Adjectives

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Adjectives can be attributive or predicative (see below). Attributive adjectives modify the noun, where the noun is the head of the noun phrase. Adjectives can form adjective phrases, either with a preceding adverb (a particularly ugly car) or a following complement phrase (e.g., full of eels) - see below. Finally, adjectives can be nominal or substantive adjectives, where the adjective is used as a noun, e.g., feeding the poor; knowing good and evil; the good, the bad, and the ugy. Words like my, your are not true adjectives, but determiners.


1 Attributive and predicative adjectives

English adjectives can be attributive, before the noun, or predicative, i.e., after the noun in the following predicate. For those in the left column, the adjectives are attributive, i.e., premodifiers before nouns (Adj.+Noun); for those in the right, the adjectives are predicative, i.e., following a copular (linking) verb.


Attributive cf. Predicative
an angry storm

the sorry girl

the responsible man

the better choice

the guilty man

the pink house in the sunset

the storm was angry

the girl is sorry

the man is responsible

the choice is better

He is guilty

The house was pink in the sunset.


One can try the following in both attributive and predicative usage. Here one can see that some adjectives can only work as attributives, or only as predicatives. Others have different meanings as attributives and predicatives, and so are not interchangeable. Some adjectives are only possible in certain collocations, e.g., with an intransitive verb, or when followed by a collocational prepositional phrase.


1. an absolute wreck

a complete mess

sheer nonsense

a total idiot

2. the only way

the entire team

an occasional storm

the usual problems

3. a future appointment

an old friend

a former girlfriend

her right arm

a previous edition

the northwestern states

4. an economic problem

a public official

a moral dilemma

an academic difficulty

5. a grayish-green fluid

a street-smart kid

a big-name store

a best-selling novel

6. asleep, adrift, aghast, awake, afraid,

afloat, alive

e.g., The boy is asleep
7. she is liable to make a scene he is devoid of any humor
8. to feel faint

to feel ill, to be ill

feel / be well

feel / be sick


1.1 Attributive adjectives

Attributive-only adjectives
Adjectives of degree

Indicate the degree or intensity of the property indicated.

an absolute wreck

a complete mess

sheer nonsense

a total idiot

an outright lie

a pure fabrication

this very day

Quantifying adjectives

These indicate the amount, quantity, or frequency of the head noun.

the only way

the entire team

an occasional storm

the usual problems

the sole survivor

Adjectives of time and location a future appointment

an old friend

a former girlfriend

her right arm

a previous edition

the northwestern states

Associative adjectives

These to not indicate a property of the head noun itself, but indicate an entity or property that is associated with it. E.g., the nuclear physicist ≠ the physicist is nuclear.

an economic problem

a public official

a moral dilemma

the legal owner

a gothic novelist

Compound adjectives

Some of these can only be used attributively. Some can be used predicatively, if it is possible to write them as separate words (a world-renowned novelist = the novelist is world renowned).

a grayish-green fluid

a street-smart kid

a big-name store

a best-selling novel

an early-to-bed guy

Material adjectives

Some materials adjectives cannot be used predicatively (*the wall is stone), at least not without altering the meaning or nuance (a plastic toy, the toy is plastic)

a stone wall

a brick wall

Simple participles as adjectives

Some participles, especially present participles, are used freely as attributive adjectives, and do not work in predicates, at least not with the same meaning. Present participles could occur in predicates, but then it often becomes a progressive verb, not an adjective (the baby is babbling).

a babbling baby

a winding road

1.2 Predicate adjectives

Predicate-only adjectives
Adjectives starting with the prefix a-

The Old English prefix a- creates predicate-only adjectives.

asleep, adrift, aghast, awake, afraid, afloat, alive

e.g., The boy is asleep

Adjectives taking complements

Adjectives taking an infinitive complement (liable to make) or prepositional complements (devoid of) cannot occur in attributive position.

she is liable to make a scene

he is devoid of any humor

Medical / health adjectives

A small group of health-related adjectives only occur as predicates (‘ill' can be attributive only if modified by an adverg, e.g., a mentally ill patient)

to feel faint

to feel ill, to be ill

feel / be well / unwell

feel / be sick


1.3 Postnominal / postpositive adjectives

A few adjectives are postnominal, coming after the nouns they modify. In examples 1a-b, these adjectives result from reduced relative clauses (“Some of the people who were present”), while example 2 consists of indefinite pronouns plus an adjective. Example 3a is a predicate complement; example 3b is a special type of complement known as a resultative phrase, where the verb takes a double argument, a direct object and a result, so the adjective is a result of the verb, and not directly modifying the noun. The examples in 4a-d represent instances of French and Latin influences. These phrases were borrowed from or directly translated from French (e.g., adjectives in 4b-c, food terms in 4d), or sometimes Latin (4a), where adjectives in these languages usually follow the nouns. Using this order in English is done for literary or very formal stylistic effect, and is not a normal part of the everyday grammar.


1a. Some of the people present / responsible / concerned could not be found.
1b. the best room available, the best choice possible

We wondered at all the stars visible.

