Adjectives: Making Everything More Interesting
With its multiple types, forms and rules of use, the adjective can be a slippery element of language to master. Get a firm grip on it, however, and you'll be rewarded with the power to elevate your work to a more engaging, interesting and expressive level.
Adjectives are words that modify (describe) nouns. Adjectives give the reader more specific information about an object’s color, size, shape, material, and more. This guide will help you understand their function so you can use them effectively in your essays and papers.
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For information on the structural role these modifiers play in a sentence, you may find this further reading helpful.
What is an Adjective?
As a child, you might have learned that it is a describing word. This adjective definition is correct and, as mentioned above, it can be used to describe, modify or qualify a noun, essentially giving more information about the object, person, place, thing or idea in question.
In its most basic form, it is a single word. However, as the English language is anything but basic, you'll also want to understand the adjectival clause and phrase—more on those later!
When used well, this essential part of the English language can become your most potent writing ally. They'll make your writing more specific and lucid, enabling you to convey your ideas in a clear and appealing manner. They add the meat to the bare bones of a sentence!
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Types of Adjectives
When it comes to learning the different types, some are more interesting than others—however, there's no picking and choosing with grammar! Let's take a look at both the fun and the functional, and the part they each play in the English language.
Descriptive adjectives Descriptive adjectives are the grammatical icing on the cake or bubbles in the bathwater. They follow the classic adjective definition of a descriptive word that comes before or after a noun to modify it. Often, you can take them away and the sentence will still technically make sense, although it's likely to be less informative, thought-provoking, and engaging for the reader.
The woman was wearing a dress.
The beautiful woman was wearing a long, white dress.
When it comes before a noun it is known as an attributive adjective.
When it comes after a noun it is known as a predicate adjective. Note that these usually follow a linking verb.
- Attributive -- the beautiful woman
- Predicate (also known as predicative) -- the woman looked beautiful
To learn more click here or check your paper with EasyBib Plus's paper checker to ensure that you're using different aspects of language, including spelling, punctuation, style and word choice, correctly. Otherwise, let's continue on our exploration of describing words.
Did you know that describing words can also be subjective or objective?
Objective: A descriptor, based in fact, that will often be quantifiable and measurable. Descriptors of age, color, pattern, size, shape, condition, type, purpose, origin and material are objective. For example: old, red, checked, large, square, clean, four-sided, running (to indicate purpose, e.g., running shoes), French and paper.
Subjective: These words provide opinion-based descriptions which may be open to interpretation. It could be an 'in the eye of the beholder' descriptor such as beautiful or ugly. Or it could describe a relative measure such as cheap, best, favorite or cold. Words used to describe an emotion or feeling such as happy or hungry are also subjective.
There are multiple objective and subjective sub-types, so you should be spoiled for choice when choosing that perfect describing word. Find a list of adjectives and the order they should follow further down.
Words in this category are more likely to modify (or give information about) a noun than describe it. Take them away, and you'll often find that you no longer have a fully formed sentence. These are the ‘toothbrush in the bathroom words’—nothing about them is exciting, but they perform an essential function, we use them daily, and we’d be lost without them.
Take articles. They always come before the noun they're indicating. There are three articles in the English language: a, an, and the. A and an are used to denote non-specific things, while the indicates something specific. The is known as the definite article, while a and an are indefinite articles.
Pass me the book
The word the tells us that the request is for a specific book.
Pass me a book.
A, however, shows that any book will do.
Demonstrative: Similar to the definite article in that they indicate specific things. For example: these, those, this and that.
Indefinite: Similar to the indefinite article in that they indicate non-specific things. For example: any, many, several and few.
Interrogative: Used to ask questions. There are three in the English language: which, what and whose.
Possessive: Indicate that a thing belongs to someone. My, your, his, and our are examples of a possessive adjective.
Numerical: Answer the question "how many?" in a sentence. For example:
She ate six cupcakes.
Which Comes First?
We've answered the question, 'what is an adjective?'. Now let's look at where they sit in a sentence. Typically, a describing word is a pre-modifier, this means that it comes before the noun, pronoun or the noun phrase that it's looking to modify. Also known as a prepositive (NOT a preposition, that’s different!) or, as previously mentioned, attributive.
A lovely day
In the case of an indefinite pronoun (someone, something, anybody), however, the descriptor comes after.
We've also mentioned predicatives that come after the noun they modify and follow a linking verb.
The sky looked blue.
Why They’ll Never Be Lonely
Although a describing word will always be singular (even if the noun is plural), it will never be lonely—it will always team up with a noun or pronoun in a sentence.
The adjective phrase is a phrase that performs the describing or modifying function in a sentence. It can be a string of describing words or it can be an intensifier plus descriptor.
It was a cold but sunny day.
She was very happy.
When one just isn't enough you can use coordinate adjectives separated by a comma or commas. These are a perfect pairing—or trio or full-on gang—of words used to describe or modify a single noun.
