What Are Adjectives?

Adjectives are words that describe nouns or pronouns. In other words, they describe people, places, or things. (In schools, adjectives are often introduced as "describing words.")

Examples of Adjectives

"Old," "green," and "cheerful" are examples of adjectives. In these examples, the adjectives are highlighted, and the nouns are in bold.
  • old man
  • green field
  • cheerful parrot
Here are some adjectives in sentences:
  • John is a tall boy.
  • New York is a busy city.
  • This is a tasty apple.
The words being described are nouns. Be aware that grammarians like to say that the adjectives are "modifying" the nouns, rather than "describing" them.

Adjectives can also describe pronouns. In these examples, the pronouns are in bold:

  • He is happy.
  • She was beautiful.
  • It smells lovely.
When adjectives modify (i.e., describe) pronouns, the adjectives usually come after the pronouns, but not always.
  • a beautiful one.
We will cover the positioning of adjectives later in the lesson.

In the End, Adjectives Always Modify Nouns

When an adjective modifies a pronoun, it is actually modifying a noun. Remember that a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. For example:
  • John is a brilliant comedian. He is funny.
In this example, the first adjective ("brilliant") modifies the noun "comedian," and the second ("funny") modifies the pronoun "he." However, "he" represents the noun "John." So, in reality, "funny" is modifying a noun. It doesn't matter how complex your sentence is. If you have an adjective, it is – in the final analysis – modifying a noun.

Find the Adjective Test

It's your go! Select the adjective in the following sentences.

Table of Contents

  • The Position of Adjectives
  • Descriptive Adjectives and Determiners
  • Video Lesson
  • More about Determiners
  • Nouns Used as Adjectives
  • Participles Used as Adjectives
  • Infinitives Used as Adjectives
  • The Order of Adjectives
  • Compound Adjectives
  • Adjective Phrases
  • Adjective Clauses
  • Why Adjectives Are Important
  • Test Time!

The Position of Adjectives

Here are some more examples of adjectives. (In each example, the adjective is highlighted.)

Adjective Before the Noun

An adjective usually comes directly before the noun it describes (or "modifies," as grammarians say).
  • old man
  • green field
  • cheerful one
  • ("One" is a type of pronoun. Pronouns are words that replace nouns. So, adjectives can modify pronouns too.)
When adjectives are used like this, they're called attributive adjectives.

Adjective After the Noun

An adjective can come after the noun.
  • Jack was old.
  • It looks green.
  • He seems cheerful.
In the three examples above, the adjectives follow linking verbs ("was," "looks," and "seems") to describe the noun or pronoun. (When adjectives are used like this, they're called predicate adjectives.)

Adjective Immediately After the Noun

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 more common with pronouns.
  • someone interesting
  • those present
  • something evil

Type of Adjective Test

It's your go! Select the type of adjective in the following sentences:

Infographic for Adjectives

This infographic shows where an adjective sits in relation to the noun it describes:
What are adjectives?

More about Adjectives

Descriptive Adjectives and Determiners

All the adjectives we've seen so far have been descriptive adjectives. A descriptive adjective will usually 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
In traditional grammar, words like "his," "this," "many," and even "a" and "the" are also classified as adjectives. However, in contemporary grammar, such words are classified as determiners.

So, for many people, the word "adjective" refers only to descriptive adjectives. The rise of the term "determiner" means that we now have nine parts of speech, not the traditional eight.

Video Lesson

Here is a video summarizing this lesson on adjectives. video lesson

Lessons on Adjectives for Learners

This lesson starts to get technical from this point. If you're teaching learners or non-native-English speakers, you might like the following lessons:

More about Determiners

Here is a table showing the different types of determiners:
Possessive Determiners.
  • "my," "your," "his," "her," "its," "our," "their," and "whose."
  • 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.
  • "this," "that," "these," and "those."
  • 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.
  • "a," "an," and "the."
  • 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).
  • "one," "two," "three," etc.
  • 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.
  • "no," "any," "many," "few," "several," "some," etc.
  • 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.
  • "which," "what," and "whose."
  • 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.
Read more about the difference between adjectives and determiners.

