Adjectives

Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers. To modify means to change. In grammar, modifiers are words that change the meaning of some other word. Adjectival elements—such as adjectives, adjectival phrases, and adjectival clauses—are used to modify nouns. Adverbial elements—such as adverbs, adverbial phrases, and adverbial clauses—are used to modify anything else. Adjectives answer such questions as “what kind?” “which ones?” or “how many?”
There are several different kinds of adjectives:

  • There is an enormous number of adjectives that express colors, shapes, sizes, textures, etc.
  • Some adjectives can be made out of nouns: 
    • A noun can be put into a possessive form, which then functions as an adjective (e.g., Mama’s boy).
    • Nouns can also be used as attributive nouns, which are nouns that are used to describe other nouns (e.g., the boy king, dog food).
  • The present and past participles of verbs can be used as adjectives or as the head of an adjectival phrase: 
    • Present participles, which always end in ing, can be used to modify the noun that is doing that verb (A rolling stone gathers no moss).
    • Past participles, which often end in ed, en, or t, can be used to modify a noun  (e.g., the broken window).
  • Some grammarians put the other kinds of adjectives into a special class called determiners: 
    • Articles (a, an, and the) are adjectives.
    • Possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, etc.)
    • Demonstrative adjectives (this, that, etc.).

In Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrams, adjectives appear on diagonal lines that lead from the noun they modify:

  • The woman wore a little black cocktail dress.

littleblackdress

Some phrases, including some but not all prepositional phrases, can serve as adjectives. So can some clauses (relative clauses). Notice that a prepositional phrase (e.g., in the neighboring village) can act as an adjective, and it can contain adjectives (the, neighboring). Notice that the preposition in turns the noun phrase the neighboring village into a phrase that serves as an adjective. A relative clause (e.g., that laid the golden eggs) would also act as an adjective. In the Reed-Kellogg system, a relative clause is diagrammed parallel to the main sentence. The relative pronoun (e.g., which, that, or who) that serves as the subject of the relative clause is connected to the word that the phrase modifies:

  • The farmer in the neighboring village killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.

gooseeggs

Position of Adjectives

In English, we usually put the adjective in front of the noun that it modifies:

  • green leaves
  • his autobiography

However, there are a few English adjectives that go after the noun:

  • president elect
  • thrills galore
  • heir apparent

Note that the adjective also generally follows an indefinite pronoun (e.g., everyone, anyone, someone, something):

  • Everyone involved should receive something nice.

Royal Order of Adjectives

Notice how it makes sense to say “a little black cocktail dress” but it would make no sense to say “cocktail black little a dress”? Whenever English-speaking people apply several adjectives to the same noun, they tend to put those adjectives in a particular order, called the Royal Order of Adjectives.

  1. Determiners—Articles and other limiters (numbers, possessive nouns and pronouns, indefinite pronouns, demonstrative pronouns)
  2. Observations—postdeterminers and limiter adjectives (e.g., a complete mess, a real solution) and adjectives that express an opinion (e.g., beautiful or interesting)
  3. Size and shape—Adjectives that express objective properties (e.g., large, heavy, square)
  4. Age—Adjectives expressing age (e.g., new, young, old, ancient)
  5. Color—Adjectives expressing color (e.g., black, white, red, dark)
  6. Origin—Adjectives expressing the source of the noun (e.g., French, African)
  7. Material—Articles expressing what something is made of (e.g., woolen, pewter)
  8. Qualifier—The final delimiter, often considered to be part of the noun itself
Royal Order of Adjectives
Physical Description
Determiner Observation Size Shape Age Color Origin Material Qualifier Noun
her classic little black cocktail dress
some spicy Mexican food
that old black magic
eleven large American football players

Coordinate Adjectives

Sentence elements that are more or less equal in rank are called coordinate. Coordinate adjectives are generally separated by a comma. To decide whether adjectives are truly coordinate, ask yourself whether you could put and between them:

  • The long, winding road (“The long and winding road” makes sense.)
  • Three blind mice (“Three and blind mice” makes no sense.)

Degrees of Adjectives

An adjective posits that a noun has some attribute. A comparative adjective says that the noun has that attribute to a greater degree than some other noun has. Many (but not all) comparative adjectives are made by adding er to the end of a word. A superlative attribute says that the noun has that attribute to the greatest possible degree. Many (but not all) superlatives are made by adding est to the end of the word. Note that if the positive adjective ends in the letter y, you have to change the y to an i before adding the er or est ending.

Positive adjective Comparative adjective Superlative adjective
big bigger biggest
pretty prettier prettiest
good better best
little less least
beautiful more beautiful (the) most beautiful

Note that you do not use more with the comparative form of the adjective or most along with the superlative version:

  • This is better (not more better).
  • It is the best (not the most best).

The comparative and superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs can be intensified by premodifiers:

  • I like this one a whole lot better.
  • Of the available options, this one is by far the most expensive.
  • When you care enough to send the very best.
  • She felt somewhat weaker.

Use less or less than for noncount nouns and fewer or fewer than for count nouns.

  • There was less water in the bathtub than on the floor.
  • There were fewer children in the classroom than on the playground

Avoid making comparatives out of adjectives that express a yes-or-no condition or some sort of extreme: absolute, complete, pregnant, principal, stationary, unique.

Participles and Participial Phrases

A verb that has been converted into an adjective is called a participle. In English, all present participles end in ing. A present participle that is being used as a noun is called a gerund. Present participles are also used to express the progressive aspect of a verb, as in the past progressive tense (e.g., was going.) Present participles can also serve as the head of a participial phrase that is always adjectival and always modifies the subject of the participle.

In English, most past participles end in ed. However, there are many irregular past participles. For example, we say broken rather than breaked, and bit rather than bited. These irregularities are holdovers of the way these participles were formed in Old English.

Participles can serve as the head of a participial phrase. A participial phrase is always adjectival. A participial phrase built on a present participle can modify the noun that is the subject of the participle of that verb.

  • The dog was barking. The barking dog was annoying.

A participial phrase built on a past participle can also modify a noun.

Articles: A, An, and The

Notice that the word the is an adjective. It is one of a small set of adjectives called articles. English has three articles: a, an, and the. The word the is used to indicate that the speaker or writer is referring to a particular person, place, thing, or idea, whose identity is known to the audience. In contrast, a and an are used to indicate one person, place, thing, or idea without specifying which one. For example, if I say that I put the book on the table, you presumably know which book and which table I mean. But if I say that I put a book on the table, you know which table but not which book.

A and an are derived from the number one. As a result, they can be applied only to count nouns, which refer to things that can be counted.

Common and Proper Adjectives

When an adjective comes from a proper noun, it should be capitalized.

  • We drove south until we reached the northern border of North Carolina.

Tips for Using Adjectival Elements Properly

In general, it is best to use adjectives sparingly:

  • Try to find interesting nouns that express your meaning, rather than using adjectives to add interest to boring nouns.
  • Avoid using adjectives that add little or no meaning, such as interesting or exciting.

Be careful where you put your adjectival phrases and clauses:

  • An adjectival phrase or clause will try to modify the noun that it directly follows, whether you wanted it to or not.
  • An adjectival phrase that is at the beginning of the sentence will seem to modify the subject of the sentence, whether you want it to or not.