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An adjective (abbreviated adj.) is a word that describes or defines a noun or noun phrase. Its semantic role is to change information given by the noun.


Traditionally adjectives are considered one of the main parts of speech of the English language, although historically they were classed together with nouns. [1] Nowadays, certain words that usually had been classified as adjectives, including the, this, my, etc., typically are classed separately, as determiners.

Here are some examples:


Adjective comes from Latin nōmen adjectīvum, [2] a calque of Ancient Greek : ἐπίθετον ὄνομα (surname), romanized: epítheton ónoma, lit. 'additional noun' (whence also English epithet ). [3] [4] In the grammatical tradition of Latin and Greek, because adjectives were inflected for gender, number, and case like nouns (a process called declension), they were considered a type of noun. The words that are today typically called nouns were then called substantive nouns (nōmen substantīvum). [5] The terms noun substantive and noun adjective were formerly used in English but are now obsolete. [1]

Types of use

Depending on the language, an adjective can precede a corresponding noun on a prepositive basis or it can follow a corresponding noun on a postpositive basis. Structural, contextual, and style considerations can impinge on the pre-or post-position of an adjective in a given instance of its occurrence. In English, occurrences of adjectives generally can be classified into one of three categories:


Adjectives feature as a part of speech (word class) in most languages. In some languages, the words that serve the semantic function of adjectives are categorized together with some other class, such as nouns or verbs. In the phrase "a Ford car", "Ford" is unquestionably a noun but its function is adjectival: to modify "car". In some languages adjectives can function as nouns: for example, the Spanish phrase "un rojo" means "a red [one]".

As for "confusion" with verbs, rather than an adjective meaning "big", a language might have a verb that means "to be big" and could then use an attributive verb construction analogous to "big-being house" to express what in English is called a "big house". Such an analysis is possible for the grammar of Standard Chinese and Korean, for example.

Different languages do not use adjectives in exactly the same situations. For example, where English uses "to be hungry" (hungry being an adjective), Dutch, French, and Spanish use "honger hebben", "avoir faim", and "tener hambre" respectively (literally "to have hunger", the words for "hunger" being nouns). Similarly, where Hebrew uses the adjective זקוק (zaqūq, roughly "in need of" or "needing"), English uses the verb "to need".

In languages that have adjectives as a word class, it is usually an open class; that is, it is relatively common for new adjectives to be formed via such processes as derivation. However, Bantu languages are well known for having only a small closed class of adjectives, and new adjectives are not easily derived. Similarly, native Japanese adjectives (i-adjectives) are considered a closed class (as are native verbs), although nouns (an open class) may be used in the genitive to convey some adjectival meanings, and there is also the separate open class of adjectival nouns (na-adjectives).


Many languages (including English) distinguish between adjectives, which qualify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs, which mainly modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Not all languages make this exact distinction; many (including English) have words that can function as either. For example, in English, fast is an adjective in "a fast car" (where it qualifies the noun car) but an adverb in "he drove fast" (where it modifies the verb drove).

In Dutch and German, adjectives and adverbs are usually identical in form and many grammarians do not make the distinction, but patterns of inflection can suggest a difference:

Eine kluge neue Idee.
A clever new idea.
Eine klug ausgereifte Idee.
A cleverly developed idea.

A German word like klug ("clever(ly)") takes endings when used as an attributive adjective but not when used adverbially. Whether these are distinct parts of speech or distinct usages of the same part of speech is a question of analysis. It can be noted that, while German linguistic terminology distinguishes adverbiale from adjektivische Formen, German refers to both as Eigenschaftswörter ("property words").


Linguists today distinguish determiners from adjectives, considering them to be two separate parts of speech (or lexical categories ). Determiners formerly were considered to be adjectives in some of their uses. [lower-alpha 1] Determiners function neither as nouns nor pronouns but instead characterize a nominal element within a particular context. They generally do this by indicating definiteness (a vs. the), quantity (one vs. some vs. many), or another such property.

Adjective phrases

An adjective acts as the head of an adjective phrase or adjectival phrase (AP). In the simplest case, an adjective phrase consists solely of the adjective; more complex adjective phrases may contain one or more adverbs modifying the adjective ("very strong"), or one or more complements (such as "worth several dollars", "full of toys", or "eager to please"). In English, attributive adjective phrases that include complements typically follow the noun that they qualify ("an evildoer devoid of redeeming qualities").

