What Are Adjectives?

by Craig Shrives
The Quick Answer
Adjectives are describing words.


Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. (Old, green, and cheerful are examples of adjectives.)

Easy Examples of Adjectives

In each example, the adjective is highlighted.

An adjective usually comes directly before the noun or pronoun it describes (or modifies, as they say).
  • old man
  • green coat
  • cheerful one
(When adjectives are used like this, they're called attributive adjectives.)

An adjective can come after the noun.
  • Jack was old.
  • It looks green.
  • (Adjectives can describe – or modify – pronouns too.)
  • He seems cheerful.
In the three examples above, the adjectives have followed linking verbs (was, looks, and seems) to describe the noun or pronoun. (When adjectives are used like this, they're called predicative adjectives.)

Sometimes, an adjective comes immediately after a noun.
  • the Princess Royal
  • time immemorial
  • body beautiful
  • the best seats available
  • the worst manners imaginable
When adjectives are used like this, they're called postpositive adjectives. Postpositive adjectives are most common with pronouns.
  • someone interesting
  • those present
  • something evil

A descriptive adjective will usual fit into one of the following categories:
Appearanceattractive, burly, clean, dusty
Colourazure, blue, cyan, dark
Conditionabsent, broken, careful, dead
Personalityannoying, brave, complex, dizzy
Quantityample, bountiful, countless, deficient
Sensearomatic, bitter, cold, deafening
Size and Shapeangular, broad, circular, deep
Timeancient, brief, concurrent, daily

More about Adjectives

The Transition from Adjectives to "Determiners"

For centuries, the term "adjective" has been used for a word type now called determiners. Determiners are still classified as adjectives by most people but not everyone [evidence]. Determiners indicate qualities such as the following:
  • Possession (e.g., my dog)
  • Specificity (e.g., that dog)
  • Quantity (e.g., one dog)
  • Definiteness (e.g., a dog)
Regardless of whether you classify determiners as adjectives, this much is true: determiners are not like descriptive adjectives. Here are the four main differences between determiners and normal adjectives:

(Difference 1) A determiner cannot have a comparative form.
  • Normal adjective: pretty > prettier
  • (Prettier is the comparative form of pretty.)
  • Determiner: that > [nothing fits here]
  • (There is no comparative form.)
(Difference 2) A determiner often cannot be removed from the sentence.
  • Normal adjectives removed: The young boy stole a silver watch.
  • (This is grammatically sound with the normal adjectives removed.)
  • Determiner: The Young boy stole a silver watch.
  • (The sentence is flawed with the determiners removed.)
(Difference 3) A determiner often refers back to something (i.e., it's like a pronoun).
  • Determiner: Release those prisoners immediately.
  • (The determiner those refers back to something previously mentioned. In other words, it has an antecedent (the thing it refers to).)
(Difference 4) A determiner cannot be used as a subject complement.
  • Normal adjective: She is intelligent.
  • (The normal adjective intelligent can be used after a linking verb (here, is) and function as a subject complement.)
  • Determiner: She is [nothing fits here].
  • (You can't use a determiner as a subject complement. NB: If you think you've found a determiner that fits, then you've found a pronoun not a determiner.)
Below is a brief description of the main determiners. (There is a separate page on each one.)

Possessive Determiners. The possessive determiners (called "possessive adjectives" in traditional grammar) are my, your, his, her, its, our, their, and whose. A possessive determiner sits before a noun (or a pronoun) to show who (or what) owns it.
  • When a man opens a car door for his wife, it's either a new car or a new wife. (Prince Philip)
  • The only time a wife listens to her husband is when he's asleep. (Cartoonist Chuck Jones)
Read more about possessive determiners/adjectives.

Demonstrative Determiners. The demonstrative determiners (called "demonstrative adjectives" in traditional grammar) are this, that, these, and those. A demonstrative determiner makes a noun (or a pronoun) more specific by relating it to something previously mentioned or something being demonstrated.
  • That man's silence is wonderful to listen to. (Novelist Thomas Hardy)
  • Maybe this world is another planet's hell. (Writer Aldous Huxley)
Read more about demonstrative determiners/adjectives.

Articles. The articles are the words a, an, and the. They are used to define whether something is specific or unspecific.
  • The poets are only the interpreters of the gods. (Philosopher Socrates)
  • I'm an optimist – but an optimist who carries a raincoat. (Prime Minister Harold Wilson)
Read more about the articles.

Numbers (or Cardinal Numbers). The cardinal numbers are one, two, three, etc. (as opposed by first, second, third, etc., which are known as ordinal numbers). Cardinal numbers are used to specify quantity. They are part of the group of determiners known as "quantifiers."
  • If two wrongs don't make a right, try three wrongs. (Canadian educator Laurence Peter)
  • One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives. (Greek Tragedian Euripides)
Read more about "quantifiers" on the determiners page.

