Adjective identification

In this activity, students work through the criteria for identifying adjectives.


  • Practise identifying adjectives.
  • Recognise linguistic criteria for identifying adjectives.
  • Remember the list of adjective criteria for use and application later on.

Lesson Plan

In this lesson, students move beyond what is called the notional or semantic way of identifying adjectives as describing words to explore grammatical ways of identifying adjectives. Although notional definitions can be useful they do not always work. For example, adverbs can also be said to describe verbs. In addition, the notional definition of adjectives is often at odds with our encouraging students to use more descriptive vocabulary in general. Sprint and scamper are more descriptive than run, but neither is an adjective. Beginning with notional or semantic definitions is useful for younger students and beginners, but older students should move further into the kind of grammatical analysis presented here.

In Activity 1 in the right hand menu, Slide 1 asks students to categorise a series of tiles as adjectives or not adjectives. They should use their intuition and what they've already learned. A third column is for uncertain cases. In Slide 2, they are presented with the classic definition of an adjective as a describing word, and asked to categorise the words again.

Then, in Slide 3, students are presented with the first important grammatical criterion for defining adjectives. Adjectives can take the comparative -er suffix and the superlative -est suffix if the adjective is two syllables or fewer. Note that nouns, verbs, conjunctions, and prepositions cannot take comparative or superlative suffixes. Adverbs can, though, so this criterion isn't foolproof! The students can now group the tiles using this piece of knowledge.

In Slide 4, students see another criterion for defining adjectives, and are asked to group the word tiles again. This time, they should consider that adjectives cannot be plural - they cannot fit into a phrase like two ___s or three ___s.

In Slide 5, the criterion states that adjectives cannot show tense with the -ed suffix. Only verbs can do that.

Finally, in Slide 6, students see that adjectives can be in attributive or predicative position. In attributive position, they occur just before a noun, as in the big shoe, and in predicative position, they occur after a form of be (or seem, appear, etc.), as in The shoe is big.

Some students may notice ambiguity with some example words. For example, last can be a verb, as in That movie didn't last long, but can also be an adjective, as in This is the last movie today. What does this mean? This illustrates the important point that some word forms can represent multiple meanings and multiple word classes

In Activity 2, students are provided with an example sentence and a highlighted word in context. Below the example is a list of the criteria for identifying adjectives. Students should ask each question, and determine whether the word in context is an adjective.

Moving forward, students should remember these criteria for labelling adjectives, and use the criteria for identifying adjectives in future work and in exams. Repeated practice like that provided in this lesson should help students retain the criteria.

Teachers' Notes

Not all adjectives will fit every criterion, but a word that fits most criteria is probably an adjective. Much of the detective work in grammatical analysis comes from the borderline cases and difficult words. For example, some adjectives, e.g. utter (as in utter fool) don't take a comparative and superlative forms: we don't have utterer or utterest. Professional linguists continue to debate some difficult words, and there may not be a final answer on some of the most tricky ones. With that in mind, the criteria here allow you to analyse a word systematically, and you can be sure that if a word's class is difficult to determine based on these criteria, then it just isn't easy to analyse at all!

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