Other modifiers of nouns

In many languages (including English) it is possible for nouns to modify other nouns. Unlike adjectives, nouns acting as modifiers (called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts ) usually are not predicative; a beautiful park is beautiful, but a car park is not "car". The modifier often indicates origin ("Virginia reel"), purpose ("work clothes"), semantic patient ("man eater") or semantic subject ("child actor"); however, it may generally indicate almost any semantic relationship. It is also common for adjectives to be derived from nouns, as in boyish, birdlike, behavioral (behavioural), famous, manly, angelic, and so on.

In Australian Aboriginal languages, the distinction between adjectives and nouns is typically thought weak, and many of the languages only use nouns--or nouns with a limited set of adjective-deriving affix es--to modify other nouns. In languages that have a subtle adjective-noun distinction, one way to tell them apart is that a modifying adjective can come to stand in for an entire elided noun phrase, while a modifying noun cannot. For example, in Bardi, the adjective moorrooloo 'little' in the phrase moorrooloobaawa 'little child' can stand on its own to mean 'the little one,' while the attributive noun aamba 'man' in the phrase aamba baawa 'male child' cannot stand for the whole phrase to mean 'the male one.' [7] In other languages, like Warlpiri, nouns and adjectives are lumped together beneath the nominal umbrella because of their shared syntactic distribution as arguments of predicates. The only thing distinguishing them is that some nominals seem to semantically denote entities (typically nouns in English) and some nominals seem to denote attributes (typically adjectives in English). [8]

Many languages have participle forms that can act as noun modifiers either alone or as the head of a phrase. Sometimes participles develop into functional usage as adjectives. Examples in English include relieved (the past participle of relieve), used as an adjective in passive voice constructs such as "I am so relieved to see you". Other examples include spoken (the past participle of speak) and going (the present participle of go), which function as attribute adjectives in such phrases as "the spoken word" and "the going rate".

Other constructs that often modify nouns include prepositional phrases (as in "a rebel without a cause"), relative clauses (as in "the man who wasn't there"), and infinitive phrases (as in "a cake to die for"). Some nouns can also take complements such as content clauses (as in "the idea that I would do that"), but these are not commonly considered modifiers. For more information about possible modifiers and dependents of nouns, see Components of noun phrases.


In many languages, attributive adjectives usually occur in a specific order. In general, the adjective order in English can be summarised as: opinion, size, age or shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. [9] [10] [11] Other language authorities, like the Cambridge Dictionary , state that shape precedes rather than follows age. [9] [12] [13]

Determiners and postdeterminers—articles, numerals, and other limiters (e.g. three blind mice)—come before attributive adjectives in English. Although certain combinations of determiners can appear before a noun, they are far more circumscribed than adjectives in their use—typically, only a single determiner would appear before a noun or noun phrase (including any attributive adjectives).

  1. Opinion – limiter adjectives (e.g. a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives of subjective measure (e.g. beautiful, interesting) or value (e.g. good, bad, costly)
  2. Size – adjectives denoting physical size (e.g. tiny, big, extensive)
  3. Shape or physical quality – adjectives describing more detailed physical attributes than overall size (e.g. round, sharp, swollen, thin)
  4. Age – adjectives denoting age (e.g. young, old, new, ancient, six-year-old)
  5. Colour – adjectives denoting colour or pattern (e.g. white, black, pale, spotted)
  6. Origin – denominal adjectives denoting source (e.g. Japanese, volcanic, extraterrestrial)
  7. Material – denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (e.g., woollen, metallic, wooden)
  8. Qualifier/purpose – final limiter, which sometimes forms part of the (compound) noun (e.g., rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover)

This means that, in English, adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age ("little old", not "old little"), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to colour ("old white", not "white old"). So, one would say "One (quantity) nice (opinion) little (size) old (age) round (shape) [or round old] white (colour) brick (material) house." When several adjectives of the same type are used together, they are ordered from general to specific, like "lovely intelligent person" or "old medieval castle". [9]

This order may be more rigid in some languages than others; in some, like Spanish, it may only be a default ( unmarked ) word order, with other orders being permissible. Other languages, such as Tagalog, follow their adjectival orders as rigidly as English.

The normal adjectival order of English may be overridden in certain circumstances, especially when one adjective is being fronted. For example, the usual order of adjectives in English would result in the phrase "the bad big wolf" (opinion before size), but instead, the usual phrase is "the big bad wolf".

Owing partially to borrowings from French, English has some adjectives that follow the noun as postmodifiers, called postpositive adjectives, as in time immemorial and attorney general . Adjectives may even change meaning depending on whether they precede or follow, as in proper: They live in a proper town (a real town, not a village) vs. They live in the town proper (in the town itself, not in the suburbs). All adjectives can follow nouns in certain constructions, such as tell me something new.

