What Are Adjectives?

by Craig Shrives

Adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe nouns (or pronouns). "Old," "green," and "cheerful" are examples of adjectives. (It might be useful to think as adjectives as "describing words.")

This infographic shows where an adjective sits in relation to the noun it describes:

What are adjectives?

Examples of Adjectives

Here are some 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 coat
  • cheerful one
  • ("One" is a pronoun. Don't forget that adjectives 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 predicative 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


More about Adjectives

Descriptive Adjectives and Determiners

In traditional grammar, words like "his," "this," "many," and even "a" and "the" are classified as adjectives. However, in contemporary grammar, such words are classified as determiners (see below). Be aware that, for many people, the word adjective refers only to descriptive adjectives. A descriptive adjective will usually fit into one of the following categories:
CategoryExample
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
The rise of determiners means that we now have nine parts of speech not the traditional eight.
Traditional GrammarContemporary Grammar
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Conjunctions
  • Interjections
  • Nouns
  • Prepositions
  • Pronouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Conjunctions
  • Determiners
  • Interjections
  • Nouns
  • Prepositions
  • Pronouns
  • Verbs
  • Read more about determiners.

    The Difference between Adjectives and Determiners

    For centuries, the term "adjective" has been used for a word type now called a determiner. For example, the words "his," "this," "many" are classified as possessive adjective, demonstrative adjective, and indefinite adjective respectively. In contemporary grammar, however, these are classified as determiners, specifically possessive determiner, demonstrative determiner, and indefinite determiner. Of interest, such determiners are still classified as adjectives by most people, but this situation is changing quickly [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")

    The Four Main Differences between Adjectives and Determiners

    Regardless of whether you use the word "determiner" or "adjective" for such words, 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.
    • Descriptive 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.
    • Descriptive 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). Descriptive adjectives do not have an antecedent.)
    (Difference 4) A determiner cannot be used as a subject complement.
    • Descriptive adjective: She is intelligent.
    • (The descriptive 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.)
    Here is a brief description of the main determiners. (There is a separate page on each one.)

    TypeExamples
    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:
    PlacementType of AdjectiveExamples
    1
  • 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
    12
  • 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.
    • (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.")
    Show me an infographic


    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.

    Show me an infographic


    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:
    Formal Definition for Adjective Phrase


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


    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:
    Formal Definition for Adjective Clause


    An adjective clause is a multi-word adjective that includes a subject and a verb.
    Show me an infographic


    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 five 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) 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 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.
    • 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 Indefinite adjectives Interrogative adjectives Predicate adjectives Participles Possessive adjectives