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:
- -able/-ible: achievable, capable, illegible, remarkable
- -al: biographical, functional, internal, logical
- -ful: beautiful, careful, grateful, harmful
- -ic: cubic, manic, rustic, terrific
- -ive: attractive, dismissive, inventive, persuasive
- -less: breathless, careless, groundless, restless
- -ous: courageous, dangerous, disastrous, fabulous
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:
- Is that a new experience for you? [S1A-059 #75]
- You see, I ’ve got very bad writing. [S1A-059 #248]
- Uhm, some white wine for Mrs Beak Beak. [S1A-065 #312]
- She’d have sent you flowers with a little note that said good luck on. [S1A-080 #172]
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:
- The room is hot. [W1B-006 #52]
- I was lucky. [S1A-001 #90]
- The water is also more salty than the open sea... [W2B-029 #36]
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 (is; was). 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:
- And yet that language was being channelled into a very narrow field. [S1A-001 #37]
- And you’ve done an absolutely splendid job. [S1B-078 #210]
- ‘It was a very brave hope... but please go now.’ [W2F-015 #92]
- Kiefer’s paintings are incredibly large. [W1A-019 #80]
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:
- Well that’ll still be fairly tough. [S1A-005 #201]
- Well I think it’s a bit unreasonable. [S1A-006 #323]
- That’s quite cheap, I would’ve thought. [S1A-007 #112]
- Slightly bitter taste, you know. [S1A-009 #61]
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.
- The simple word or base form is sometimes called the absolute form (e.g. Jane is tall).
- You can compare two items or people by using the comparative form (Tim is taller than Jane).
- The most extreme form is called the superlative form (Sophia is the tallest in the class).
Here are some more examples:
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:
Some adjectives form the comparative and superlative using more and most respectively:
- Express an attribute of a person or thing.
- Often have a typical form.
- Often are gradable with very, comparative (more or -er) or superlative (most or -est).
- Can occur in attributive position before the noun (an old car).
- Can occur in predicative position after the verb (the car is old).
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