Adjectives

Guide to Grammar and Writing
 
Definition
Adjectives are words that describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The Articles a, an, and the are adjectives. 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.

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 the brown 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. Whether we have lost something or not is left up to you.

 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:

The degrees of comparison are known as the positive, the comparative, and the superlative. (Actually, only the comparative and superlative show degrees.) We use the comparative for comparing two things and the superlative for comparing three or more things. Notice that the word than frequently accompanies the comparative and the word the precedes the superlative. The inflected suffixes -er and -est suffice to form most comparatives and superlatives, although we need -ier and -iest when a two-syllable adjective ends in y (happier and happiest); otherwise we use more and most when an adjective has more than one syllable.
Click on the "scary bear" to read and hear George Newall's "Unpack Your Adjectives" (from Scholastic Rock, 1975).
Schoolhouse Rock® and its characters and other elements are trademarks and service marks of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Used with permission.
Positive Comparative Superlative
rich richer richest
lovely lovelier loveliest
beautiful more beautiful most beautiful

Certain adjectives have irregular forms in the comparative and superlative degrees:
Irregular Comparative and Superlative Forms
good better best
bad worse worst
little less least
much
many
some
more most
far further furthest

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.

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:

"Taller than I / me" ??
When making a comparison with "than" do we end with a subject form or object form, "taller than I/she" or "taller than me/her." The correct response is "taller than I/she." We are looking for the subject form: "He is taller than I am/she is tall." (Except we leave out the verb in the second clause, "am" or "is.") Some good writers, however, will argue that the word "than" should be allowed to function as a preposition. If we can say "He is tall like me/her," then (if "than" could be prepositional like like) we should be able to say, "He is taller than me/her." It's an interesting argument, but for now, anyway in formal, academic prose, use the subject form in such comparisons. 

The Order of Adjectives in a Series
It would take a linguistic philosopher to explain why we say "little brown house" and not "brown little house" or why we say "red Italian sports car" and not "Italian red sports car." The order in which adjectives in a series sort themselves out is perplexing for people learning English as a second language. Most other languages dictate a similar order, but not necessarily the same order. It takes a lot of practice with a language before this order becomes instinctive, because the order often seems quite arbitrary (if not downright capricious). There is, however, a pattern. You will find many exceptions to the pattern in the table below, but it is definitely important to learn the pattern of adjective order if it is not part of what you naturally bring to the language.

The categories in the following table can be described as follows:

  1. Determiners articles and other limiters. See Determiners
  2. Observation postdeterminers and limiter adjectives (e.g., a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives subject to subjective measure (e.g., beautiful, interesting)
  3. Size and Shape adjectives subject to objective measure (e.g., wealthy, large, round)
  4. Age adjectives denoting age (e.g., young, old, new, ancient)
  5. Color adjectives denoting color (e.g., red, black, pale)
  6. Origin denominal adjectives denoting source of noun (e.g., French, American, Canadian)
  7. Material denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (e.g., woolen, metallic, wooden)
  8. Qualifier final limiter, often regarded as part of the noun (e.g., rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover)
THE ROYAL ORDER OF ADJECTIVES 
Determiner Observation Physical Description Origin Material Qualifier Noun
  Size Shape Age Color  
a beautiful     old   Italian   touring car
an expensive     antique     silver   mirror
four gorgeous   long-
stemmed
  red   silk   roses
her     short   black       hair
our   big   old   English     sheepdog
those     square       wooden hat boxes
that dilapidated little           hunting cabin
several   enormous   young   American   basketball players
some delicious         Thai     food

This chart is probably too wide to print on a standard piece of paper. If you click HERE, you will get a one-page duplicate of this chart, which you can then print out on a landscape-oriented page (the long way).

It would be folly, of course, to run more than two or three (at the most) adjectives together. Furthermore, when adjectives belong to the same class, they become what we call coordinated adjectives, and you will want to put a comma between them: the inexpensive, comfortable shoes. The rule for inserting the comma works this way: if you could have inserted a conjunction and or but between the two adjectives, use a comma. We could say these are "inexpensive but comfortable shoes," so we would use a comma between them (when the "but" isn't there). When you have three coordinated adjectives, separate them all with commas, but don't insert a comma between the last adjective and the noun (in spite of the temptation to do so because you often pause there):
a popular, respected, and good looking student
See the section on Commas for additional help in punctuating coordinated adjectives.