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 adjectives:
  • 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.")

Type of Adjective Test 2

It's your go! What type of adjective is the bold word in the following sentences?

The Order of Adjectives

When two or more adjectives are strung together, they should be ordered according to the following list:
PlacementType of AdjectiveExamples
  • Article,
  • Demonstrative Determiner, or
  • Possessive Determiner
  • a, an, the
  • this, that, those, these
  • my, your, his, our
  • 2Quantityone, three, ninety-nine
    3Opinion or Observationbeautiful, clever, witty, well-mannered
    4Sizebig, medium-sized, small
    5Physical Qualitythin, lumpy, cluttered
    6Shapesquare, round, long
    7Ageyoung, middle-aged, old
    8Colour/Colorred, blue, purple
    9Origin or ReligionFrench, Buddhist
    10Material metal, leather, wooden
    11Type L-shaped, two-sided, all-purpose
  • Purpose, or
  • Attributive Noun
  • mixing, drinking, cooking
  • service, football, 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. wrong cross
    • (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 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 emphasized.

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

    Using Commas with a List of Adjectives

    In order to understand when to use commas between multiple adjectives, you must learn the difference between cumulative adjectives and coordinate adjectives.

    With cumulative adjectives, specificity builds with each adjective, so you cannot separate cumulative adjectives with commas, and they must follow the order of precedence in the table above. Coordinate adjectives are different. They describe the noun independently, which means they can follow any order. Coordinate adjectives should be separated with commas or the word "and." Here are some examples of each type:

    Cumulative adjectives:
    • A bright green metal mixing bowl
    • (These are cumulative adjectives. Their order cannot be changed. They follow the precedent list. There are no commas.)
    Coordinate adjectives:
    • A green, lumpy bowl
    • A lumpy, green bowl
    • (These are coordinate adjectives. As shown, their order can be changed. They should be separated with commas or the word "and.")
    Read more about the order of adjectives and punctuating them.

    Compound Adjectives

    Not all adjectives are single words. Often, a single adjective will consist of 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.

    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:

    Formal Definition for Adjective Phrase

    An adjective phrase is a group of words headed by an adjective that describes a noun.

    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:

    Formal Definition for Adjective Clause

    An adjective clause is a multi-word adjective that includes a subject and a verb.

    Why Adjectives Are Important

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

    (Point 1) Reduce your word count with the right adjective.

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

    (Point 2) Reduce your word count by removing adjectives.

    Picking the right noun can eliminate the need for an adjective.
    • whaling ship wrong cross > whaler correct tick
    • disorderly crowd wrong cross > mob correct tick
    • organized political dissenting group wrong cross > faction correct tick
    You can also reduce your word count by removing redundant adjectives.
    • joint cooperation wrong cross > cooperation correct tick
    • necessary requirement wrong cross > requirement correct tick
    • handwritten manuscript wrong cross > manuscript correct tick
    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. wrong cross (difficult to understand)
    • Engineers will install the email retrieval process improvement software. wrong cross (difficult)
    • He heads the network services provision team. wrong cross (difficult)
    • The system needs a remote encryption setting reset. wrong cross (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. correct tick (better)
    • Engineers will install the software to improve the email-retrieval process. correct tick (better)
    • He heads the team providing network services. correct tick (better)
    • The system needs a reset of the remote-encryption setting. correct tick (better)

    (Point 4) 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. correct tick
    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. wrong cross
    • ("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. wrong cross (Title of an online restaurant review by "Vanessa")
    • ("Awfully" is an adverb. It should be "awful.")

    (Point 5) 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 deliberate changing of normal word order for emphasis is called anastrophe.)
    • I suppressed my thoughts sinful and revengeful. correct tick
    • The sea stormy and perilous steadily proceeded. correct tick

    Key Point

    All the Parts of Speech

    Here is a video for beginners that summarizes all the parts of speech. video lesson

    Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

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    This page was written by Craig Shrives.