What Is an Adjective?
Adjectives are words that modify or describe nouns.
Adjectives can describe the qualities of nouns. For example:
The word "big" describes a quality of the dog.
Adjectives can also describe the quantity of nouns. For example:
The word "many" describes the quantity of dogs.
Adjectives only modify nouns – they do not modify verbs, adverbs, or other adjectives.
Types of Adjectives
Adjectives come in three forms: absolute, comparative, and superlative.
Absolute adjectives describe something that either cannot be or is not being compared. For example:
The absolute adjective "cool" describes the subject, "my brother." My brother is cool in his own right – he's not being compared to anything else.
Comparative adjectives do just what it sounds like they do – compare two or more things. For example:
- My brother is cooler than me.
The comparative adjective "cooler" is used to compare my brother's cool factor to my own. Unsurprisingly, he comes out on top.
You can turn most one-syllable adjectives into their comparative forms by adding the suffix "-er" to them; if you've got a two-syllable adjective that ends with "-y" (e.g. happy), drop the "-y" and add "-ier" (happier). For other multi-syllabic adjectives, add the word "more" as a modifier.
This is the English language though, so there are always exceptions!
Superlative adjectives are adjectives that show that something has the highest degree of the mentioned quality. Let's return to our example:
- My brother is the coolest person in the world.
See? The superlative adjective "the coolest" shows that my brother has achieved peak levels of cool. You simply can't be any cooler than he is!
How to Use Better Adjectives
Some are strong and paint clear, specific pictures of the thing they are describing. Some are weak and vague and don’t tell us much. Let’s start with an example:
“Cold” is a weak adjective that doesn’t paint a vivid mental picture in your reader’s mind.
In my mind, I imagine Tom’s lips are blue and his teeth are chattering. He feels like an icicle has replaced all of the blood in his veins.
In your mind, however, maybe you think Tom had better just throw a jacket around his shoulders and he’ll be fine.
There is a lot of ambiguity with “cold” and your reader is left to guess what you mean. This ambiguity is why an author might be tempted to add a “very”, to give it that extra punch.
But instead of adding a "very", you should really be replacing your weak adjective with a stronger one.
Below are some more examples to get a feel for the difference:
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.
When to Use Weak Adjectives
Adjectives are completely subjective so you need to decide which adjective best conveys your meaning. The third sentence below uses a weak adjective, but it works:
Despite the bumps and bruises, I felt great.
Despite the bumps and bruises, I felt good.
Despite the bumps and bruises, I felt pretty good.
Even though the meanings of “great”, “good", and “pretty good” are very similar, the subtle differences paint quite a different picture. The weaker adjectives help illustrate situations that are decidedly in the middle on the continuum between perfect and worst. In this case, “pretty good” means you’re OK but definitely not 100%.
When Strong Becomes Weak
One last note, pay attention to strong adjectives that can be made weak by adding an “ly” on the end.
- John put on a terrible play.
Here, terrible is a strong adjective. You’re pretty sure that this play was a disaster.
But if you use “terribly,” the meaning changes.
- John’s play wasn’t terribly good.
Again, it’s subjective and depends solely on the meaning you want to impress. If John is your friend and you want to be kind about his play, the second sentence is a gentler way of delivering a bad verdict.
Make those adjectives work for it! Decide exactly what you want to say, and then choose a strong or a weak adjective to get your point across.