What Are Adjectives?
The Quick AnswerAdjectives are describing words.
AdjectivesAdjectives describe nouns and pronouns. (Old, green, and cheerful are examples of adjectives.)
Easy Examples of AdjectivesIn 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
An adjective can come after the noun.
- Jack was old.
- It looks green. (Adjectives can describe – or modify – pronouns too.)
- He seems cheerful.
Sometimes, 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 descriptive adjective will usual 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|
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)
(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.)
- Normal 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).)
- 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.)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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?
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 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:
|1||Determiner||the, my, those|
|2||Number||one, two, ninety-nine|
|3||Opinion||lovely, attractive, rare|
|4||Size||small, medium, large|
|5||Physical Quality||thin, lumpy, cluttered|
|6||Shape||round, square, triangular|
|7||Age||young, middle-aged, old|
|8||Colour||red, white, blue|
|9||Origin||British, German, Russian|
|10||Material||wood, metal, plastic|
|11||Type||L-shaped, two-sided, all-purpose|
|12||Purpose||cooking, supporting, tendering|
|13||Attributive Noun||service, improvement, head|
- 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. (You already know this stuff, even if you don't know you know it.)
Read more about the order of adjectives.
Compound AdjectivesNot 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)
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.)
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.)
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
(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) 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)
- 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)
- The moor is vast and inhospitable.
- The moor is vast, inhospitable and windy.
- 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.)
(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.
- 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 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.