A long, white, lacy dress
Long, white and lacy are coordinates: they are adjectives with a parallel function in describing the dress, and none carries more weight than the others. You can test this by replacing a comma with a conjunction, such as and or but, and checking if the sentence still makes sense.
A long and white and lacy dress
A beautiful but expensive dress
In some sentences, however, replacing the commas with conjunctions yields a sentence that no longer makes sense. When this occurs, the describing words are non-coordinate.
If one word holds more weight than the other, they are non-coordinate—also known as cumulative. Another easy way to test this is to switch the words around to see if the sentence still makes sense.
My two red skirts were in the laundry.
My two and red skirts were in the laundry.
My red two skirts were in the laundry.
Non-coordinates don't need to be separated by a comma.
The Unspoken Order (mess with this at your peril!)
Native English speakers intuitively follow a particular order when using describing words in a sentence. Intriguingly, many of us aren’t even aware that there is an order, let alone that we're complying with it.
For those learning English as a foreign language, however, it's a bit of an uphill battle. To help make sense of it, the following list of adjectives follows the order used when forming sentences:
- Determiner -- a, an, the, that, some, six
- Opinion -- beautiful, easy, expensive, happy, angry, boring, strange
- Size -- large, small, tiny, deep, medium
- Condition/Physical Quality -- broken, cold, smooth, rich, poor, sharp, slow, heavy, light
- Age -- new, old, seven-year-old, modern, antique
- Shape -- round, square, oval, flat
- Color -- red, blue, monochrome, bright, dull
- Pattern -- striped, spotty, flowery, chevron, plaid
- Origin -- American, French, English, public, private
- Material -- gold, silver, cotton, silk, wooden
- Type -- general, four-sided, wireless
- Purpose/Qualifier -- sleeping, frying, hunting, swimming
- Noun -- bag, pan, hat, pool, woman, house
- That is a beautiful American house. (opinion + origin + noun)
- It’s a tiny silver ring. (size + material + noun)
- I love smooth, round pebbles. (condition + shape + noun)
Note, however, that the order isn’t entirely set in stone. For example, you might find a list of adjectives that places shape before age.
More resources on this can be found online, including handy downloadable charts. You can also check your word choice, grammar and punctuation with EasyBib Plus.
If in Doubt, Take it Out!
Just because you can use several words to modify one noun doesn’t mean that you should. No one wants their work to be described as 'wordy' or 'flowery'!
Exercise restraint with subjective descriptors like lovely, interesting and beautiful. The 'show don't tell' rule is an oldie but a goodie—rather than telling your reader that something is beautiful, show them what makes it so and trust that they'll reach the same conclusion.
What Can an Adjective Add?
When you've finished trying to say that tongue twister ten times fast, let's look at what the right word can add to a sentence.
- Opinion -- a beautiful dress
- Relative information -- a huge house
- Factual information -- a red car
- Detail -- a shiny floor
- Context -- old toys
- Purpose -- the dining table
- Character traits -- a patient teacher
The Wonder Word
To define adjective solely as a describing word may, arguably, do it a disservice. Used correctly, it’s one of the most capable tools of the English language.
In addition to providing us with the super functional determiners (a, her, those, that, some, etc.), they can also: clarify and articulate information; alter the meaning or context of a sentence; and turn tedious, flat tales into riveting, page-turning prose.
Here are some examples:
Alter the Meaning of a Sentence
The woman was wearing a dress.
The woman was wearing a long, white wedding dress.
The words long, white and wedding add meaning and clarity in the revised sentence. You could even take away the word wedding and the connotations of a 'long white dress' would still remain.
Alter the Context of a Sentence
The girl was playing with old, broken toys.
The girl was playing with shiny, new toys.
These two sentences paint very different pictures, by merely changing the modifiers. If they were the first line of a story, they'd instantly conjure very different assumptions and set different moods.
John opened the door to his apartment.
John opened the door to his expensive, new apartment.
Transform Dull Prose
John opened the door to the house.
A nervous John opened the heavy, creaking door to the spooky, old house.
These wonder words have the power to change the impact of a sentence entirely!
Need more information on a determiner? Check out our determiner page from EasyBib Plus.
Flip Reverse With Adjectival Opposites
These words are masters of transformation, and you'll see one of their most impressive tricks when you employ them to achieve the opposite meaning or, to add a degree of negativity.
Positive -- my favorite show
Negative -- my least favorite show
Positive -- my teacher is patient
Negative -- my teacher is not patient
Interestingly, you can convey a scale of meaning with this method.
My art teacher is less patient than my music teacher.
Prefixes can also be used to achieve the same result.
- Patient -- impatient
- Alcoholic -- non-alcoholic
- Kind -- unkind
Cool, Cooler or the Coolest?
Not content to present themselves in only one form, the not-so-humble adjectives can also be used to compare two or more nouns. Adjectives have three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative.
Positive/Absolute: This is the standard base form of the word. Positive adjectives don’t compare anything. These include words such as sunny, messy, and great, which describe an object in its own right. Other examples are: red, hot, angry.
