What is an Adjective?

The following article will try to answer the question of “What is an Adjective” in a clear and direct manner.


An adjective is one of the most common word types and integral parts of the English language. This part of speech is used to modify, describe, or quantify a noun or a pronoun. By using adjectives you will be able to paint a clearer picture and provide a more comprehensible message to the audience.


Adjectives serve a number of purposes in written and spoken language. Like many other words in English, the purpose of an adjective relies heavily on the way it is used by speakers and writers.

Adjectives, when used appropriately, help to make descriptions more vivid. They help the writer to create clear ideas of what the noun or pronoun tastes, smells, feels, looks, and sounds like. They serve a similar purpose in both explanatory and creative writing.

Look at the difference between a sentence that has limited use of adjectives and one in which the writer engages the readers’ senses with carefully selected adjectives.


Adjective Examples

Example 1.a (less adjectives):

The long road stretched out ahead of him.

This statement, without the inclusion of adjectives is very uninteresting.

Example 1.b (more adjectives):

The never-ending, abandoned road stretched out ahead of the weary traveler.

In this statement the writer uses adjectives such as ‘never-ending’ and ‘weary’ to modify the words ‘road’ and ‘traveler,’ and this adds some more interest to the writing.


Consider also, the following examples that indicate how adjectives, when used appropriately, can add excitement and appeal to a story.


Example 2.a (less adjectives):

It was the end of a difficult day and I was happy to be going home.

While this statement is acceptable in a story, it does not do much to make the story appealing to the readers.

Example 2.b (more adjectives):

One of the most complicated and grueling days of my life had come to a close and I was relieved to be finally heading to the rejuvenating and serene haven of home.

This example makes the story more entertaining for the readers.

In addition to making writing more interesting, adjectives help to clarify things. This is important for all types of writing but is crucial to factual writing.


Identifying Adjectives

While there are some words that are easily identified as adjectives, others may be more difficult to identify. This is because in the English language, a word takes on its meaning and function based on how it is used in the sentence. In some cases therefore, a word that would be considered another part of speech like noun, may be used as an adjective. The example below illustrates this:

Example 1:

The cafeteria lights flickered for a few minutes.

In the example above, the word ‘cafeteria,’ which is ordinarily considered a noun, becomes an adjective as it modifies the word ‘lights.’

Example 2:

The dancing girls flitted gleefully across the stage.

In this example the word ‘dancing,’ which is considered a verb, functions as an adjective as it modifies the noun ‘girls’.

Therefore, the key to identifying an adjective, is finding out its role or function within a sentence.


Identifying Adjective Phrases

Sometimes a group of words combine to form an adjective. This is called an adjective phrase and like an adjective, it modifies a noun or pronoun. In the sentences below, the adjective phrases are underlined.

Example 1:

A smartly dressed young lady came into my office today.

Example 2:

He waited twenty long and trial-filled years to be reunited with his wife.


Degrees of Comparison- The Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Versions of Adjectives

Adjectives help writers compare two or more things. The three forms positive, comparative, and superlative help to accomplish this.

  • The positive form is used to modify a word.
  • The comparative form is used to compare two items.
  • The superlative form is used to compare three or more words.

Sometimes the comparative and superlative versions of an adjective are formed by placing a word before the adjective. For instance, words like ‘beautiful’:

  • beautiful
  • more beautiful
  • most beautiful

But at other times, the ending of the word is changed as is the case for words like ‘tough:’

  • tough
  • tougher
  • toughest


The Order of Adjectives

Adjectives may be used before, or after, the words they modify, depending on how the statement is constructed.

Example 1 (after):

This show is exciting.

Example 2 (before):

She is an extraordinary educator.

The order in which an adjective appears in a sentence is influenced mostly by the writer’s style. In the first sentence, the adjective (exciting) comes after the word it modifies (show). In the second sentence, the adjective (extraordinary) comes before the word it modifies (educator).

Sometimes, as in the example below, multiple adjectives precede the word being modified.

Example 3:

She stood on the long, lonely road and wept bitterly.

In this example, the two adjectives, ‘long’ and ‘lonely’ appear before the word being modified ‘road.’ Note also that the words are separated by a comma, which helps to convey the meaning that the road is both long and lonely. These two adjectives, which work with each other to modify the noun ‘road,’ are called coordinate adjectives. On the other hand, non-coordinate conjunctions work separately as modifiers even though they are placed next to each other in a sentence. Below is an example of a sentence in which the conjunctions, though they appear together, are non coordinate.

Example 4:

I went into the room and saw a pale pink shirt.

In this example, the first adjective ‘pale’ relates to the word ‘pink’ rather than ‘shirt,’ and this is what makes the two adjectives (pale and pink) non coordinate adjectives.

Additionally, there are adjectives that are used to express an opinion. When an adjective conveys and opinion, it is often written before the adjective that presents a description.


The example below demonstrates this:

Example 5:

The beautiful colonial statue was removed from its original home.

The word beautiful is the adjective that indicates an opinion and it is written first, while the descriptive adjective ‘colonial’ is written second because it identifies which statue.

In some cases three adjectives can be placed in front of a noun. The example below shows the use of three adjectives to modify a noun.

Example 6:

A destructive, slow moving, category four hurricane rocked the village that day.


It is rare, but possible for writers to use more than three adjectives in front of a noun. When this occurs they follow the pattern outlined below.