Comparison (degrees)

In many languages, some adjectives are comparable and the measure of comparison is called degree. For example, a person may be "polite", but another person may be "more polite", and a third person may be the "most polite" of the three. The word "more" here modifies the adjective "polite" to indicate a comparison is being made, and "most" modifies the adjective to indicate an absolute comparison (a superlative).

Among languages that allow adjectives to be compared, different means are used to indicate comparison. Some languages do not distinguish between comparative and superlative forms. Other languages allow adjectives to be compared but do not have a special comparative form of the adjective. In such cases, as in some Australian Aboriginal languages, case-marking, such as the ablative case may be used to indicate one entity has more of an adjectival quality than (i.e. from—hence ABL) another. Take the following example in Bardi: [7]







Jalnggoon boordij=amba niwarda-go

Jalnggoon big-SUBR niwarda-ABL

Jalnggoon oysters are bigger than niwarda oysters

In English, many adjectives can be inflected to comparative and superlative forms by taking the suffixes "-er" and "-est" (sometimes requiring additional letters before the suffix; see forms for far below), respectively:

"great", "greater", "greatest"
"deep", "deeper", "deepest"

Some adjectives are irregular in this sense:

"good", "better", "best"
"bad", "worse", "worst"
"many", "more", "most" (sometimes regarded as an adverb or determiner)
"little", "less", "least"

Some adjectives can have both regular and irregular variations:

"old", "older", "oldest"
"far", "farther", "farthest"


"old", "elder", "eldest"
"far", "further", "furthest"

Another way to convey comparison is by incorporating the words "more" and "most". There is no simple rule to decide which means is correct for any given adjective, however. The general tendency is for simpler adjectives and those from Anglo-Saxon to take the suffixes, while longer adjectives and those from French, Latin, or Greek do not—but sometimes sound of the word is the deciding factor.

Many adjectives do not naturally lend themselves to comparison. For example, some English speakers would argue that it does not make sense to say that one thing is "more ultimate" than another, or that something is "most ultimate", since the word "ultimate" is already absolute in its semantics. Such adjectives are called non-comparable or absolute. Nevertheless, native speakers will frequently play with the raised forms of adjectives of this sort. Although "pregnant" is logically non-comparable (either one is pregnant or not), one may hear a sentence like "She looks more and more pregnant each day". Likewise "extinct" and "equal" appear to be non-comparable, but one might say that a language about which nothing is known is "more extinct" than a well-documented language with surviving literature but no speakers, while George Orwell wrote, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". These cases may be viewed as evidence that the base forms of these adjectives are not as absolute in their semantics as is usually thought.

Comparative and superlative forms are also occasionally used for other purposes than comparison. In English comparatives can be used to suggest that a statement is only tentative or tendential: one might say "John is more the shy-and-retiring type", where the comparative "more" is not really comparing him with other people or with other impressions of him, but rather, could be substituting for "on the whole" or "more so than not". In Italian, superlatives are frequently used to put strong emphasis on an adjective: bellissimo means "most beautiful", but is in fact more commonly heard in the sense "extremely beautiful".


Attributive adjectives and other noun modifiers may be used either restrictively (helping to identify the noun's referent, hence "restricting" its reference) or non-restrictively (helping to describe a noun). For example:

"He was a lazy sort, who would avoid a difficult task and fill his working hours with easy ones."

Here "difficult" is restrictive – it tells which tasks he avoids, distinguishing these from the easy ones: "Only those tasks that are difficult".

"She had the job of sorting out the mess left by her predecessor, and she performed this difficult task with great acumen."

Here difficult is non-restrictive – it is already known which task it was, but the adjective describes it more fully: "The aforementioned task, which (by the way) is difficult."

In some languages, such as Spanish, restrictiveness is consistently marked; for example, in Spanish la tarea difícil means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task that is difficult" (restrictive), whereas la difícil tarea means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task, which is difficult" (non-restrictive). In English, restrictiveness is not marked on adjectives but is marked on relative clauses (the difference between "the man who recognized me was there" and "the man, who recognized me, was there" being one of restrictiveness).


In some languages, adjectives alter their form to reflect the gender, case and number of the noun that they describe. This is called agreement or concord. Usually it takes the form of inflections at the end of the word, as in Latin:

puella bona(good girl, feminine singular nominative)
puellam bonam(good girl, feminine singular accusative/object case)
puer bonus(good boy, masculine singular nominative)
pueri boni(good boys, masculine plural nominative)

In Celtic languages, however, initial consonant lenition marks the adjective with a feminine singular noun, as in Irish:

buachaill maith(good boy, masculine)
girseach mhaith(good girl, feminine)

Here, a distinction may be made between attributive and predicative usage. In English, adjectives never agree, whereas in French, they always agree. In German, they agree only when they are used attributively, and in Hungarian, they agree only when they are used predicatively:

The good (Ø) boys.The boys are good (Ø).
Les bons garçons.Les garçons sont bons.
Die braven Jungen.Die Jungen sind brav (Ø).
A jó (Ø) fiúk.A fiúk jók.


