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In the following examples, the adjective is highlighted in bold.
  • Attributive use:
    • It is a cold day.
    • He is a kind man.
    • I like blue sky.
  • Predicative use:
    • The sky is blue.
    • The joke she told was so funny, I could not stop laughing all day.
    • He went mad.

An adjective is a part of speech which modifies a noun, usually making its meaning more specific. Adjectives are used in a predicative or attributive manner. In some languages, attributive adjectives precede the noun. This is the case in the Germanic languages, to which the English language belongs. In other languages, e.g. the Romance languages, the adjective follows the noun. However, adjective is not a universal word class; in other words, some languages do not have any adjectives. The Chinese languages, for example, have no adjectives; all the words that are translated into English as adjectives are, in fact, stative verbs.

Some linguists also classify possessive pronouns, such as his or her, and demonstratives, such as this or that as adjectives. However, they can only be used in an attributive manner.

An adjectival phrase is a phrase with an adjective as its head (e.g. full of toys). Adjectival phrases may occur as postmodifiers to a noun (a bin full of toys), or as predicatives to a verb (the bin is full of toys).

Adjectives are sometimes used in place of nouns, as in many of the Beatitudes (e.g. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy"); these are called substantive adjectives. Such usage is very common in the Romance languages. In languages with grammatical genders, such as Latin, the gender of the adjective may indicate the gender of the implied noun; thus malus means the bad man; mala, the bad woman; malum, the bad thing. In some languages, participles are used as adjectives.

English is rather unusual in that it allows nouns to be used attributively, as in a Georgia peach. These are not adjectives, as they cannot be used predicatively. While ripe has both roles (a ripe peach is similar in meaning to the peach is ripe), a Georgia peach cannot be rephrased as *the peach is Georgia.


Comparison of adjectives

In many languages that have adjectives, the adjectives may have comparative and superlative forms, as does English. This is not the case for all languages however. For instance the Chadic language Bole uses verbs meaning "to surpass" and "to be equal to": "I am taller than you" would in Bole be something like "I surpass you concerning height", no comparative needed. As for showing equality, the verbs used mean "to reach", "to suffice" and even "to do": "I am as tall as you" would be "I do you concerning height". In some Romance languages, there are no superlative and comparative forms of adjectives per se, but they are instead constructed with adverbs meaning "more," "most," "less," and "least." So, in literal translation, a French speaker says not "I am taller than you," but "I am more tall than you."

Comparison of adjectives in English

Adjectives in English have comparative and superlative forms. These are formed in one of two ways: either by suffixes (big, bigger, biggest) or by the use of the grammatical particles more and most. Some adjectives in English have suppletive forms in their comparison, such as good, better, best.

Which English adjectives are compared by which means is a complex matter of English idiom. Generally, shorter adjectives, Anglo-Saxon words, and shorter, fully domesticated French words (e.g. noble) use the suffixes. Longer words, especially those derived from Greek and Latin, require more and most. A fair number of words, especially longer adjectives that end in Anglo-Saxon derivative suffixes like -ly, can take either form.

Grammatical prescriptivists frequently object to phrases such as more perfect, on the grounds that being perfect is a quality that by definition admits to no comparison. Most speakers of English understand the phrase to mean more nearly perfect, however, and dismiss the prescriptivists' objection as pedantry.

General usage guide

Most one syllable adjectives take the suffixes -er/-est.

Two syllable adjectives tend to be split between the two possibilities. Some take either and the situation determines the usage. For example, one will see commoner and more common, depending on which sounds better in the context.

Adjectives with three or more syllables generally use more/most but there are exceptions. The use of -er/-est extends to more longer words in American English than British English.

There are a number of endings which generally do not use -er/est but there are exceptions. For example adjectives which end in ous do not take -er/-est yet you will find curiouser in both Websters Third and the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition. This is only because Lewis Carroll used it incorrectly in curiouser and curiouser to produce a particular effect. It would not be used in good English except for effect.

Whilst most adjectives are gradable there are also many that are not gradable and therefore do not use either. For example in a planktonic organism the adjective planktonic simply means plankton-type and does not take either since there are no degrees or grades of planktonic; an organism is either one of those in plankton or it isn't. For gradable adjectives -er/-est and more/most are only used on the base form of the adjective (eg you do not use lessest).

A good general rule is to use whatever sounds natural and gives the desired effect. Shorter adjectives are generally well known and using -er/-est sounds natural and the meaning is clear. Longer adjectives are less well known and the use of -er/-est may not be clear and using more/most leads to clarity. It should be remembered in particular that the use of -er for adjectives is a relatively minor part of the overall usage of this ending. For example -er is extremely common as a way of converting action nouns to someone who does the action stated by the noun eg break gives breaker, talk gives talker, etc (there are thousands of these). Putting -er on an unfamiliar adjective can easily lead to confusion.

Order of adjectives

One of the details of proper English usage involves the conventional sequence in which adjectives are concatenated before a noun. Native speakers pick this up as a matter of course; those who are learning it as an adult have to memorize it. Other languages will have other sequences.

The adjectives which go nearest the noun may be called phrase-making adjectives; e.g., tree frog. Before this can come color adjectives; e.g., red tree frog, and before that, participial adjectives; e.g., whining red tree frog. The first adjectives are sometimes called absolute adjectives; e.g., nasty whining red tree frog. Articles, which may be considered a form of adjective, come first of all; e.g., the nasty whining red tree frog. The reason this must be learned is that the reverse order is incomprehensible; e.g., the *tree red whining nasty frog. Also, if there are more than one, the number, which is after all an adjective, precedes all other adjectives except for articles. e.g., the four nasty whining red tree frogs.

  • Number
  • Value/Opinion
  • Size
  • Age/Temperature
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Origin
  • Material

See also


  • Brown, K. and Miller, T. (1999) "Concise Encyclopedia of Grammatical Categories". Elsevier. ISBN 008043164X

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