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Adjectives in English

Categories, use and formation of adjectives in English

Index : Types of adjective Use of adjectives Adjectives in the plural
Forming adjectives Comparison of adjectives Gradation of adjectives

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What is an adjective? 

An adjective is a word that defines, qualifies or modifies the meaning of a noun, or more rarely of a pronoun. It expresses a quality or attribute of the word it qualifies. There are two main categories of adjectives:
  1. determining adjectives, 
  2. descriptive adjectives, which can be either qualifying adjectives or classifying adjectives .

Types of Adjective : determining or descriptive

1. Determining adjectives :

Also called limiting adjectives, determining adjectives are words that are generally classed in the family of determiners, and are dealt with elsewhere:  there is a limited number of these words. They are notably possessive adjectives (such as my, their), numerals and quantifiers (such as one, two, three, every, many), demonstrative adjectives (such as this or that),  interrogative adjectives (such as which). To learn about the use of these determining adjectives, please consult the appropriate pages.

2. Descriptive adjectives : qualifying or classifying

When we talk of adjectives, we generally tend to mean "descriptive adjectives".  These are adjectives such as big, English, wonderful, words that describe the permanant or perceived qualities of a noun; their number is unlimited. New descriptive adjectives enter the language every day, often in the fertile world of slang.

   There are two categories of descriptive adjectives;
   Qualifiying adjectives are "gradable", i.e. it is possible to graduate their intensity, by the addition of an adverb of degree, such as very, quite, enough; most qualifying adjectives can also be put into comparative or superlative forms (big, bigger, biggest).
    Classifying adjectives cannot normally be graded: a person is either married or  not, or dead or  not; he or she cannot be "very married", nor "more dead" than another person, at least not under normal usage of the words.
    That being said, many adjectives can be used either as qualifying adjectives, or as  classifying adjectives, depending on the context. Take the example of the adjective old.
  1.    My car is very old (qualifying, with a noun)
  2.    He is old (qualifying, with a pronoun) see Pronouns)
  3.    The old computer was much quieter than the new model (classifying)
In the first two examples above, old is a perceived quality, and therefore gradable, in the third old has an absolute value, with the meaning of former or previous.
See gradation and comparison of adjectives below.

Use of adjectives : attributive or predicative

Adjectives are used in two main ways; they can either be attributive or they can be predicative.

Attributive adjectives :

This is the most common use of adjectives, standing next to a noun in a  noun phrase. In English, simple and complex adjectives almost always come before the noun .
  1. The big metal box
  2.  My dear old grandfather .
  3. A very modern plastic dish.
  4. An easily recognisable face.
  5. A pink and green dress
  6. A not-too-infrequent event.

Exceptions:  adjectives that follow nouns or pronouns. (postpositive adjectives)

There are only a very small number of exceptions,
  1. All the people concerned were told to leave the room.
  2. The children present did not like the show. (=The children who were present ....)
  3. He's the last man standing.
  4. There are only three cakes left.
  5. I want to give you something special
  6. That would be quite understandable to anyone intelligent.
  7. The man is two metres tall. I'm 20 years old.
  8. I bought all the bottles left in the shop.   
  9. He was a man proud of his success
 For details on the ordering of adjectives within a noun group, see adjective order.

Predicative adjectives

Adjectives are said to be predicative when they are used as the complement of the verb to be, or other similar verbs such as  get, become, grow,  etc.
  1. The result was magnificent.
  2. My girlfriend is beautiful .
  3. The weather is getting colder.
  4. I grew fonder of London after living there for a month.

Adjectives in the plural

In English, adjectives never take a plural inflexion (s) whether they are used attributively or predicatively.

The same rule applies to some adjectives used as nouns.
We talk about  the poor, or the living, or the wounded  We cannot say the poors  or the livings,  or the  woundeds.
Example:  The injured and the dead were evacuated by ambulance.

  On the other hand, with colours, specially when referring to teams, adjectives used as nouns do take a plural  s  .
Example:  The final is between the reds and the blues.

Formation of adjectives in English

Many adjectives are lexical words in their own right, i.e. they exist independently of any other word, or are the root word of a word family. For example good, bad, ugly.
Other adjectives are inflected forms of other words, derived notably from verbs. For example charming, lost. Other adjectives can be formed from nouns, for example beautiful (from beauty) or motionless (from motion), or even from other adjectives (for example yellowish).
    One of the beauties of the English language is the simplicity with which words can be formed from other words: all that is needed is to add the appropriate ending, and a new word is made. Here are some examples.
  1.    Unthinkable, doable, mendable, possible, plausible - with -able or -ible
  2.    Careless, fruitless, homeless, motionless - with less
  3.    Beautiful, hopeful, wonderful, awful, blissful - with ful
  4.    Soggy,  foggy,  lazy, stormy,  skinny, bloody, - with -y
  5.    Smallish, greenish,  darkish, - with -ish
  6.    Distinguished, bored, displaced, contented, squared - with -ed
  7.    Challenging, alarming, amazing, exciting - with -ing

Comparison of adjectives

Many qualifying adjectives can be used in a comparative or a superlative form. In most cases, the comparative form of an adjective is made with the word  more, and the superlative form with the word most.  
   But with most common short monosyllabic adjectives, and some two-syllable adjectives, the comparative is made by adding the ending -er, and the superlative with the ending -est.  There are two common adjectives with irregular comparative and superlative forms: good, better, best, and bad, worse, worst.
  1.   Careful, more careful, most careful
  2.    Difficult, more difficult, most difficult, Certain, more certain, most certain
  3.   Hard, harder, hardest,  Black, blacker, blackest, Old, older, oldest,
          Clever, cleverer, cleverest,  
  4.    Large, larger, largest  (just add -r and -st to adjectives ending in e)
  5.    Big, bigger, biggest ,  hot, hotter, hottest  - Final p t k b d  g n & m, are doubled when standing alone after a short vowel
  6. Hard, harder , warm warmer, quiet quieter - Final p t k b d  g n & m, are not doubled when following another consonant or a long vowel or diphthong.   
  7.    Pretty, prettier, prettiest , heavy, heavier, heaviest  - Adjectives ending in y have inflected forms in -ier and -iest.

Gradation of adjectives

Qualifying adjectives can be graded by adverbs of intensity or of degree, and by some other adverbs. The most common adverbs of intensity are:
    quite, rather, fairly, very, extremely, highly 
These adverbs come before the adjective.  But note the following points:
    Adjectives that are in the comparative form can be modified by intensifiers such as much, far and sometimes by adverbs of degree (examples 8).
    Some kinds of adjectives, notably participles, can be modified by a wide range of adverbs (examples 9 and 10).
  1.   I'm quite certain I left my hat in the car.
  2.   This is a rather good restaurant OR this is rather a good restaurant.
  3.   It's very clear that you have read the book already.
  4.   This is a highly complicated situation to be in.
  5.    This situation is highly complicated.
  6.    OK, that was a clear enough reply.
  7.    Is the door wide enough to get through ?
  8.    That was much better than last time. It's rather better than I expected.
  9.    They are a newly married couple.
  10.    He made a carefully worded statement.
Classifying adjectives can not normally be graded, though there are some circumstances where grading is possible .  Compare the three examples below using the classifying adjective electric. Normally something is electric or it is not electric; it can't be very electric or quite electric...... However it can be partly electric.
  1.  OK: This new car is electric.
  2.  Not OK:  This new car is very electric.
  3.   OK .  This new hybrid car is partly electric.

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