Adjectives are words used to describe nouns; how things , people and places look and feel; and ideas. There are different categories of adjectives, classified according to their form and function. The following tips are organised in a manner for easy understanding.
(1) Where do we place adjectives?
In general, adjectives can be placed
- before the head noun (e.g. the fat man)
- after the head noun (e.g. A country ready for war)
- after the verb in a clause (e.g. The boys are late)
(i) For adjectives that are placed before the head noun, they are called attributive adjectives, which premodify the noun. For example,
The silly girl lost her money on the way here.
These spicy snacks are not good for your health.
The teacher scolded the naughty boys.
(ii) For adjectives that are placed after the head noun, they are called postpositive adjectives, which postmodify the noun. For example,
You can find something interesting to do while you are here.
For reasons unfathomable, he decided to quit school.
I am sure that you can find someone kind enough to give you a hand.
(iii) For adjectives that are placed after the verb in a clause, they are called predicative adjectives, which usually follow linking verbs such as seem, appear, become and be. For example,
She is happy with how things are going now.
The principal appeared worried when we saw him just now.
They are so despicable that they will stop at nothing to win this game.
(2) Types of adjectives
Adjectives can be used to describe the following characteristics.
- origin (e.g. Mexican food)
- size (e.g. tall building)
- shape (e.g. round table)
- colour (e.g. blue shirt)
- age (e.g. new car)
- temperature (e.g. hot day)
- material (e.g. woollen shirt)
- opinion (e.g. relaxed atmosphere)
When a number of adjectives are used together, we usually order them in a sequence. If not, the phrase may sound odd. For example, we say "a small rectangular box" and not "a rectangular small box". For the sequencing of adjectives, there is no hard and fast rule, though a general rule of thumb is
opinion > size > age / temperature > shape > colour > origin > material
For example, we can say, "a charming, medium-sized, new, red, Swedish, woollen sweater", though we usually break such a mouthful phrase into more digestible bits, such as shorter clauses or phrases.
(3) How are adjectives formed?
Adjectives can be formed from nouns or verbs through the use of special suffixes.
- From nouns
agriculture - agricultural, history - historic / historical, diplomacy - diplomatic
- From verbs
excite - exciting, explore - exploratory, confuse - confusing
(4) Degrees of adjectives
As a basis of comparison, we can change the form of adjectives to express the relationship between two or more things / places / people. These forms are known as the comparative and superlative forms, with their accompanying -er and -est suffices. For example,
weak - weaker - weakest
happy - happier - happiest
sad - sadder - saddest
high - higher - higher
For some words, the comparative and superlative forms are expressed not by the suffices, but by using the words more and most respectively. For example,
important - more important - most important
famous - more famous - most famous
intelligent - more intelligent - most intelligent
As noted above, there are some adjectives which are formed by attaching special suffixes (e.g. scientific) to the original noun. For such adjectives, the comparative and superative forms also adopt the use of the words more and most. For example,
faith(ful) - more faithful - most faithful
harm(less) - more harmless - most harmless
boy(ish) - more boyish - most boyish
inspiration(al) - more inspirational - most inspirational
(If you are uncertain about whether to add a suffix or to use "more"/"most", it is usually safer to use the latter with most adjectives.)
In addition, there are also some irregular adjectives whose comparative and superlative forms are entirely different words. For example,
bad - worse - worst
good - better - best
little - less - least
much - more - most
far - further/farther - furthest / farthest
(5) Adjectival Opposites
The opposite or the negative aspect of an adjective can be formed in a number of ways.
- Find another adjective with the opposite meaning. We call such adjectives "antonyms". Examples: big - small, happy - sad, beautiful - ugly, rich - poor, tall - short, hungry - full
- Add an appropriate prefix. Examples:
fortunate - unfortunate, natural - unnatural, prudent - imprudent, polite - impolite, considerate - inconsiderate, honourable - dishonourable
Sometimes we have to be careful about the use of the prefix. For example, flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.
(6) How do we tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb?
A simple rule is that
- an adjective describes a noun (e.g. He is a quick reader.)
- an adverb describes a verb (e.g. He reads quickly.)
By this rule, we can also determine whether a word is an adjective or adverb. For example,
Tom worked hard for this exam. (The word "hard" is an adverb as it describes the verb "worked".)
They have difficulty cutting up the hard diamond. (The word "hard" is an adjective as it describes the noun "diamond".)
(7) What is the difference in the meaning of the two sentences below?
(i) The terrible noisy students were scolded by their teacher.
(ii) The terribly noisy students were scolded by their teacher.
(i) refers to the students who were both terrible and noisy.
(ii) refers to the students who were noisy in a terrible manner / very noisy.
(8) Common misunderstandings in the use of adjectives.
(i) This movie is very boring. (meaning - dull, uninteresting)
(ii) The students looked bored. (meaning - not interested)
(iii) She appears excited to see him. (meaning - very enthusiastic and eager)
(iv) The cast put up an exciting performance. (meaning - arousing emotions of enthusiasm and eagerness)