Indefinite Determiners. The most common indefinite determiners (called "indefinite adjectives" in traditional grammar) are no, any, many, few, several, and some. Indefinite determiners modify nouns in a non-specific way usually relating to quantity. Like numbers, they are part of the group of determiners known as "quantifiers."
  • If you live to be one hundred, you've got it made. Very few people die past that age. (Comedian George Burns)
  • If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee. (US President Abraham Lincoln)
Read more about indefinite determiners/adjectives.

Interrogative Determiners. The most common interrogative determiners (called "interrogative adjectives" in traditional grammar) are which, what, and whose. They are used to ask questions.
  • If you decide that you're indecisive, which one are you?
  • What hair colour do they put on bald person's driving licence?
Read more about interrogative determiners/adjectives.

Nouns Used as Adjectives

Many words that are usually nouns can function as adjectives. For example:
  • autumn colours
  • boat race
  • computer shop
  • Devon cream
  • electricity board
  • fruit fly
Here are some real-life examples:
  • Not all face masks are created equal. (Entrepreneur Hannah Bronfman)
  • You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves. (Premier Joseph Stalin)
When used like adjectives, nouns are known as attributive nouns.

Participles Used as Adjectives

Formed from a verb, a participle is a word that can be used as an adjective. There are two types of participle: Here are some examples of participles as verbs:
  • The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny." (Writer Isaac Asimov)
  • Always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual. (Author Terry Pratchett)
  • While the spoken word can travel faster, you can't take it home in your hand. Only the written word can be absorbed wholly at the convenience of the reader. (Educator Kingman Brewster)
  • We all have friends and loved ones who say 60 is the new 30. No, it's the new 60. (Fashion model Iman)
A participle is classified as a verbal (a verb form that functions as a noun or an adjective).

Infinitives Used as Adjectives

An infinitive verb (e.g., to run, to jump) can also function as an adjective.
  • No human creature can give orders to love. (French novelist George Sand) (Here, the infinitive to love describes the noun orders.)
  • Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity. (Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl)
  • (An infinitive will often head its own phrase. Here, the infinitive phrase to complicate simplicity describes the noun ability.)
Read more about infinitive verbs.

The Order of Adjectives

When two or more adjectives are strung together, they should be ordered according to the following list:
Order Category Examples
1Determinerthe, my, those
2Numberone, two, ninety-nine
3Opinionlovely, attractive, rare
4Sizesmall, medium, large
5Physical Qualitythin, lumpy, cluttered
6Shaperound, square, triangular
7Ageyoung, middle-aged, old
8Colourred, white, blue
9OriginBritish, German, Russian
10Materialwood, metal, plastic
11TypeL-shaped, two-sided, all-purpose
12Purposecooking, supporting, tendering
13Attributive Nounservice, improvement, head
Here is an example of a 14-adjective string (shaded) that is ordered correctly:
  • my two lovely XL thin tubular new white Spanish metallic hinged correcting knee braces.
Regardless of how many adjectives are used (more than 3 is rare), the established order is still followed.
  • That's a lovely, mixing bowl
  • (1: Determiner 2: Opinion 3: Purpose)
  • Who's nicked my two black, wooden spoons?
  • (1: Number 2: Colour 3: Material)
  • Give your ticket to the Italian old waiter.
  • (Age comes before origin. Therefore, the old Italian waiter would have been better.)
This list of precedence is not universally agreed, but all versions are pretty similar. The area of most dispute is age and shape. The order can change for emphasis too. If there were two old waiters, one Italian and one Spanish, then the wrong example above would be correct, and the word Italian would be emphasised.

If you're a native English speaker, you are safe to ignore this list and let your instinct guide you. (You already know this stuff, even if you don't know you know it.)

Read more about the order of adjectives.

Compound Adjectives

Not all adjectives are single words...far from it. Often, a single adjective will comprise two or more words. A single adjective with more than one word is called a compound adjective. For example:
  • Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city. (Comedian George Burns)
  • Be a good-looking corpse. Leave a good-looking tattoo. (Actor Ed Westwick)
  • I like the busted-nose look. (Actor Peter Dinklage)
Compound adjectives are usually grouped with hyphens to show they are one adjective.

Read more about compound adjectives.

Adjective Phrases

In real-life sentences, adjectives are often accompanied by modifiers like adverbs (e.g., very, extremely) and prepositional phrases (e.g., ...with me, ...about the man). In other words, an adjective (shown in bold) will often feature in an adjective phrase (shaded).
  • My bankers are very happy with me. (The popstar formerly known as Prince)
  • (In this example, the adjective phrase describes bankers.)
  • The dragonfly is an exceptionally beautiful insect but a fierce carnivore.
  • (Here, the adjective phrase describes insect.)
Here's a more formal definition:
Read more about adjective phrases.

Adjective Clauses

The last thing to say about adjectives is that clauses can also function as adjectives. With an adjective clause, the clause is linked to the noun being described with a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, that or which) or a relative adverb (when, where or why). Like all clauses, it will have a subject and a verb.
  • The people who make history are not the people who make it but the people who make it and then write about it. (Musician Julian Cope)
  • I live in that solitude which is painful in youth but delicious in the years of maturity. (Physicist Albert Einstein)
  • (It can start getting complicated. In the adjective clause above, painful in youth and delicious in the years of maturity are adjective phrases.)
Here's a formal definition:
Read more about adjective clauses.

