Adjectives are words that describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The Articles — a, an, and the — are adjectives.
- the tall professor
- the lugubrious lieutenant
- a solid commitment
- a month's pay
- a six-year-old child
- the unhappiest, richest man
If a group of words containing a subject and verb acts as an adjective, it is called an Adjective Clause. My sister, who is much older than I am, is an engineer. If an adjective clause is stripped of its subject and verb, the resulting modifier becomes an Adjective Phrase: He is the man
who is keeping my family in the poorhouse.
Before getting into other usage considerations, one general note about the use — or over-use — of adjectives: Adjectives are frail; don't ask them to do more work than they should. Let your broad-shouldered verbs and nouns do the hard work of description. Be particularly cautious in your use of adjectives that don't have much to say in the first place: interesting, beautiful, lovely, exciting. It is your job as a writer to create beauty and excitement and interest, and when you simply insist on its presence without showing it to your reader — well, you're convincing no one.
Consider the uses of modifiers in this adjectivally rich paragraph from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. (Charles Scribner's, 1929, p. 69.) Adjectives are highlighted in this color; participles, verb forms acting as adjectives, are highlighted in this blue. Some people would argue that words that are part of a name — like "East India Tea House — are not really adjectival and that possessive nouns — father's, farmer's — are not technically adjectives, but we've included them in our analysis of Wolfe's text.
He remembered yet the East India Tea House at the Fair, the sandalwood, the turbans, and the robes, the cool interior and the smell of India tea; and he had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms. He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweet hay, inside a farmer's covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals. He knew the good male smell of his father's sitting-room; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent; of the blistered varnished wood upon the hearth; of the heated calf-skin bindings; of the flat moist plug of apple tobacco, stuck with a red flag; of wood-smoke and burnt leaves in October; of the brown tired autumn earth; of honey-suckle at night; of warm nasturtiums, of a clean ruddy farmer who comes weekly with printed butter, eggs, and milk; of fat limp underdone bacon and of coffee; of a bakery-oven in the wind; of large deep-hued stringbeans smoking-hot and seasoned well with salt and butter; of a room of old pine boards in which books and carpets have been stored, long closed; of Concord grapes in their long white baskets.
An abundance of adjectives like this would be uncommon in contemporary prose. Whether we have lost something or not is left up to you.
Position of Adjectives
Unlike Adverbs, which often seem capable of popping up almost anywhere in a sentence, adjectives nearly always appear immediately before the noun or noun phrase that they modify. Sometimes they appear in a string of adjectives, and when they do, they appear in a set order according to category. (See Below.) When indefinite pronouns — such as something, someone, anybody — are modified by an adjective, the adjective comes after the pronoun:
Anyone capable of doing something horrible to someone nice should be punished.
Something wicked this way comes.
And there are certain adjectives that, in combination with certain words, are always "postpositive" (coming after the thing they modify):
The president elect, heir apparent to the Glitzy fortune, lives in New York proper.
See, also, the note on a- adjectives, below, for the position of such words as "ablaze, aloof, aghast."
Degrees of Adjectives
Adjectives can express degrees of modification:
- Gladys is a rich woman, but Josie is richer than Gladys, and Sadie is the richest woman in town.
The degrees of comparison are known as the positive, the comparative, and the superlative. (Actually, only the comparative and superlative show degrees.) We use the comparative for comparing two things and the superlative for comparing three or more things. Notice that the word than frequently accompanies the comparative and the word the precedes the superlative. The inflected suffixes -er and -est suffice to form most comparatives and superlatives, although we need -ier and -iest when a two-syllable adjective ends in y (happier and happiest); otherwise we use more and most when an adjective has more than one syllable.
Click on the "scary bear" to read and hear George Newall's "Unpack Your Adjectives" (from Scholastic Rock, 1975).
Schoolhouse Rock® and its characters and other elements are trademarks and service marks of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Used with permission.