Capitalizing Proper Adjectives
When an adjective owes its origins to a proper noun, it should probably be capitalized. Thus we write about Christian music, French fries, the English Parliament, the Ming Dynasty, a Faulknerian style, Jeffersonian democracy. Some periods of time have taken on the status of proper adjectives: the Nixon era, a Renaissance/Romantic/Victorian poet (but a contemporary novelist and medieval writer). Directional and seasonal adjectives are not capitalized unless they're part of a title:

We took the northwest route during the spring thaw. We stayed there until the town's annual Fall Festival of Small Appliances.
See the section on Capitalization for further help on this matter.

Collective Adjectives
When the definite article, the, is combined with an adjective describing a class or group of people, the resulting phrase can act as a noun: the poor, the rich, the oppressed, the homeless, the lonely, the unlettered, the unwashed, the gathered, the dear departed. The difference between a Collective Noun (which is usually regarded as singular but which can be plural in certain contexts) and a collective adjective is that the latter is always plural and requires a plural verb:


Adjectival Opposites
The opposite or the negative aspect of an adjective can be formed in a number of ways. One way, of course, is to find an adjective to mean the opposite an antonym. The opposite of beautiful is ugly, the opposite of tall is short. A thesaurus can help you find an appropriate opposite. Another way to form the opposite of an adjective is with a number of prefixes. The opposite of fortunate is unfortunate, the opposite of prudent is imprudent, the opposite of considerate is inconsiderate, the opposite of honorable is dishonorable, the opposite of alcoholic is nonalcoholic, the opposite of being properly filed is misfiled. If you are not sure of the spelling of adjectives modified in this way by prefixes (or which is the appropriate prefix), you will have to consult a dictionary, as the rules for the selection of a prefix are complex and too shifty to be trusted. The meaning itself can be tricky; for instance, flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

A third means for creating the opposite of an adjective is to combine it with less or least to create a comparison which points in the opposite direction. Interesting shades of meaning and tone become available with this usage. It is kinder to say that "This is the least beautiful city in the state." than it is to say that "This is the ugliest city in the state." (It also has a slightly different meaning.) A candidate for a job can still be worthy and yet be "less worthy of consideration" than another candidate. It's probably not a good idea to use this construction with an adjective that is already a negative: "He is less unlucky than his brother," although that is not the same thing as saying he is luckier than his brother. Use the comparative less when the comparison is between two things or people; use the superlative least when the comparison is among many things or people.

Some Problem Children
Good versus Well
In both casual speech and formal writing, we frequently have to choose between the adjective good and the adverb well. With most verbs, there is no contest: when modifying a verb, use the adverb. 
He swims well
He knows only too well who the murderer is. 
However, when using a linking verb or a verb that has to do with the five human senses, you want to use the adjective instead. 
How are you? I'm feeling good, thank you. 
After a bath, the baby smells so good
Even after my careful paint job, this room doesn't look good
Many careful writers, however, will use well after linking verbs relating to health, and this is perfectly all right. In fact, to say that you are good or that you feel good usually implies not only that you're OK physically but also that your spirits are high. 
"How are you?" 
"I am well, thank you."
Bad versus Badly
When your cat died (assuming you loved your cat), did you feel bad or badly? Applying the same rule that applies to good versus well, use the adjective form after verbs that have to do with human feelings. You felt bad. If you said you felt badly, it would mean that something was wrong with your faculties for feeling.

Other Adjectival Considerations
Review the section on Compound Nouns and Modifiers for the formation of modifiers created when words are connected: a four-year-old child, a nineteenth-century novel, an empty-headed fool.

Adjectives that are really Participles, verb forms with -ing and -ed endings, can be troublesome for some students. It is one thing to be a frightened child; it is an altogether different matter to be a frightening child. Do you want to go up to your professor after class and say that you are confused or that you are confusing? Generally, the -ed ending means that the noun so described ("you") has a passive relationship with something something (the subject matter, the presentation) has bewildered you and you are confused. The -ing ending means that the noun described has a more active role you are not making any sense so you are confusing (to others, including your professor).

 The -ed ending modifiers are often accompanied by prepositions (these are not the only choices):

A- Adjectives
The most common of the so-called a- adjectives are ablaze, afloat, afraid, aghast, alert, alike, alive, alone, aloof, ashamed, asleep, averse, awake, aware. These adjectives will primarily show up as predicate adjectives (i.e., they come after a linking verb). Occasionally, however, you will find a- adjectives before the word they modify: the alert patient, the aloof physician. Most of them, when found before the word they modify, are themselves modified: the nearly awake student, the terribly alone scholar. And a- adjectives are sometimes modified by "very much": very much afraid, very much alone, very much ashamed, etc.

Recognizing Adjectives

Adjective Order (java required)

Adjectives


Original source:  Guide to Grammar and Writing