Comparative: Comparative adjectives compare two or more objects by degree. Adjectives such as sunnier, messier, and greater are comparative.
Most adjectives can be made comparative by adding –er or –ier to the end. You may also need to double the final consonants. For example: Big, bigger, biggest.
In some cases, adjectives must be preceded by comparative terms like more or less. For example: more interesting, less intelligent.
Superlative: Superlative adjectives indicate that a noun has the highest degree of the quality being described. Examples include sunniest, messiest, and greatest.
You can typically make adjectives superlative by adding –est or –iest. Some adjectives, however, must be preceded by most to become superlative.
Irregulars: As seen in the examples above, most degrees of comparison can be formed by adding:
- er and est -- bright, brighter, brightest
- r and st -- brave, braver, bravest
- Removing the y and adding ier and iest -- dry, drier, driest
- By adding words such as more and most
Some, however, don't like to follow the rules. These words, known as irregulars, express degrees of comparison with sometimes drastic changes in form.
- Little, less, least
- Bad, worse, worst
Forming comparatives or superlatives of words that already express an extreme of comparison is also a sticky subject.
If something is already perfect, can it be more perfect or the most perfect? There's a puzzle for the language philosophers among you!
To learn more about and other parts of speech, review our grammar quick guide.
A Master of Disguise
Now here's where things can get really tricky! Grammar is full of sneaky double agents—a verb or a noun can become a describing word, and a describing word can become a noun or an adverb. Confused? Let's break it down.
Noun as a Descriptor
Sometimes a noun is used to describe another noun. The first noun then functions as the descriptor.
- Thing -- a bar of gold
- Descriptor -- a gold necklace
- Thing -- basketball
- Descriptor -- a basketball player
In some cases these then become compound nouns, which are recognized as single words because they need both words to convey their meaning accurately.
- Thing -- wedding
- Descriptor -- wedding dress -- the word wedding modifies the noun dress.
- Compound Noun -- wedding dress
Compound nouns can also be formed from a descriptor plus noun or a descriptor plus verb.
A participle is a word that has been formed from a verb but functions as a describing word.
- Verb -- to run
- Participle -- running water -- the word running modifies the noun water.
Nominals precede a describing word with the and function as nouns.
- Descriptor -- the best singer
- Nominal -- the best is yet to come
You'll notice that the word best is not modifying a noun in this sentence. Instead it is acting as the noun.
Collectives are a sub-type of nominals that refer to a group sharing a certain characteristic.
- Descriptor -- the old man
- Collective -- the old may suffer health problems
Again, the old is acting as a noun to identify a group of people.
A flat adverb doesn't have the distinctive 'ly' on the end of it, which allows it a double function as both adjectives and adverbs.
- the fast car
- he drove fast
The Adjective Clause
This clause functions as a descriptor in a sentence, and includes a verb and a subject. It always begins with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, whichever, that, etc) or a relative adverb (where, when, why). It's a dependent clause, which means that it cannot stand alone as a sentence.
The jacket that Todd bought yesterday looked smart.
Notice that a descriptive clause doesn't even have to contain a describing word—go figure!
Unusual Adjective Examples
If you're still struggling with the question 'what is an adjective?", seeing examples may help! Or are you searching for a wonder-word that’s sure to impress your lecturer? Our unusual adjectives list might have the inspiration you need.
Adjectives That Start With A
- Abhorrent -- offensive
- Abject -- unfortunate
- Adamant -- unyielding
- Adroit -- skilful, clever
- Auspicious -- lucky
Adjectives Starting With D
- Decrepit -- worn out, ruined
- Dapper -- smart dress and mannerisms
- Decorous -- good manners and conduct
- Didactic -- instructive
- Draconian -- harsh
Adjectives That Start With E
- Effulgent -- radiant
- Efficacious -- having a striking effect
- Equanimous -- balanced, calm
- Erratic -- prone to sudden change
- Execrable -- detestable, very bad
Adjectives That Start With N
- Nebulous -- vague, lacking definition
- Necessitous -- poor and needy
- Nescient -- ignorant
- Nefarious -- wicked
- Noxious -- harmful, corrosive
Adjectives Starting With P
- Parsimonious -- frugal
- Pernicious -- harmful, deadly
- Piquant -- stimulates taste or mind
- Plucky -- brave
- Precipitate -- steep, sudden, hasty
Adjectives That Start With U
- Ubiquitous -- everywhere at once
- Unvanquishable -- invincible, unbeatable
- Uppity -- self-important
- Urbane -- courteous
- Utilitarian -- useful, practical
A thesaurus is your friend! Use one to find an adjective list and stop using the same tired words over and over. You can also check your word choice using EasyBib.
If you don't have adjectives 100% nailed down just yet, or are still finding it difficult to answer the question ‘what are adjectives?’, don’t worry. Grammar is one of the most challenging aspects of the English language to learn, and it’s a long road to mastery. This guide is here to help you along your way, along with others such as our research and interjection pages.
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