Adjectives are words that describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The Articles — a, an, and the — are adjectives.
- the tall professor
- the lugubrious lieutenant
- a solid commitment
- a month's pay
- a six-year-old child
- the unhappiest, richest man
If a group of words containing a subject and verb acts as an adjective, it is called an Adjective Clause. My sister, who is much older than I am, is an engineer. If an adjective clause is stripped of its subject and verb, the resulting modifier becomes an Adjective Phrase: He is the man
who is keeping my family in the poorhouse.
Before getting into other usage considerations, one general note about the use — or over-use — of adjectives: Adjectives are frail; don't ask them to do more work than they should. Let your broad-shouldered verbs and nouns do the hard work of description. Be particularly cautious in your use of adjectives that don't have much to say in the first place: interesting, beautiful, lovely, exciting. It is your job as a writer to create beauty and excitement and interest, and when you simply insist on its presence without showing it to your reader — well, you're convincing no one.
Consider the uses of modifiers in this adjectivally rich paragraph from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. (Charles Scribner's, 1929, p. 69.) Adjectives are highlighted in this color; participles, verb forms acting as adjectives, are highlighted in this blue. Some people would argue that words that are part of a name — like "East India Tea House — are not really adjectival and that possessive nouns — father's, farmer's — are not technically adjectives, but we've included them in our analysis of Wolfe's text.
He remembered yet the East India Tea House at the Fair, the sandalwood, the turbans, and the robes, the cool interior and the smell of India tea; and he had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms. He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweet hay, inside a farmer's covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals. He knew the good male smell of his father's sitting-room; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent; of the blistered varnished wood upon the hearth; of the heated calf-skin bindings; of the flat moist plug of apple tobacco, stuck with a red flag; of wood-smoke and burnt leaves in October; of thebrown tired autumn earth; of honey-suckle at night; of warm nasturtiums, of a clean ruddy farmer who comes weekly with printed butter, eggs, and milk; of fat limp underdone bacon and of coffee; of a bakery-oven in the wind; of large deep-hued stringbeans smoking-hot and seasoned well with salt and butter; of a room of old pine boards in which books and carpets have been stored, long closed; of Concord grapes in their long white baskets.
An abundance of adjectives like this would be uncommon in contemporary prose. Too many adjectives are frowned on these days.
Position of Adjectives
Unlike Adverbs, which often seem capable of popping up almost anywhere in a sentence, adjectives nearly always appear immediately before the noun or noun phrase that they modify. Sometimes they appear in a string of adjectives, and when they do, they appear in a set order according to category. (See Below.) When indefinite pronouns — such as something, someone, anybody — are modified by an adjective, the adjective comes after the pronoun:
Anyone capable of doing something horrible to someone nice should be punished.
Something wicked this way comes.
And there are certain adjectives that, in combination with certain words, are always "postpositive" (coming after the thing they modify):
The president elect, heir apparent to the Glitzy fortune, lives in New York proper.
See, also, the note on a- adjectives, below, for the position of such words as "ablaze, aloof, aghast."
Degrees of Adjectives
Adjectives can express degrees of modification:
- Gladys is a rich woman, but Josie is richer than Gladys, and Sadie is the richest woman in town.
|beautiful||more beautiful||most beautiful|
Certain adjectives have irregular forms in the comparative and superlative degrees:
|Irregular Comparative and Superlative Forms|
Be careful not to form comparatives or superlatives of adjectives which already express an extreme of comparison — unique, for instance — although it probably is possible to form comparative forms of most adjectives: something can be more perfect, and someone can have a fuller figure. People who argue that one woman cannot be more pregnant than another have never been nine-months pregnant with twins.Grammar's Response
According to Bryan Garner, "complete" is one of those adjectives that does not admit of comparative degrees. We could say, however, "more nearly complete." I am sure that I have not been consistent in my application of this principle in the Guide (I can hear myself, now, saying something like "less adequate" or "more preferable" or "less fatal"). Other adjectives that Garner would include in this list are as follows:
Be careful, also, not to use more along with a comparative adjective formed with -er nor to use most along with a superlative adjective formed with -est (e.g., do not write that something is more heavier or most heaviest).
The as — as construction is used to create a comparison expressing equality:
- He is as foolish as he is large.
- She is as bright as her mother.
Premodifiers with Degrees of Adjectives
Both adverbs and adjectives in their comparative and superlative forms can be accompanied by premodifiers, single words and phrases, that intensify the degree.
- We were a lot more careful this time.
- He works a lot less carefully than the other jeweler in town.
- We like his work so much better.
- You'll get your watch back all the faster.
The same process can be used to downplay the degree:
- The weather this week has been somewhat better.
- He approaches his schoolwork a little less industriously than his brother does.
And sometimes a set phrase, usually an informal noun phrase, is used for this purpose:
- He arrived a whole lot sooner than we expected.
- That's a heck of a lot better.
If the intensifier very accompanies the superlative, a determiner is also required:
- She is wearing her very finest outfit for the interview.
- They're doing the very best they can.
Occasionally, the comparative or superlative form appears with a determiner and the thing being modified is understood:
- Of all the wines produced in Connecticut, I like this one the most.
- The quicker you finish this project, the better.
- Of the two brothers, he is by far the faster.
For a QUIZ on Adjectives, go here...
With thanks to Capital Community College, a non-profit organisation.