What Are Adjectives?
AdjectivesAdjectives are words that describe nouns (or pronouns). "Old," "green," and "cheerful" are examples of adjectives. (It might be useful to think of adjectives as "describing words.")
This infographic shows where an adjective sits in relation to the noun it describes:
Examples of AdjectivesHere are some examples of adjectives. (In each example, the adjective is highlighted.)
Adjective Before the NounAn 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.)
Adjective After the NounAn adjective can come after the noun.
- Jack was old.
- It looks green.
- He seems cheerful.
Adjective Immediately After the NounSometimes, an adjective comes immediately after a noun.
- the Princess Royal
- time immemorial
- body beautiful
- the best seats available
- the worst manners imaginable
- someone interesting
- those present
- something evil
A Video SummaryHere is a video summarizing this lesson on adjectives.
More about Adjectives
Descriptive Adjectives and DeterminersIn 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:
|Appearance||attractive, burly, clean, dusty|
|Colour||azure, blue, cyan, dark|
|Condition||absent, broken, careful, dead|
|Personality||annoying, brave, complex, dizzy|
|Quantity||ample, bountiful, countless, deficient|
|Sense||aromatic, bitter, cold, deafening|
|Size and Shape||angular, broad, circular, deep|
|Time||ancient, brief, concurrent, daily|
|Traditional Grammar||Contemporary Grammar|
The Difference between Adjectives and DeterminersFor 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 DeterminersRegardless 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.)
- Descriptive adjectives removed: The
youngboy stole a silverwatch.
(This is grammatically sound with the normal adjectives removed.)
TheYoung boy stole asilver watch.
(The sentence is flawed with the determiners removed.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
|Type||Examples||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.||
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.||
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.||
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."||
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."||
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.||
Read more about interrogative determiners/adjectives.
Nouns Used as AdjectivesMany words that are usually nouns can function as adjectives. For example:
- autumn colours
- boat race
- computer shop
- Devon cream
- electricity board
- fruit fly
- Not all face masks are created equal. (Entrepreneur Hannah Bronfman)
- You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves. (Premier Joseph Stalin)
Participles Used as AdjectivesFormed from a verb, a participle is a word that can be used as an adjective. There are two types of participle:
- The present participle (ending -"ing")
- The past participle (usually ending -"ed," -"d," -"t," -"en," or -"n")
- 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)
Infinitives Used as AdjectivesAn 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.")
The Order of AdjectivesWhen two or more adjectives are strung together, they should be ordered according to the following list:
|Placement||Type of Adjective||Examples|
|2||Quantity||one, three, ninety-nine|
|3||Opinion or Observation||beautiful, clever, witty, well-mannered|
|4||Size||big, medium-sized, small|
|5||Physical Quality||thin, lumpy, cluttered|
|6||Shape||square, round, long|
|7||Age||young, middle-aged, old|
|8||Colour/Color||red, blue, purple|
|9||Origin or Religion||French, Buddhist|
|10||Material||metal, leather, wooden|
|11||Type||L-shaped, two-sided, all-purpose|
- my two lovely XL thin tubular new white Spanish metallic hinged correcting knee braces.
- 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.)
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 AdjectivesIn 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:
- A bright green metal mixing bowl (These are cumulative adjectives. Their order cannot be changed. They follow the precedent list. There are no commas.)
- 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 AdjectivesNot 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)
Show me an infographic
Read more about compound adjectives.
Adjective PhrasesIn 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.")
Show me an infographic
Read more about adjective phrases.
Adjective ClausesThe 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.)
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
(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
- joint cooperation > cooperation
- necessary requirement > requirement
- handwritten manuscript > manuscript
(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)
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.
- 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.
- I feel badly for letting you down. ("Badly" is an adverb. It should be "bad.")
- 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.