What is an adjective?
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
Most students learn that adjectives are words that modify (describe) nouns. Adjectives do not modify verbs or adverbs or other adjectives.
In the sentences above, the adjectives are easy to spot because they come immediately before the nouns they modify.
The technical term for an adjective used this way is predicate adjective.
Uses of adjectives
Adjectives tell the reader how much—or how many—of something you’re talking about, which thing you want passed to you, or which kind of something you want.
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.
Degrees of comparison
Adjectives come in three forms: absolute, comparative, and superlative. Absolute adjectives describe something in its own right.
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 ending in -y, replace -y with -ier. For multi-syllable adjectives, add the word more.
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). Two-syllable adjectives ending in -y replace -y with -iest. Multi-syllable adjectives 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.
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.
But just the fact that two adjectives appear next to each other doesn’t automatically mean they are coordinate. Sometimes, an adjective and a noun form a single semantic unit, which is then modified by another adjective. In this case, the adjectives are not coordinate and should not be separated by a comma.
In some cases, it’s pretty hard to decide 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, “this tattered and woolen sweater” doesn’t sound right because you really aren’t talking about a sweater that is both tattered and woolen. It’s a woolen sweater that is 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
As mentioned above, many of us learned in school that adjectives modify nouns and that adverbs modify verbs. But as we’ve seen, adjectives can also act as complements for linking verbs. This leads to a common type of error: incorrectly substituting an adverb in place of a predicate adjective. An example you’ve probably heard before is:
Because “feel” is a verb, it seems 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” means 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 negative emotions, “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:
“Goober smells badly” means that Goober, the poor thing, has a weak sense of smell. “Goober smells bad” means Goober stinks—poor us.
When nouns become adjectives and adjectives become 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. For example:
Guide is a noun. But in this sentence, it modifies dog. It works the other way, too. Some words that are normally adjectives can function as nouns:
In the context of this sentence, homeless is functioning as a noun. It can be hard to wrap your head around this if you think of adjectives and nouns only as particular classes of words. But the terms “adjective” and “noun” aren’t just about a word’s form—they’re also about its function.
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 remember 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.