Adjectives are words we use to describe people, places or things (ie they describe nouns or possibly pronouns). They tell us what kind, or how many, or which particular one we are talking about. In general, in English, an adjective is placed immediately before whatever it is describing.For instance: a green door; a hungry dog; a furry cat; a clever writer; a big country. All the words in italics are basic adjectives: they tell us something about the door, the dog, and so on.
It’s also possible to have an adjective as a predicate in a sentence, after a linking verb. For instance: the dog is angry; the city is dirty; the boy was naughty; the woman seems to be respectable.
It’s also possible to have adjectives (often two or more at a time) following the noun it describes, with a comma between them. For instance: the doctor, tired and worried, finally got home; the cat, cold and hungry, scratched at the window; the woman, delighted with her purchase, went to buy some coffee.
Unlike many other languages, adjectives do not change form for different numbers. We talk about the little house, or the little houses, without adding any plural ending to the adjective.
Different kinds of words may function as adjectives
Although there are some words (such as green, big, dirty etc) which are always used as adjectives, there are other words which may function as different parts of speech, depending on how they are used in a sentence. For instance, a noun may be used in adjective form, as in: the boy wonder; the night watchman; the city streets.
Possessive pronouns are used as adjectives too, for instance: this is my suitcase; that’s our house; I can see their cat. Technically, too, the articles the, a and an are also used in adjective form.
More confusing still, some verb forms, if they come before nouns, function as adjectives. These are usually present and past participles. Examples of this are: he was a willing worker; she is an inspiring writer; this is boiling water.
Comparative and superlative adjectives
Many simple adjectives have three forms, telling us different intensities of meaning. For instance: John is tall, Jack is taller, and Joel is the tallest. Taller is the comparative form: it can be used when there are two people to compare. Jack is taller than John, in the above example. We might also use the comparative form when we say: James is older than Jenny; this is a cheaper supermarket than that one; England is a colder country than Cyprus.
When there are three or more people or items being compared, we can also use the superlative form which tells us which of them fits the particular adjective best. So while John and Jack are both tall, Joel is the tallest of them all. We might say: this is my eldest child; Mount Everest is the highest peak; that’s the coldest winter I can remember.
While most comparative and superlative forms are formed in regular ways, adding -er and -est respectively, there are a few irregular ones: good, better best; bad, worse, worst; many, more, most.
With longer words, generally those of more than two syllables, we don’t use comparative and superlative forms, but add the words ‘more‘ or ‘most‘ in front of them. So we might say: she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen; our new computer is much more complicated than our old one. This form is also used for two-syllable adjectives ending in ‘-less’ or ‘-ful’ such as useless or careful.
Precise adjectives that do not have comparative and superlative forms
Some adjectives are more precise than others. When we say that John is tall, we might all have an idea of what we mean by ‘tall’, but it will vary depending on our experience, and also on John’s age. A tall ten-year-old is quite different from a tall adult who is a basketball player. But some adjectives are much more precise. If I say that a table is circular, then it’s impossible to say that another table is ‘more circular’. Either it is circular, or it isn’t. Unique is an adjective meaning ‘one of a kind’, so although people do sometimes say that something is ‘more unique’ than something else, that’s technically impossible. Either it’s unique, or it isn’t.
Numbers are used as adjectives, and also do not take comparative or superlative forms. If I say that I have three cats, I am being precise. I might be more vague and say I have ‘about ten books on my desk’, but we can’t use an exact number in other forms, saying I have ‘sixer’ cats than you. It would not make sense.
When to use adjectives
Adjectives are useful words that can give us extra information that we need to know, or a better idea of what to look for. If I have to meet John at the airport, it’s helpful to know that he’s tall, with sparse hair,wearing a green shirt, with an old rucksack and pulling a wheely, plastic suitcase.
Adjectives can also help in descriptive writing. For instance: I got out of bed and opened the window. The air was cool and fresh, while the dawn chorus was loud and insistent. I took a few deep breaths, and watched as the sky slowly changed from red-gold to grey-blue, and then to the bright azure of a Mediterreanean morning.
It’s important not to overdo adjectives: too many, and our speech and writing can seem over-exaggerated, or sloppy. But too few can seem sparse and unimaginative. Interesting adjectives can strike our listeners or readers far more forcibly than simple ones, but again it’s important not to use too many complex words at once, for fear of being overwhelming.
That’s probably as much as you ever wanted to know about adjectives. But for more explanations and examples, you might like to visit one of these sites:
The adjective – clear examples and explanations, showing how to recognise adjectives and where to use them
Adjective list – a useful list of the commonest adjectives; scroll down for printable worksheets for children
BBC Skillwise on Adjectives – a fact sheet, a game and a worksheet on the subject
For further information on English grammar on this site, see:
Introduction to grammar – why study the subject at all? An overview of parts of speech
Nouns – the different forms of nouns explained, with plenty of examples
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices of verbs
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them