus the determiner a and the adverb very)
- “We were all completely exhausted.” (head word exhausted plus the adverb completely)
- “I am perfectly content on my own.” (head word content plus the adverb perfectly and the adverbial prepositional phrase on my own)
- “They felt relieved to return home.” (head word relieved plus the adverbial infinitive phrase to return home)
Note that prepositional phrases can also function as adjectives. These are considered adjectival phrases rather than true adjective phrases, because there is not a head adjective at the root of the phrase. Adjectival prepositional phrases always appear directly after the noun they modify.
- “The cat on the shed was old.” (modifies the noun cat)
- “Please hand me that book over there.” (modifies the noun book)
Relative Clauses (Adjective Clauses)
Relative clauses (also known as adjective or adjectival clauses) are dependent clauses that provide descriptive information about a noun or noun phrase. If the information it presents is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it is known as a restrictive clause; if it is extra information that is not essential, it is known as a non-restrictive clause.
- “There’s the woman who always sits next to me on the bus.” (restrictive clause introduced by the relative pronoun who, modifying woman)
- “The book that I wrote is being published in January.” (restrictive clause introduced by the relative pronoun that, modifying book)
- “The escaped giraffe, which had been on the loose for weeks, was finally captured.” (non-restrictive clause introduced by the relative pronoun which, modifying giraffe)
- “The house where I was born is a very special place.” (restrictive clause introduced by the relative pronoun where, modifying house)
- “I love casual Fridays, when we get to wear jeans to work.” (non-restrictive clause introduced by the relative adverb when, modifying casual Fridays)
We often use multiple adjectives to modify the same noun or pronoun. Note that these are not compound adjectives or adjective phrases, but rather individual adjectives that work independently to modify the same word.
To avoid unnatural-sounding sentences when we use more than one adjective in this way, we put them in a specific order according to the type of description they provide. This is known as the order of adjectives:
- 1. Opinion (good, bad, strange, lovely)
- 2. Measurement (big, small, tiny, huge)
- 3. Shape (curved, straight, round, square)
- 4. Condition (wet, dry, clean, sad, happy)
- 5. Age (old, young, new, ancient)
- 6. Color (red, yellowish, transparent, blue)
- 7. Pattern (checked, striped, plaid, flowered)
- 8. Origin (American, British, eastern, western)
- 9. Material (wooden, plastic, steel, cloth)
- 10. Purpose (sleeping, shopping, work, gardening)
While we would almost never use a sentence with so many adjectives in a row, it’s very common to use two or three. In this case, we generally must follow the order above, as in:
- “I bought an enormous rectangular Turkish rug on my vacation.”
- “It is a long, heavy table.”
Note that in some circumstances we separate adjectives with commas and/or the coordinating conjunction and, while in other cases we use them without any separation at all. To learn more about the rules that determine this, go to the section on the Order of Adjectives later in this chapter.
Degrees of comparison
We can also use adjectives to create comparisons between two or more people or things, or to identify someone or something with the highest (or lowest) degree of some quality. To do this, we inflect (change the form of) the adjective to create comparative adjectives or superlative adjectives. For example:
- “I am strong.” (basic adjective)
- “John is stronger than I am.” (comparative adjective)
- “Janet is the strongest of us all.” (superlative adjective)
This process of changing an adjective’s form is known as the Degrees of Comparison; go to that section in this chapter to learn more.
Adjectives and Determiners
Adjectives and determiners both provide extra information about a noun (or pronoun). But while adjectives provide descriptive, modifying information about a noun, determiners are used to introduce and specify a noun.
The most common determiners are the articles the and a/an. These indicate whether a noun is specific or general (i.e., the book vs. a book). Numbers can also act as determiners, as in three books, 10 books, 1000 books, etc.
However, there are a number of categories of adjectives that are also considered to be types of determiners—they share the features of both. These are:
- demonstrative adjectives (this, that, these, those—also called demonstrative determiners);
- possessive adjectives (my, his, your, our—also called possessive determiners);
- interrogative adjectives (what, which, whose—also called interrogative determiners);
- distributive determiners (each, every, either—also called distributive adjectives;
- quantifiers (many, much, several, little)
Demonstratives and interrogatives are more commonly classed as adjectives, while possessives and distributives are more commonly classed as determiners; this is how they are grouped in this guide. Quantifiers are much harder to distinguish, but, for the purposes of this guide, they are covered in the chapter on Determiners.
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