Certain adjectives have irregular forms in the comparative and superlative degrees:
|Irregular Comparative and Superlative Forms
Be careful not to form comparatives or superlatives of adjectives which already express an extreme of comparison — unique, for instance — although it probably is possible to form comparative forms of most adjectives: something can be more perfect, and someone can have a fuller figure. People who argue that one woman cannot be more pregnant than another have never been nine-months pregnant with twins.
According to Bryan Garner, "complete" is one of those adjectives that does not admit of comparative degrees. We could say, however, "more nearly complete." I am sure that I have not been consistent in my application of this principle in the Guide (I can hear myself, now, saying something like "less adequate" or "more preferable" or "less fatal"). Other adjectives that Garner would include in this list are as follows:
From The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Styleby Bryan Garner. Copyright 1995 by Bryan A. Garner. Published by Oxford University Press, Inc., www.oup-usa.org, and used with the gracious consent of Oxford University Press.
Be careful, also, not to use more along with a comparative adjective formed with -er nor to use most along with a superlative adjective formed with -est (e.g., do not write that something is more heavier or most heaviest).
The as — as construction is used to create a comparison expressing equality:
- He is as foolish as he is large.
- She is as bright as her mother.
Premodifiers with Degrees of Adjectives
Both adverbs and adjectives in their comparative and superlative forms can be accompanied by premodifiers, single words and phrases, that intensify the degree.
- We were a lot more careful this time.
- He works a lot less carefully than the other jeweler in town.
- We like his work so much better.
- You'll get your watch back all the faster.
The same process can be used to downplay the degree:
- The weather this week has been somewhat better.
- He approaches his schoolwork a little less industriously than his brother does.
And sometimes a set phrase, usually an informal noun phrase, is used for this purpose:
- He arrived a whole lot sooner than we expected.
- That's a heck of a lot better.
If the intensifier very accompanies the superlative, a determiner is also required:
- She is wearing her very finest outfit for the interview.
- They're doing the very best they can.
Occasionally, the comparative or superlative form appears with a determiner and the thing being modified is understood:
- Of all the wines produced in Connecticut, I like this one the most.
- The quicker you finish this project, the better.
- Of the two brothers, he is by far the faster.
|Less versus Fewer
|When making a comparison between quantities we often have to make a choice between the words fewer and less. Generally, when we're talking about countable things, we use the word fewer; when we're talking about measurable quantities that we cannot count, we use the word less. "She had fewer chores, but she also had less energy." The managers at our local Stop & Shop seem to have mastered this: they've changed the signs at the so-called express lanes from "Twelve Items or Less" to "Twelve Items or Fewer." Whether that's an actual improvement, we'll leave up to you.
We do, however, definitely use less when referring to statistical or numerical expressions:
In these situations, it's possible to regard the quantities as sums of countable measures.
- It's less than twenty miles to Dallas.
- He's less than six feet tall.
- Your essay should be a thousand words or less.
- We spent less than forty dollars on our trip.
- The town spent less than four percent of its budget on snow removal.
|Taller than I / me ??
|When making a comparison with "than" do we end with a subject form or object form, "taller than I/she" or "taller than me/her." The correct response is "taller than I/she." We are looking for the subject form: "He is taller than I am/she is tall." (Except we leave out the verb in the second clause, "am" or "is.") Some good writers, however, will argue that the word "than" should be allowed to function as a preposition. If we can say "He is tall like me/her," then (if "than" could be prepositional like like) we should be able to say, "He is taller than me/her." It's an interesting argument, but — for now, anyway — in formal, academic prose, use the subject form in such comparisons.
We also want to be careful in a sentence such as "I like him better than she/her." The "she" would mean that you like this person better than she likes him; the "her" would mean that you like this male person better than you like that female person. (To avoid ambiguity and the slippery use of than, we could write "I like him better than she does" or "I like him better than I like her.")
|More than / over ??
|In the United States, we usually use "more than" in countable numerical expressions meaning "in excess of" or "over." In England, there is no such distinction. For instance, in the U.S., some editors would insist on "more than 40,000 traffic deaths in one year," whereas in the UK, "over 40,000 traffic deaths" would be acceptable. Even in the U.S., however, you will commonly hear "over" in numerical expressions of age, time, or height: "His sister is over forty; she's over six feet tall. We've been waiting well over two hours for her."
