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What Is an Adjective?

Updated on April 6, 2023Grammar

Adjectives are words that describe the qualities or states of being of nouns: enormous, doglike, silly, yellow, fun, fast. They can also describe the quantity of nouns: many, few, millions, eleven.

Adjectives modify nouns

As you may already know, adjectives are words that modify (describe) nouns. Adjectives do not modify verbs or adverbs or other adjectives.

Margot wore a beautiful hat to the pie-eating contest.

Furry dogs may overheat in the summertime.

My cake should have sixteen candles.

The scariest villain of all time is Darth Vader.

In the sentences above, the adjectives are easy to spot because they come immediately before the nouns they modify.

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But adjectives can modify nouns even without appearing right before them in a sentence. Acting as what’s called a subjective complement with the help of a linking verb, a predicate adjective modifies the subject of a sentence. A linking verb is a verb like to be, to feel, to seem, or to taste that, rather than describing an action, helps to describe a state of being or a sensory experience.

That cow sure is happy.

It smells gross in the locker room.

Driving is faster than walking.

Uses of adjectives

Adjectives tell the reader what kind of something you’re talking about, or how much or how many of something you’re talking about.

Please use three white flowers in the arrangement.

Three and white are modifying flowers.

Often, when adjectives are used together, you should separate them with a comma or conjunction. See “Coordinate adjectives” below for more detail.

I’m looking for a small, good-tempered dog to keep as a pet.

My new dog is small and good-tempered.

Degrees of adjectives

Adjectives come in three forms, known as degrees: absolute, comparative, and superlative.

Absolute adjectives describe something in its own right.

A cool guy

A messy desk

A rigid guideline

An awful situation

A mischievous cat

Garrulous squirrels

Comparative adjectives, unsurprisingly, make a comparison between two or more things. For most one-syllable adjectives, the comparative is formed by adding the suffix -er (or just -r if the adjective already ends with an e). For two-syllable adjectives, some use -er to form the comparative while others use the word more. In general, two-syllable adjectives ending in –er, –le, –ow, –ure, or –y can be made comparative by adding -er (in the case of -y words, replace y with –ier). For adjectives of three or more syllables, add the word more.

A cooler guy

A messier desk

A rigider/more rigid guideline

A more awful situation

A more mischievous cat

More garrulous squirrels

Superlative adjectives indicate that something has the highest degree of the quality in question. One-syllable adjectives become superlatives by adding the suffix -est (or just -st for adjectives that already end in e). As with the comparative, some two-syllable adjectives use -est to form the superlative while others use the word most. In general, two-syllable adjectives ending in -y replace -y with -iest. Adjectives of three or more syllables add the word most. When you use an article with a superlative adjective, it will almost always be the definite article (the) rather than a or an. Using a superlative inherently indicates that you are talking about a specific item or items.

The coolest guy

The messiest desk

The rigidest/most rigid guideline

The most awful situation

The most mischievous cat

The most garrulous squirrels

Coordinate adjectives

Coordinate adjectives should be separated by a comma or the word and. Adjectives are said to be coordinate if they modify the same noun in a sentence to the same degree.

This is going to be a long, cold winter.

Isobel’s dedicated and tireless efforts made all the difference.

Sometimes, when two adjectives appear next to each other and modify the same noun, the one closer to the noun is so closely related to the noun that they form a single semantic unit together, and that unit is what is modified by the first adjective. In this case, the adjectives are not coordinate and should not be separated by a comma.

My cat, Goober, loves sleeping on this tattered woolen sweater.

No one could open the old silver locket.

In some cases, it’s pretty hard to tell whether two adjectives are coordinate or not. But there are a couple of ways you can test them. Try inserting the word and between the adjectives to see if the phrase still seems natural. In the first sentence above, “this tattered and woolen sweater” doesn’t sound right, because you really aren’t talking about a sweater that is both tattered and woolen in the same way. It’s a woolen sweater inherently, and it has become tattered. Woolen sweater forms a unit of meaning that is modified by tattered.

Another way to test for coordinate adjectives is to try switching the order of the adjectives and seeing if the phrase still works. In the second sentence, you wouldn’t say “No one could open the silver old locket.” You can’t reverse the order of the adjectives because silver locket is a unit that is modified by old.

Adjectives vs. adverbs

Many of us learned in school that adjectives modify nouns and that adverbs modify verbs. But as we’ve seen, adjectives don’t need to be right next to nouns in order to modify them; they can do so from after a linking verb in a sentence, as predicate adjectives. This leads to a common type of mistake: using an adverb when what you want is a predicate adjective. Here’s an example you’ve probably heard before:

I feel badly about what happened.

Because feel is a verb, it may seem to call for an adverb rather than an adjective. But feel isn’t just any verb; it’s a linking verb. An adverb would describe how you perform the action of feeling—an adjective describes what you feel. “I feel badly” would mean that you are bad at feeling things. If you’re trying to read Braille through thick leather gloves, then it might make sense for you to say “I feel badly.” But if you’re trying to say that you are experiencing a negative emotion, “I feel bad” is the phrase you want.

It’s easier to see this distinction with a different linking verb. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

Max smells badly.

Max smells bad.

“Max smells badly” means that Max, the poor thing, has a weak sense of smell. “Max smells bad” means that Max stinks—poor us.

When nouns are adjectives and adjectives are nouns

One more thing you should know about adjectives is that, sometimes, a word that is normally used as a noun can function as an adjective, depending on its placement.

Never try to pet someone’s guide dog without asking permission first.

Guide is a noun, but in this sentence, it is being put to use as an adjective to modify dog.

It works the other way too: Sometimes words that are normally adjectives shift into use as nouns. Many times this happens with adjectives used to denote a group of people, with the addition of the:

The French are known for valuing their leisure time.

Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor.

In the above examples, the word people has been elided and the adjectives French, rich, and poor are functioning as nouns. This kind of shift happens with other kinds of adjective-noun pairs too, however, especially when they are commonly used together:

Our English class took our final this morning.

Camille tends to focus on intangibles like communication style and a sense of camaraderie when deciding whether to accept a job offer.

In these sentences, the nouns exam and qualities have been elided.

Adjective usage advice

We’ll end with a few words about adjectives and style. It’s one thing to know how to use an adjective; it’s another to know when using one is a good idea. Good writing is precise and concise. Sometimes you need an adjective to convey exactly what you mean. It’s hard to describe a red sports car without the word red. But often, choosing the right noun eliminates the need to tack on an adjective. Is it a big house, or is it a mansion? A large crowd or a throng? A mixed-breed dog or a mutt? A dark night or just . . . night? Always aim to make every word count in your writing. If you need an adjective, use it. But if it’s not pulling its weight, delete it.

Adjective FAQs

What is an adjective?

An adjective is a word that describes the traits, qualities, or number of a noun.

What are examples of adjectives?

Descriptive words like beautiful, smooth, and heavy are all adjectives, as are numbers (“twelve eggs”).

What is the difference between adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives modify nouns, while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. For example, in the phrase “very funny movie,” funny is an adjective describing the noun movie, and very is an adverb describing the adjective funny.

Can adjectives modify adverbs?

Adjectives can modify only nouns. Only adverbs can modify other adverbs.

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