Adjectives

A very simple definition of adjectives that has sometimes been used is that they are ‘descriptive’ words. But this isn’t really very helpful. Lots of word classes can be ‘descriptive’: a noun like funeral is fairly descriptive, as is the verb leap. We might also say that the adverb quickly describes the verb ran in a sentence like He quickly ran.

So, we need a clearer sense of what the properties of adjectives are and how we might identify them.

Some adjectives can be identified by their form. Look for the following endings:

Others aren’t quite so easy to identify:

But we can also look at other properties.

We can look at function – what adjectives do.

Adjectives usually modify nouns:

In each of the examples above, the adjective comes before the noun it’s modifying. It expresses an ‘attribute’ or feature of the noun. This position before the noun is often called the attributive position.

Adjectives can also occur after the noun (or pronoun) they are describing, in what is called a predicative position:

You should be able to see that in these cases, the adjective doesn’t come directly after the noun it describes – instead, it is linked to the noun by the verb be (iswas). Adjectives can occur in this position, but adverbs cannot, so this is a good test for determining whether a word is an adjective or an adverb.

We can also look at the typical ways in which adjectives are modified. Many adjectives are gradable – they can apply to a greater or lesser extent, and can be changed to show this:

What we have here are adjectives modified by adverbs. For instance, narrow is modified by very. Adverbs such as very, absolutely and really are called intensifiers because they intensify the effect of the adjective. If something is hot we know that it will be more intense if it’s really hot. But intensifiers also control how small an adjective’s effect might be, so they can also make them weaker:

As well as taking modifying words like very and extremely, gradable adjectives can also take different forms to indicate their position on a scale of comparison.

Here are some more examples:

Absolute Comparative Superlative
  • dark
  • new
  • old
  • young
  • darker
  • newer
  • older
  • younger
  • darkest
  • newest
  • oldest
  • youngest

In most cases, the comparative is formed by adding -er, and the superlative is formed by adding -est, to the absolute form. However, a number of very common adjectives are irregular in this respect:

Absolute Comparative Superlative
  • good
  • bad
  • far
  • better
  • worse
  • farther
  • best
  • worst
  • farthest

Some adjectives form the comparative and superlative using more and most respectively:

Absolute Comparative Superlative
  • important
  • miserable
  • recent
  • more important
  • more miserable
  • more recent
  • most important
  • most miserable
  • most recent

Key points

Adjectives:

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Adjectives: Avoiding adjective overuse

Many writers of fiction use adjectives as a quick way of telling us what a character is like: how they appear, how they feel, how we should view them. Look at the following examples of how adjectives are used to provide a basic description:

Some writers prefer to use a different technique when they write. Instead of telling the reader what a character looks like, how they feel or what they are like as a person, they show the reader what the character is doing or feeling, by describing the actions of the character and letting us draw our own conclusions from this.

For instance, instead of our first example, Martina was angry, another writer might say:

We can see she is angry here without being told that she is. Showing the reader is often a good way of letting the reader experience the action in more detail. It also uses different word classes, not relying on adjectives to do all the work for us.

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