An adjective describes qualities or quantities of people, places, ideas, and things. There are negative adjectives and positive adjectives.
So, if I say the building was tall, tall is the adjective.
If we want to get a little more technical, adjectives modify or describe nouns.
A noun is a person, place, idea, or thing.
So, if you’ve used a word to describes something, like this:
... you’ve probably used an adjective.
Adjectives only modify (describe) nouns. You can’t use an adjective to modify verbs, adverbs, or other adjectives. Adverbs modify verbs.
There are a few different types of adjectives.
In this article, we'll look at:
Adjectives can describe the qualities of nouns. This means that they describe a noun’s size, age, shape, color, origin, material, or purpose. Qualitative adjectives can also describe an opinion on something.
For example, if we say The tree was green or The painting was pretty, the adjectives green and pretty describe qualities of the nouns tree and painting.
Adjectives can also describe quantities of nouns. Quantitative adjectives describe the amount of something.
If we say There were many trees, the adjective many describes the quantity of the trees.
All adjectives—quantitative and qualitative—fall into three main categories, each with their own rules.
The three types of adjective are absolute adjectives, comparative adjectives, and superlative adjectives.
Don’t worry if those terms aren’t familiar—you’ll recognize each of the types when you see them.
Let’s look at some examples.
Absolute adjectives cannot be intensified or used to compare.
For example, if something is perfect, something else cannot be more perfect than it.
With absolute adjectives, you usually can’t add the suffix -er. Someone can’t be perfect-er than someone else.
Here are some examples of absolute adjectives:
Comparative adjectives compare two or more objects, ideas, people, or places. For example, larger is a comparative adjective.
Comparative adjectives usually end with the -er suffix, or include the words more and less.
One of the most common mistakes people make with comparative adjectives is incorrect formation.
Here are some examples of correct and incorrect formation for comparative adjectives:
Correct: The lake was larger than the pond.
Incorrect: The lake was more large than the pond.
Correct: The book was more interesting than the movie.
Incorrect: The book was interestinger than the movie.
But how do you know which comparative adjective formation to use? Here are a few handy rules:
Here are some comparative adjectives in a sentence:
A superlative adjective describes something that is the most or least that it can be:
Superlative adjectives end in -est, or are preceded by most or least.
Adjectives can have comparative and superlative forms.
Here’s an example:
Comparative form: He was taller than her.
Superlative form: He was the tallest in the school.
Most adjectives can come before or after the noun in a sentence:
But in many cases, the adjective can’t come directly after the noun.
For example, if you want to describe someone’s hair as curly, you can’t say Their hair curly. You’ll need to add a verb, e.g. Their hair was curly.
Adjectives that come before a noun or after a noun and verb like this are called attributive adjectives.
Short answer? Yes. Here’s why.
Some phrases, titles, or names of institutions will place an adjective directly after a noun:
The adjectives here (highlighted) are called postpositive adjectives. The word postpositive just means that the adjective comes directly after (post) the noun.
Here are some postpositive adjectives in a sentence:
These adjectives are postpositive because of where they are in the sentence. If we move them around, their type can change.
For example, if I wrote:
... then the adjective terrible goes back to being an attributive adjective.
Adjectives usually modify nouns. But sometimes, a noun can be used in place of an adjective to describe another noun.
Here are some examples of nouns being used as adjectives:
In these cases, the noun being used as an adjective always comes before the main noun in the phrase.
You can then use adjectives to describe these phrases:
Now you know how to identify the different types of adjectives. But what happens if you want to use more than one adjective together?
If you use multiple adjectives before a noun, they need to go in the right order. We’re big fans of breaking grammar rules, but the order of adjectives is one that you pretty much always need to follow.
If you’re a native English speaker, you might not even notice that you put adjectives in a certain order. Check out this tweet:
For fun, let’s try messing up that order (yes, we said fun; we’re grammar nerds here at ProWritingAid).
Sounds strange, right?
We will say, this is for illustrative purposes only. You shouldn’t use this many adjectives in one sentence. It will distract your reader and dilute your meaning rather than strengthen it. More on that later.
So, what order do adjectives go in?