2. nobody new, something strange
3a. It's hard to imagine James so handsome.
3b. Pound the metal flat.
4a. professor emeritus

notary public

Smith Junior, Smith Senior

God Almighty

President-Elect

4b. battle royale/royal

since time immemorial

proof positive

with malice aforethought

the body politic

a Pound sterling

4c. aplenty

galore

extraordinaire

4d. fish filet

chicken teriyaki


1.4 Appositives

Such postnominal modifiers are separated by commas, and are considered parentheticals, because when spoken, they are pronounced more quickly, with reduced intonation, and with a slight prosodic break, like parenthetical expressions.

  1. My wife, a strong-minded ajuma, never lets anyone boss her around.
  2. Helga, the woman of his dreams, dumped him for a gym trainer.
  3. New Order, a techno-alternative band that was popular in the 80s, lost their creativity and devolved into a techno-pop band.
  4. Herbert's life-long dream, to be a famous rock singer, will never come true.


1.5 Restrictive (identifying) cf. non-restrictive

Linguists often distinguish between restrictive versus non-restrictive adjectives, though this is less relevant for English grammar than for other languages.


In #1, "difficult" is restrictive, telling us which tasks he avoids, distinguishing these from the easy ones: "Only those tasks that are difficult." In #2, "difficult" is non-restrictive, as we already know which task it was, but the adjective describes it more fully: "The aforementioned task, which (by the way) is difficult."

  1. He was a lazy sort, who would avoid a difficult task and fill his working hours with easy ones.
  2. She had the job of sorting out the mess left by her predecessor, and she performed this difficult task with great acumen.

This distinction is not relevant for most students of English, except that English makes no distinction between these adjective types, and learners from languages like Spanish that make such a distinction may find the lack of overt distinction in English odd at first.


2 Adjective sequence

English adjectives come in a preferred order, while East Asian languages may not have any order restrictions here. For example, it would be strange to say *the wooden old many balls. English prefers adjectives referring to more inherent, core properties of a noun closest to the noun, while less essential, less inherent, and more changeable properties tend to precede the more core properties.

  1. Partitives: Quantity and other expressions with X of (some of, all of)
  2. Determiners (the, this, my)
  3. Quantifiers: quantity expressions (much, a few, several...) and intensive adverbs (very, especially)
  4. Qualitative adjectives: evaluative or opinion expressions (good, bad, pretty, ugly...), e.g., a real man, a total idiot
  5. Age (old, young...)
  6. Size (large, small...)
  7. Shape (square, round, fat...)
  8. Color (red, turquoise, magenta...)
  9. Origin / source (ethnicity, nationality, place of origin, proper adj. like ‘French')
  10. material (wooden, golden, plastic)


Quant Det Qty adj. Degree adv. Desc. adv. Cpd. adjunct Main noun
All (of) the two dozen extremely tall English teachers
Both (of) his / John's two very fine brick walls


Multiple adjectives tend to follow the following order.

Det. Evaluative Size Shape Condition Age Color Origin / material Noun
The very big round old Canadian man
A seemingly small worn-out red sofa


However, origin and material adjectives can sometimes be interchangeable, depending on the desired emphasis or how inherent the properties are. That is, it can be a matter of emphasis or what is considered essential in the context, e.g., an old French wooden chair or an old wooden French chair, depending on what is being emphasized or examined in the context.

  • Canadian maple syrup
  • a wooden French sofa
  •  ?a French wooden sofa

Some grammarians add qualifiers as a final item in the sequence above, though these are actually part of the noun phrase; e.g., the rocking in rocking chair is more like a gerund or participle that has become part of a compound noun, and is no longer a true adjective.


3 Coordinate or paired adjectives (with a comma)

The above adjective order holds for cumulative adjectives, which are stacked together continuously, e.g., the very old wooden chair and generally for coordinate adjectives, which are separated by a comma. In such phrases, neither adjective is semantically subordinate to the other, and both describe the noun separately. A general test is this: if the same meaning can be expressed with and between the two adjectives, a comma can be used. Another test is whether they are more or less interchangeable (though they may still be constrained by the adjective sequence hierarchy above).

an old wooden chair cf. an old, wooden chair = an old and wooden chair

a bulky, heavy suitcase = a heavy, bulky suitcase = a heavy and bulky suitcase

a large, bulky, heavy suitcase = a large, heavy, bulky suitcase

a deep philosophical epiphany, cf. a deep, philosophical epiphany = one that is deep and philosophical


4 Adjective phrases

Adjectives can form an adjective phrase, consisting of, e.g., an adverb modifying the adjective (the especially bitter blizzard), or a following complement, often a prepositional or other phrase, usually a collocational and/or valence preposition. Collocational means that it is a regularly occurring pattern in the language, and valence refers to the fact that is is needed to complete the phrase for the intended meaning. For example, in phrases like the following, the prepositional phrase complements and specifies the adjectival meaning, and these are common, regular patterns in English, in that, e.g., one usually says interested in rather than ?interested about (the latter is not ungrammatical, but odd or rather rare).

  • interested in, angry at, passionate about, replete with, full of
  • My hovercraft is full of eels.