Semanticist Barbara Partee classifies adjectives semantically as intersective, subsective, or nonsubsective, with nonsubsective adjectives being plain nonsubsective or privative. [14]

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. In English dictionaries, which typically still do not treat determiners as their own part of speech, determiners are often recognizable by being listed both as adjectives and as pronouns.

Related Research Articles

In grammar, a noun is a word that represents a concrete or abstract thing, such as living creatures, places, actions, qualities, states of existence, and ideas. A noun may serve as an object or subject within a phrase, clause, or sentence.

An adverb is a word or an expression that generally modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, determiner, clause, preposition, or sentence. Adverbs typically express manner, place, time, frequency, degree, level of certainty, etc., answering questions such as how, in what way, when, where, to what extent. This is called the adverbial function and may be performed by single words (adverbs) or by multi-word adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses.

In grammar, a part of speech or part-of-speech is a category of words that have similar grammatical properties. Words that are assigned to the same part of speech generally display similar syntactic behavior, sometimes similar morphological behavior in that they undergo inflection for similar properties and even similar semantic behavior. Commonly listed English parts of speech are noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, interjection, numeral, article, and determiner.

English grammar is the set of structural rules of the English language. This includes the structure of words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and whole texts.

A noun phrase – or NP or nominal (phrase) – is a phrase that usually has a noun or pronoun as its head, and has the same grammatical functions as a noun. Noun phrases are very common cross-linguistically, and they may be the most frequently occurring phrase type.

An adjective phrase is a phrase whose head is an adjective. Almost any grammar or syntax textbook or dictionary of linguistics terminology defines the adjective phrase in a similar way, e.g. Kesner Bland (1996:499), Crystal (1996:9), Greenbaum (1996:288ff.), Haegeman and Guéron (1999:70f.), Brinton (2000:172f.), Jurafsky and Martin (2000:362). The adjective can initiate the phrase, conclude the phrase, or appear in a medial position. The dependents of the head adjective—i.e. the other words and phrases inside the adjective phrase—are typically adverb or prepositional phrases, but they can also be clauses. Adjectives and adjective phrases function in two basic ways, attributively or predicatively. An attributive adjective (phrase) precedes the noun of a noun phrase. A predicative adjective (phrase) follows a linking verb and serves to describe the preceding subject, e.g. The man is very happy.

In linguistics, a modifier is an optional element in phrase structure or clause structure which modifies the meaning of another element in the structure. For instance, the adjective "red" acts as a modifier in the noun phrase "red ball", providing extra details about which particular ball is being referred to. Similarly, the adverb "quickly" acts as a modifier in the verb phrase "run quickly". Modification can be considered a high-level domain of the functions of language, on par with predication and reference.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English compound</span> Aspect of English grammar

A compound is a word composed of more than one free morpheme. The English language, like many others, uses compounds frequently. English compounds may be classified in several ways, such as the word classes or the semantic relationship of their components.

In linguistics, an adverbial phrase ("AdvP") is a multi-word expression operating adverbially: its syntactic function is to modify other expressions, including verbs, adjectives, adverbs, adverbials, and sentences. Adverbial phrases can be divided into two types: complement adverbs and modifier adverbs. For example, in the sentence She sang very well, the expression very well is an adverbial phrase, as it modifies the verb to sing. More specifically, the adverbial phrase very well contains two adverbs, very and well: while well modifies the verb to convey information about the manner of singing, very is a degree modifier that conveys information about the degree to which the action of singing well was accomplished.

A compound modifier is a compound of two or more attributive words: that is, two or more words that collectively modify a noun. Compound modifiers are grammatically equivalent to single-word modifiers and can be used in combination with other modifiers.

In grammar, a noun adjunct, attributive noun, qualifying noun, noun (pre)modifier, or apposite noun is an optional noun that modifies another noun; functioning similarly to an adjective, it is, more specifically, a noun functioning as a pre-modifier in a noun phrase. For example, in the phrase "chicken soup" the noun adjunct "chicken" modifies the noun "soup". It is irrelevant whether the resulting compound noun is spelled in one or two parts. "Field" is a noun adjunct in both "field player" and "fieldhouse".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English prepositions</span> Prepositions in the English language

English prepositions are words – such as of, in, on, at, from, etc. – that function as the head of a prepositional phrase, and most characteristically license a noun phrase object. Semantically, they most typically denote relations in space and time. Morphologically, they are usually simple and do not inflect. They form a closed lexical category.