1st – an adjective that gives a general opinion

2nd – and adjective that gives a specific opinion

3rd – a size related adjective

4th – a shape related adjective

5th – an age related adjective

6th – an adjective that describes color

7th – an adjective that relates to nationality

8th – an adjective that relates to material

Linking verbs are very important when it comes to the position of some adjectives ( For example, those that end in ‘ed’ (such as pleased and thrilled) are only used after a linking verb. These adjectives often help to show a state of being or a condition. Here are some other adjectives that are used only after a linking verb:

  • afraid
  • apologetic
  • ecstatic
  • sure
  • ill
  • alone
  • ready

The sentences below would be grammatically flawed if the helping verb (is, are, am was, were) was not placed before the adjective.

Example 1:

Mother was pleased to find us studying when she got home.

Example 2:

He was apologetic after he discovered that the boy he accused of stealing his phone was innocent.

While many adjectives are written after the word they modify, there are a few for which the opposite is required. The following adjectives below are written before the words they modify: north, west, lone, occasional and countless.


Here are two sentences that demonstrate this principle:

Example 1:

He stepped in the room and saw countless tiny holes in the roof.

Example 2:

We waited with bated breath for the occasional rainfall.

Example 3:

A lone cat sat on the wall and mewed all night long.

Different Types of Adjectives

Adjectives may be possessive, interrogative, demonstrative, quantitative, predicative, and qualitative.

  1. Descriptive adjectives (the ones that tell what a noun or pronoun sounds, tastes, smells, feels, or looks like or their characteristic) are called adjectives of quality.
  2. Adjectives of quantity help to modify words by indicating ‘how much’. In the example below the word numerous is an adjective of quantity.


The walls of the hostel were lined with numerous posters about lost pets.

  1. Possessive adjectives indicate ownership. In the sentences below, the words ‘Their’ and ‘my’ are possessive adjectives.


Example 1:

I took off my coat and offered it to her because she was cold.

Example 2:

Their names were added to the waiting list.

  1. Predicative adjectives are adjectives that also function as predicates in a sentence. They are written after the noun instead of before it. In the sentence below the word ‘hot’ is a predicative adjective.


This room is hot.

  1. Interrogative adjectives are combined with nouns or pronouns to create a question or interrogative statement. The word ‘whose’ in the sentence below is an interrogative adjective.


Whose car is parked in the principal’s parking spot?

Categories of Adjectives

Adjectives may be categorized by the words they modify. In each category there may be adjectives with negative as well as positive connotations. Adjectives modify words by giving more details about:

1. Color

These adjectives are usually very easy to identify as they are simply the names of colors and variations of shades. Here are a few examples of color related adjectives: multicolored, monochromatic, two toned, brown, khaki, orange, indigo, lush green.


2. Shape

There are many shapes and just as many words to describe them. Irregular, spherical, circular, rectangular and conical are just a few of the many shape-related adjectives that exist in the English language.


3. Size

When things are being described, their size is often one of the areas considered. This is why size related adjectives are so important. Sizes are described using adjectives such as: gigantic, miniscule, moderate, colossal or small.


4. Sound

Sounds are described by using adjectives such as; cacophonous, chaotic, loud, musical, or soothing.


5. Taste

Included among the many taste-related adjectives that you can use are: delicious, sweet, sour, savory, salty, bitter, unpleasant, and flavorful.


6. Smell

Adjectives such as putrid, foul, and repulsive are used to describe how a noun or pronoun smells if the odor is a negative one. Positive odor-describing words include: tantalizing, sweet, and aromatic.


7. Personality ( in the case of a character)

Characters may be described positively using adjectives such as calm, generous, genuine, charming, and candid to modify them. Characters may also be described in a negative manner using words such as dishonest, cruel, draconian, and villainous.


8. Emotion (again, in the case of a character)

Adjectives related to emotions are also used to describe characters. Some of them are: heartbroken, ecstatic, and mournful.


9. Nationality or Ethnic Group

Some adjectives modify the noun or pronoun by identifying its nationality. This means that people, places, things, and ideas that belong to a particular nation or ethnic group, may be described with an adjective formed from the name of the nation or ethnic group. Here are a few examples:


Example 1:

A Caribbean cruise ship- a cruise ship that is associated with the Caribbean region


Example 2:

The Canadian flag- the national flag for Canada.

It is important to note that adjectives that are formed from nationalities are often treated in the same manner as proper nouns in writing. This means they are written with capital letters.


10. Weather

Adjectives that may be used to describe the weather include: chilly, stormy, windy, rainy (note also that heavy rainfall may be described using the adjective torrential as in the phrase torrential rainfall).


11. Temperature

Adjectives that describe temperature include: humid, freezing, and warm.


12. Quality

These adjectives tell how good or bad a noun or pronoun is. Adjectives that fall under this category include excellent, good, and terrible.



Adjectives also define position.


The initial step in the building process is drafting a plan.

In this example, the word ‘initial’ is used to modify the word step. It indicates that this is the first step in the process being discussed. Other adjectives that highlight position include: final, intermediate, first, second, third, and penultimate.


Adjectives vs Determiners

Determiners are words such as ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’. They serve a similar role to that of adjectives (they make general nouns or pronouns more specific) and as such they have often been categorized as adjectives.

Adjectives vs Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs have two main things in common: they are both among the eight general parts of speech in English and they are both modifiers. Like other parts of speech, they may be combined with other words to form adjective phrases or adverb phrases.

The difference between adjectives and adverbs lies in the words that they modify. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns (the naming words of the English Language). On the other hand, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.


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