What is an Adjective?
Imagine your favourite dinner. How about something traditionally English, like roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, vegetables and roast potatoes? Very pleasant. But that dinner can be made even more delicious. Add some rosemary to the potatoes, some horseradish sauce to the beef, along with mustard and cover the lot with a good, rich gravy.
We wouldn’t want a dinner of just those additions. Rosemary, horseradish, mustard and gravy would make a strange meal indeed. But added to those main ingredients, they bring the meal to life.
But we are looking to study English online, not cookery. Even so, adjectives are the horseradish sauce of language. They bring it life, modifying the meaning of a noun just as the spicy creamy stuff modifies the taste of the beef.
Fortunately, there are few rules to the use of adjectives
- They can be used in multiple forms (The tough, long and ultimately boring paper was one I needed to pass), they can appear before or after the noun or pronoun they are describing.
There goes a talented person.
- When appearing after the noun or pronoun, they will be preceded by a verb, often (but not always) an auxiliary verb such as ‘are’ or ‘is’.
Cakes are delicious.
The delicious cakes…
Most Common Adjectives in English
The table below shows some popular adjectives. The adjective list is in the categories for which they modify their nouns and pronouns.
- Descriptive Adjectives can sometimes be specific to a subject, such as ’hot-tempered’ relates to personality. Sometimes, they are generally applicable. For example, anything can be ‘large’.
- Possessive Adjectives are specific to where they appear in relation to the noun. The first group above appear before the noun: It is their pen.
- The second group appear after the noun and are preceded by an auxiliary verb: The pen is theirs.
- Interrogative Adjectives are only adjectives if they can be used to modify the noun. So, we can say ‘whose pen’, but not ‘who pen’; hence, who is not an adjective.
- Distributive Adjectives are ALWAYS followed by their noun or pronoun.
Order of Adjectives
Descriptive Adjectives; General Opinion Adjectives; Specific Opinion Adjectives
There is a convention in English that multiple adjectives are presented in the following order:
General Opinion; Specific Opinion; Descriptive
Therefore, we get the following order of adjectives:
He is a wonderful, intelligent, old man.
- Wonderful is the general opinion adjective, since almost anything can be wonderful.
- Intelligent is the specific opinion adjective, since this is a word applied mostly to living beings.
- Old is the descriptive adjective, in that it offers no opinion, but describes the person (and can be used as a descriptor for any noun.)
However, by swapping the order of adjectives, emphasis and effect can be created. This is best used sparingly. In the example below, there is greater emphasis placed on the fact the man is wonderful, because it is the final adjective used.
He is an old, intelligent, wonderful man.
Comparatives and Superlatives
What is a Comparative?
A comparative is an adjective which compares the noun it describes with another. Comparatives often end in ‘er’.
What is a Superlative?
The superlative is the most extreme something can be. Superlatives often end in ‘est’.
The table below shows some adjectives with their comparatives and superlatives, to help us understand the pattern. There are some common irregular versions (where the pattern is not followed) at the end.
|Grateful||More grateful||Most grateful|
Intensifiers and Mitigators
Sometimes, words hold little meaning by themselves, but when applied to an adjective help to make that descriptive word clearer.
Consider the example below:
He did well.
Here we can see that the person performed to a good standard, but the range of that standard is undefined. By adding the intensifier ‘really’, the meaning becomes much clearer.
He did really well.
The opposite words to intensifiers are mitigators. These work in a similar way but reduce the impact of the adjective. So, using the same example, we can see that:
He did well.
He did fairly well.
Which brings an element of weakness to the person’s performance.
Here is a list of the most common intensifiers and mitigators. Note, these words are not adjectives in themselves, they are adverbs. However, when applied to the adjective they make it into a more specific descriptive term.
|Enough||Quite (note, this can also be an intensifier, depending on how it is used.)|
A note on ‘quite’. This can be confusing as it works as both an intensifier and a mitigator. The examples below illustrate this.
I was quite horrified by his performance.
In this sense, the word means ‘very’.
I was quite happy with your score of 5 out of 10.
Here the word implies that, in fact, the happiness of the subject was limited.
There is a danger of using mitigators and, far more significantly, intensifiers, and the same applies to comparative adjectives. The danger is that they can lead to hyperbole. That is when statements go over the top.
That was the greatest goal the game has ever seen!
She is the finest Prime Minister the country has ever known!
Hyperbole does have a place, and is especially effective when used ironically, but like all good things, when over used it loses its impact and can even become clichéd.
Adjectives are brilliant for bringing writing to life; they give our audience detail of the picture we are creating, whether speaking or writing in English. But beware! We started by linking adjectives to condiments. And just as we do not want too much salt on our food, for fear that we destroy the taste we want to enjoy, so over-using adjectives ruins the speed, pace and interest of our writing or speech. Like all good things in life, adjectives are best used in moderation.
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