The Order of Adjectives in a Series
It would take a linguistic philosopher to explain why we say "little brown house" and not "brown little house" or why we say "red Italian sports car" and not "Italian red sports car." The order in which adjectives in a series sort themselves out is perplexing for people learning English as a second language. Most other languages dictate a similar order, but not necessarily the same order. It takes a lot of practice with a language before this order becomes instinctive, because the order often seems quite arbitrary (if not downright capricious). There is, however, a pattern. You will find many exceptions to the pattern in the table below, but it is definitely important to learn the pattern of adjective order if it is not part of what you naturally bring to the language.
The categories in the following table can be described as follows:
- Determiners — articles and other limiters. See Determiners
- Observation — postdeterminers and limiter adjectives (e.g., a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives subject to subjective measure (e.g., beautiful, interesting)
- Size and Shape — adjectives subject to objective measure (e.g., wealthy, large, round)
- Age — adjectives denoting age (e.g., young, old, new, ancient)
- Color — adjectives denoting color (e.g., red, black, pale)
- Origin — denominal adjectives denoting source of noun (e.g., French, American, Canadian)
- Material — denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (e.g., woolen, metallic, wooden)
- Qualifier — final limiter, often regarded as part of the noun (e.g., rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover)
| THE ROYAL ORDER OF ADJECTIVES
|This chart is probably too wide to print on a standard piece of paper. If you click HERE, you will get a one-page duplicate of this chart, which you can print out on a regular piece of paper.
It would be folly, of course, to run more than two or three (at the most) adjectives together. Furthermore, when adjectives belong to the same class, they become what we call coordinated adjectives, and you will want to put a comma between them: the inexpensive, comfortable shoes. The rule for inserting the comma works this way: if you could have inserted a conjunction — and or but — between the two adjectives, use a comma. We could say these are "inexpensive but comfortable shoes," so we would use a comma between them (when the "but" isn't there). When you have three coordinated adjectives, separate them all with commas, but don't insert a comma between the last adjective and the noun (in spite of the temptation to do so because you often pause there):
a popular, respected, and good looking student
See the section on Commas for additional help in punctuating coordinated adjectives.
Capitalizing Proper Adjectives
When an adjective owes its origins to a proper noun, it should probably be capitalized. Thus we write about Christian music, French fries, the English Parliament, the Ming Dynasty, a Faulknerian style, Jeffersonian democracy. Some periods of time have taken on the status of proper adjectives: the Nixon era, a Renaissance/Romantic/Victorian poet (but a contemporary novelist and medieval writer). Directional and seasonal adjectives are not capitalized unless they're part of a title:
We took the northwest route during the spring thaw. We stayed there until the town's annual Fall Festival of Small Appliances.
See the section on Capitalization for further help on this matter.
When the definite article, the, is combined with an adjective describing a class or group of people, the resulting phrase can act as a noun: the poor, the rich, the oppressed, the homeless, the lonely, the unlettered, the unwashed, the gathered, the dear departed. The difference between a Collective Noun (which is usually regarded as singular but which can be plural in certain contexts) and a collective adjective is that the latter is always plural and requires a plural verb:
- The rural poor have been ignored by the media.
- The rich of Connecticut are responsible.
- The elderly are beginning to demand their rights.
- The young at heart are always a joy to be around.
The opposite or the negative aspect of an adjective can be formed in a number of ways. One way, of course, is to find an adjective to mean the opposite — an antonym. The opposite of beautiful is ugly, the opposite of tall is short. A thesaurus can help you find an appropriate opposite. Another way to form the opposite of an adjective is with a number of prefixes. The opposite of fortunate is unfortunate, the opposite of prudent is imprudent, the opposite of considerate is inconsiderate, the opposite of honorable is dishonorable, the opposite of alcoholic is nonalcoholic, the opposite of being properly filed is misfiled. If you are not sure of the spelling of adjectives modified in this way by prefixes (or which is the appropriate prefix), you will have to consult a dictionary, as the rules for the selection of a prefix are complex and too shifty to be trusted. The meaning itself can be tricky; for instance, flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.