Why Should I Care about Adjectives?

This section covers a lot of adjective-associated terms, most of which have their own pages that highlight their quirks and issues. Below are six top-level points linked to adjectives.

(Point 1) Reduce your wordcount with the right adjective.

Try to avoid using words like very and extremely to modify adjectives. Pick better adjectives.
  • very happy boy > delighted boy
  • very angry > livid
  • extremely posh hotel > luxurious hotel
  • really serious look > stern look
The examples above are not wrong, but they are not succinct. The best writing is precise and concise.

(Point 2) Reduce your wordcount by removing adjectives.

Picking the right noun can eliminate the need for an adjective.
  • whaling ship > whaler
  • disorderly crowd > mob
  • organized political dissenting group > faction
You can also reduce your wordcount by removing redundant adjectives.
  • joint cooperation > cooperation
  • necessary requirement > requirement
  • handwritten manuscript > manuscript
The examples above are not wrong, but they are not succinct. The needless repetition of a single concept is known as tautology.

(Point 3) Avoid incomprehensible strings of "adjectives."

In business writing (especially with technical subjects), it is not unusual to encounter strings of attributive nouns. In each example below, the attributive-noun string is shaded.
  • Factor in the service level agreement completion time. (difficult to understand)
  • Engineers will install the email retrieval process improvement software. (difficult)
  • He heads the network services provision team. (difficult)
  • The system needs a remote encryption setting reset. (difficult)
Noun strings like these are difficult to follow. If you use one, you will almost certainly bring the reading flow of your readers to a screeching halt as they stop to unpick the meaning, or, worse, they'll zone out and skim over your words without understanding them.

To avoid such barely intelligible noun strings, do one or all of the following:
  • Completely rearrange the sentence.
  • Convert one of the nouns to a verb.
  • Use hyphens to highlight the compound adjectives.
Here are the reworked sentences:
  • Factor in the time to complete the service-level agreement. (better)
  • Engineers will install the software to improve the email-retrieval process. (better)
  • He heads the team providing network services. (better)
  • The system needs a reset of the remote-encryption setting. (better)

(Point 4) Punctuate your string of adjectives correctly.

With a string of adjectives, it's pretty difficult to mess up the punctuation because the rules are relaxed.

For two adjectives:
  • vast, inhospitable moor (with a comma)
  • vast and inhospitable moor (with and)
  • vast inhospitable moor (with nothing)
For three or more adjectives:
  • vast, inhospitable, windy moor (commas between)
  • vast, inhospitable and windy moor (comma(s) between and then and)
  • (Those who use the Oxford Comma should stick a comma before and.)
  • vast inhospitable windy moor (nothing between)
  • vast inhospitable and windy moor (nothing and then and)
When the string of adjectives is used predicatively, switch to normal writing rules.
  • The moor is vast and inhospitable.
  • The moor is vast, inhospitable and windy.
Adjectives that modify the same noun are called coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives should follow the precedence list above. Be careful with the precedence list though because not all adjectives in a string of adjectives are coordinate. It's fairly common for one of the adjectives and the noun to be inseparable because they belong together as a single semantic unit (a recognised thing).
  • A Chinese wooden guitar.
  • A wooden Spanish guitar.
  • (As a Spanish guitar is a thing, Spanish doesn't take its place according to the precedence list. It can't be separated from guitar.)
  • I was given a Chinese incapacitating drug.
  • I was given an incapacitating Chinese burn.
  • (A Chinese burn is thing. Never heard of it? Ask the school bully.)
Don't think about it too much. Just follow your instincts. You'll get it right.

(Point 5) Don't complete a linking verb with an adverb.

Most writers correctly use an adjective after a linking verb.
  • It tastes nice. It smells nice. It seems nice. By Jove, it is nice.
There's an issue though. For some, the linking verb to feel doesn't feel like a linking verb and, knowing that adverbs modify verbs, they use an adverb.
  • I feel badly for letting you down.
  • (Badly is an adverb. It should be bad.)
This error happens with other linking verbs too, but it's most common with to feel.
  • Bad service and food tasted awfully. (Title of an online restaurant review by "Vanessa")
  • (Awfully is an adverb. It should be awful.)

(Point 6) Use postpositive adjectives for emphasis.

Putting an adjective immediately after a noun (i.e., using the adjective postpositively) is a technique for creating emphasis. (The deliberately changing of normal word order for emphasis is called anastrophe. There's an entry for anastrophe.)
  • I suppressed my thoughts sinful and revengeful.
  • The sea stormy and perilous steadily proceeded.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are compound adjectives? What are adverbs? What are conjunctions? What are interjections? What are nouns? What are prepositions? What are pronouns? What are verbs? A more advanced test on adjectives Compound adjectives Demonstrative adjectives Enumeration of adjectives Indefinite adjectives Interrogative adjectives Predicate adjectives Participles Possessive adjectives