A postpositive adjective or postnominal adjective is an adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies, as in noun phrases such as attorney general, queen regnant, or all matters financial. This contrasts with prepositive adjectives, which come before the noun or pronoun, as in noun phrases such as red rose, lucky contestant, or busy bees.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English adverbs</span>

English adverbs are words such as so, just, how, well, also, very, even, only, really, and why that head adverb phrases, and whose most typical members function as modifiers in verb phrases and clauses, along with adjective and adverb phrases. The category is highly heterogeneous, but a large number of the very typical members are derived from adjectives + the suffix -ly and modify any word, phrase or clause other than a noun. Adverbs form an open lexical category in English. They do not typically license or function as complements in other phrases. Semantically, they are again highly various, denoting manner, degree, duration, frequency, domain, modality, and much more.

An attributive verb is a verb that modifies a noun in the manner of an attributive adjective, rather than express an independent idea as a predicate.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English nouns</span> Part of speech

English nouns form the largest category of words in English, both in the number of different words and how often they are used in typical texts. The three main categories of English nouns are common nouns, proper nouns, and pronouns. A defining feature of English nouns is their ability to inflect for number, as through the plural –s morpheme. English nouns primarily function as the heads of noun phrases, which prototypically function at the clause level as subjects, objects, and predicative complements. These phrases are the only English phrases whose structure includes determinatives and predeterminatives, which add abstract-specifying meaning such as definiteness and proximity. Like nouns in general, English nouns typically denote physical objects, but they also denote actions, characteristics, relations in space, and just about anything at all. Taken all together, these features separate English nouns from other lexical categories such as adjectives and verbs.

An expletive attributive is an adjective or adverb that does not contribute to the meaning of a sentence, but is used to intensify its emotional force. Often such words or phrases are regarded as profanity or "bad language", though there are also inoffensive expletive attributives. The word is derived from the Latin verb explere, meaning "to fill", and it was originally introduced into English in the 17th century for various kinds of padding.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English determiners</span> Determiners in the English language

English determiners are words – such as the, a, each, some, which, this, and numerals such as six – that are most commonly used with nouns to specify their referents. The determiners form a closed lexical category in English.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English adjectives</span> Adjectives in the English language

English adjectives form a large open category of words in English which, semantically, tend to denote properties such as size, colour, mood, quality, age, etc. with such members as other, big, new, good, different, Cuban, sure, important, and right. Adjectives head adjective phrases, and the most typical members function as modifiers in noun phrases. Most adjectives either inflect for grade or combine with more and most to form comparatives and superlatives. They are characteristically modifiable by very. A large number of the most typical members combine with the suffix -ly to form adverbs. Most adjectives function as complements in verb phrases, and some license complements of their own.

A prop-word is a word with little or no semantic content used where grammar dictates a certain sentence member, e.g., to provide a "support" on which to hang a modifier. The word most commonly considered as a prop-word in English is one.


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  3. ἐπίθετος . Liddell, Henry George ; Scott, Robert ; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
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  6. 1 2 See: "Attributive and predicative adjectives" at Lexico, archived 15 May 2020.
  7. 1 2 Bowern, Claire (2013). A grammar of Bardi. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. ISBN   978-3-11-027818-7. OCLC   848086054.
  8. Simpson, Jane (6 December 2012). Warlpiri Morpho-Syntax : a Lexicalist Approach. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. ISBN   978-94-011-3204-6. OCLC   851384391.
  9. 1 2 3 Order of adjectives, British Council.
  10. R.M.W. Dixon, "Where Have all the Adjectives Gone?" Studies in Language 1, no. 1 (1977): 19–80.
  11. Dowling, Tim (13 September 2016). "Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realising". The Guardian.
  12. Adjectives: order (from English Grammar Today), in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary online
  13. R. Declerck, A Comprehensive Descriptive Grammar of English (1991), p. 350: "When there are several descriptive adjectives, they normally occur in the following order: characteristic – size – shape – age – colour – [...]"
  14. Partee, Barbara (1995). "Lexical semantics and compositionality". In Gleitman, Lila; Liberman, Mark; Osherson, Daniel N. (eds.). An Invitation to Cognitive Science: Language. The MIT Press. doi:10.7551/mitpress/3964.003.0015. ISBN   978-0-262-15044-6.

Further reading