Opinion → Size → Age → Shape → Color → Origin → Material → Purpose
Examples of adjectives in the correct order:
Examples of adjectives in the wrong order:
Here’s a handy chart to help you get your adjective order right every time:
An adjective phrase is a group of two or more words (including an adjective) that describe a noun.
Adjective phrases can be made up of:
The adjective can appear anywhere in the group.
Here are some examples of adjective phrases:
The runner was extremely fast.
The weather was fairly sunny.
He is rather arrogant.
The pastry was flaky, buttery, and delicious.
The apartment is as clean as a whistle.
Predicate adjectives modify the subject of a sentence. For an adjective to be a predicate adjective, the sentence must also contain a linking verb.
Let’s look at an example.
In the sentence "The cat is black," the subject of the sentence is "cat," the predicate adjective is "black" and the linking verb is "is."
Here are some more examples. The adjectives are highlighted and the linking verbs are in bold.
The music sounds jarring. The light appeared bright. His whining became unbearable. That gift would be perfect for Samantha.
Looking for more examples of adjectives? Check out this detailed list of adjectives starting with "a". We also have a full list of positive adjectives.
Descriptive adjectives can help you convey ideas, images, and tone to your reader. However, if you rely on imprecise and overused adjectives, you could actually put your reader off.
Not all adjectives are equal. You should avoid using weak adjectives in your writing. But how do you spot a weak adjective?
If you have used intensifiers like very or really to make your adjective stronger, you could probably be using a better adjective.
Take this sentence:
Your idea of very angry could be completely different to mine. I might imagine someone tearing their hair out, shouting, stomping around. You might see someone with a slightly furrowed brow and a frown.
However, if we change very angry to furious, we’re much more likely to imagine similar things.
Here are a few more examples of weak adjectives and how we can replace them with strong ones:
Weak: Happy + very = I’m very happy.
Strong: I’m ecstatic.
Weak: Hot + very = It’s very hot out today.
Strong: It’s sweltering out today.
Weak: Sleepy + very = She looks very sleepy.
Strong: She looks exhausted.
Weak: Glad + very = He’ll be very glad to see you.
Strong: He’ll be delighted to see you.
Weak: Funny + very = You’re very funny.
Strong: You’re hilarious.
Weak: Dirty + very = That dog is very dirty.
Strong: That dog is filthy.
Weak: Big + very = The elephant in the room is very big.
Strong: The elephant in the room is enormous.
You should also avoid using too many imprecise adjectives. Take this example:
We don’t know what the writer means by beautiful here, and everyone’s idea of warm is different. Here’s how we could rewrite that sentence using more specific adjectives:
Now we have a better idea of the quality of the day. And we haven’t just added stronger adjectives.
If you spot weak adjectives in your writing, it’s often a sign that you need to rework your sentence to give your reader some more information. Why does it matter that the day was beautiful and warm?
Adjectives aren’t just for fiction writers. Let’s look at how this works in a business writing context.
Good and better are both pretty vague. It’s not clear why the deal is good or how it will lead to better strategy. Let’s expand:
Stuck for precise adjectives to use in your business writing? Here are 35 powerful business-focussed adjectives.
Which adjectives should you avoid? Here are 100 common adjectives that could make your writing vague.
Remember, it’s fine to use these, but consider if you could replace them with something more powerful.
You could pick out all of your adjectives with a highlighter and then come up with synonyms for each of them. Sound like a lot of work? We think so too.
ProWritingAid’s Thesaurus Report will highlight all of the adjectives in your document and show you synonyms for each of them.
As we said above, replacing your weak adjectives isn’t always the answer. If none of the synonyms look quite right for the tone you’re trying to set, consider re-working your sentence to get your point across more effectively.
Check out our complete guide to ProWritingAid’s Thesaurus Report and start improving your adjective use today.
Taking the time to review your adjectives can help you write stronger, more specific content that helps you achieve your purpose faster. Whether that’s conveying findings in a report or creating a spellbinding scene in a novel, using adjectives carefully pays.
Now you know how adjectives work, and what to avoid, you’re ready to start using adjectives to enhance your points and create intricate descriptions. Happy writing!
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