A third means for creating the opposite of an adjective is to combine it with less or least to create a comparison which points in the opposite direction. Interesting shades of meaning and tone become available with this usage. It is kinder to say that "This is the least beautiful city in the state." than it is to say that "This is the ugliest city in the state." (It also has a slightly different meaning.) A candidate for a job can still be worthy and yet be "less worthy of consideration" than another candidate. It's probably not a good idea to use this construction with an adjective that is already a negative: "He is less unlucky than his brother," although that is not the same thing as saying he is luckier than his brother. Use the comparative less when the comparison is between two things or people; use the superlative least when the comparison is among many things or people.
- My mother is less patient than my father.
- Of all the new sitcoms, this is my least favorite show.
Some Adjectival Problem Children
|Good versus Well
- In both casual speech and formal writing, we frequently have to choose between the adjective good and the adverb well. With most verbs, there is no contest: when modifying a verb, use the adverb.
- He swims well.
- He knows only too well who the murderer is.
- However, when using a linking verb or a verb that has to do with the five human senses, you want to use the adjective instead.
- How are you? I'm feeling good, thank you.
- After a bath, the baby smells so good.
- Even after my careful paint job, this room doesn't look good.
- Many careful writers, however, will use well after linking verbs relating to health, and this is perfectly all right. In fact, to say that you are good or that you feel good usually implies not only that you're OK physically but also that your spirits are high.
- "How are you?"
- "I am well, thank you."
|Bad versus Badly
- When your cat died (assuming you loved your cat), did you feel bad or badly? Applying the same rule that applies to good versus well, use the adjective form after verbs that have to do with human feelings. You felt bad. If you said you felt badly, it would mean that something was wrong with your faculties for feeling.
Other Adjectival Considerations
Review the section on Compound Nouns and Modifiers for the formation of modifiers created when words are connected: a four-year-old child, a nineteenth-century novel, an empty-headed fool.
Review the section on Possessives for a distinction between possessive forms and "adjectival labels." (Do you belong to a Writers Club or a Writers' Club?)
Adjectives that are really Participles, verb forms with -ing and -ed endings, can be troublesome for some students. It is one thing to be a frightened child; it is an altogether different matter to be a frightening child. Do you want to go up to your professor after class and say that you are confused or that you are confusing? Generally, the -ed ending means that the noun so described ("you") has a passive relationship with something — something (the subject matter, the presentation) has bewildered you and you are confused. The -ing ending means that the noun described has a more active role — you are not making any sense so you are confusing (to others, including your professor).
The -ed ending modifiers are often accompanied by prepositions (these are not the only choices):
- We were amazed at all the circus animals.
- We were amused by the clowns.
- We were annoyed by the elephants.
- We were bored by the ringmaster.
- We were confused by the noise.
- We were disappointed by the motorcycle daredevils.
- We were disappointed in their performance.
- We were embarrassed by my brother.
- We were exhausted from all the excitement.
- We were excited by the lion-tamer.
- We were excited about the high-wire act, too.
- We were frightened by the lions.
- We were introduced to the ringmaster.
- We were interested in the tent.
- We were irritated by the heat.
- We were opposed to leaving early.
- We were satisfied with the circus.
- We were shocked at the level of noise under the big tent.
- We were surprised by the fans' response.
- We were surprised at their indifference.
- We were tired of all the lights after a while.
- We were worried about the traffic leaving the parking lot.
The most common of the so-called a- adjectives are ablaze, afloat, afraid, aghast, alert, alike, alive, alone, aloof, ashamed, asleep, averse, awake, aware. These adjectives will primarily show up as predicate adjectives (i.e., they come after a linking verb).
- The children were ashamed.
- The professor remained aloof.
- The trees were ablaze.
Occasionally, however, you will find a- adjectives before the word they modify: the alert patient, the aloof physician. Most of them, when found before the word they modify, are themselves modified: the nearly awake student, the terribly alone scholar. And a- adjectives are sometimes modified by "very much": very much afraid, very much alone, very much ashamed, etc.
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