Adjectives in English grammar

Adjectives

We often want or need to give more information about a noun, about its qualities or characteristics, or we simply want to describe it in more detail. To modify nouns we use adjectives. Adjectives are usually found in one of two positions in a sentence,

in attributive position – directly before the noun:

  • a tall building
  • an entertaining night out
  • the grey skies

in predicative position – after a verb:

  • it’s becoming difficult to find good service
  • he’s kind

There are a few adjectives like aware, alive, asleep, awake that can only be used after a verb.

If we want to use more than one adjective, the rule-of-thumb is that the general meaning comes before the specific and opinion before description: a typical British summer, a beautiful silk blouse. If we need to use more than just two adjectives the table below is a guide (not a strict rule) to the ordering of adjectives.

  size shape colour origin material use noun
a round Dutch cheese
the small square wooden bridge table
some blue silk head scarves

A large number of adjectives in English are linked quite closely or can be derived from nouns by adding on special adjectival endings.

importance important clock clockwise
intelligence intelligent friend friendly
use useful/less enthusiasm enthusiastic
depression depressive courage courageous
sun sunny transience transitory
articulation articulate centre central

Another very common way of forming adjectives is to use the present and past participles of verbs. There are many examples of these, including interested, interesting, tired, tiring, excited, exciting, closed, broken, amusing. As a rule the past participle (usually, but not always, ending in –ed) tells us how someone feels about something, while the present participle ending in –ing tells us how something makes us feel, so:

  • I’m excited at the prospect of another change – tells you how I feel;
  • The prospect of another change is exciting (for me) – tells you how the prospect makes me feel.

It is also possible to make up adjectives based on a combination of words like:

  • noun + past participle: wine-soaked, leather-bound
  • adjective + past participle: round-shouldered, blue-rinsed
  • adverb + past participle: closely-knit, well-heeled

We also group adjectives under the terms gradeable and absolute. Gradeable adjectives are used to describe qualities that we can measure or grade in some way, whereas absolute adjectives denote either extreme qualities or qualities which are not measurable. So, hot, big, certain, interesting, cloudy are gradeables, while livid, starving, dead, female are absolutes. With gradeables we can use adverbs which either intensify or reduce the effect of the adjective:

  • an extremely hot country
  • a very clever dog
  • quite nice
  • rather dull

With absolutes, on the other hand, only the intensifying type of adverb can be used:

  • utterly wrong
  • completely insane
  • absolutely incredible
  • totally naked

Comparatives and superlatives of adjectives

When we need to compare a thing with one or more things of a similar type or when we want to single out one particular thing as being very special in relation to others, we use what are known ascomparatives and superlatives. Examples of these are:

Comparatives

  • India is hotter than Spain.
  • This sweater is softer than that one.
  • This year’s homework is more difficult.
  • I’ve never seen a kinder gesture. (Compared with all the gestures I’ve seen.)

Superlatives

  • London is the most expensive city in the world to live in.
  • He’s the best in the class.
  • Shakespeare is the greatest British playwright ever.
  • This is the closest I’ve ever come to beating him at tennis.

It is possible to intensify and reduce the effect of the comparative and superlative by using a certain range of words. So, for comparatives we can use, slightly, a little, a bit, considerably, a lot, far, a great deal, much, and for superlatives, simply/easily the best, altogether, by far, far and away etc.

The question remains, how do we form comparatives and superlatives? With adjectives of three or more syllables we use more to form comparatives and the most for superlatives: more enthusiastically, the most interesting, more economical, the most stupendous.

If the adjective has only one syllable, we simply add –er for comparatives and -est to make superlatives: looser, clearer, brave, the loosest, the clearest, the bravest (if the adjective already ends in an e the just r is added).

With most two-syllable adjectives we have the choice of either adding -er/-est to the end or using the form with more/the most: happier, more happy, the cleverest, the most clever, sunnier, more sunny.

With adjectives that are formed from the past and present participles of verbs such as bored, thrilling, fascinating, tired and those adjectives that have the typical adjective endings (e.g. -al, -ic, -able, – ful, less, -ive) shown in the previous table above it is best to use the more/the most form.

As with many other parts of the grammatical system, there are irregularly made comparatives and superlatives, these are:

  • good – better – the best
  • bad – worse – the worst
  • far – farther/further – the farthest/furthest