The word “adjective” comes from Latin “nōmen adjectīvum (literally, additional noun)”. Adjectives modify a noun or a noun phrase. It adds more information given by the noun. For example, in the sentence, “That’s an idea“, the word “idea” is a noun. An adjective can be included to add more information about the noun (idea) by saying, “That’s an interesting idea“, where the word “interesting” is an adjective.
That’s an interesting idea. (attributive adjective)
That idea is interesting. (predicative adjective)
Tell me something interesting. (postpositive adjective)
The good, the bad, and the ugly. (substantive adjective)
In grammar, an attributive is a word or phrase within a noun phrase that modifies the head noun. It may be an: attributive adjective, attributive noun, attributive verb. An attributive adjective comes just before the noun it modifies. This is the most common type of adjective. An attributive adjective is a prepositive adjective. However, attributive adjective phrases that include complements typically follow the noun that they qualify (“an evildoer devoid of redeeming qualities“).
In grammar, a predicate is one of the main two parts of a sentence, modifying the subject. Take this sentence as an example: “My cats are big”, My cats acts as the subject, and are big is the predicate. The adjective (big) coming in the predicate is predicative. A predicative adjective is a postpositive adjective.
A postpositive adjective or postnominal adjective is a predicative adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies. This contrasts with prepositive adjectives, which come before the noun or pronoun.
A substantive adjective is a nominalised adjective. A nominalised adjective is an adjective that has undergone nominalisation, and is thus used as a noun. In the rich and the poor, the adjectives rich and poor function as nouns denoting people who are rich and poor respectively.
In English, the same word can function as either an adjective or an adverb. For example, 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).
Adjectives can give a general opinion. Examples: good, nice, awful, bad, lovely, beautiful, brilliant, important, wonderful, excellent, strange, nasty, horrible, nice, etc. Example, “He’s a good/bad/brilliant/dreadful/wonderful boy.”
Adjectives can give a specific opinion. Examples: delicious/tasty (food), comfortable/uncomfortable (furniture), clever/friendly/intelligent/silly (people/animals).
Adjectives can give a description. Examples: big, Indian, green, British, French, old, red, young, small, cotton. Description can be Size, Shape, Age, Colour, Nationality, Material, and Purpose.
If one or more adjectives are used one after the other, then they have to placed in the following order:
General opinion, Specific opinion, Description (Size, Shape, Age, Colour, Nationality, Material, Purpose)
CORRECT: A large comfortable chair.
A comfortable large chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large) comes before a specific opinion (comfortable)
CORRECT: A large comfortable big chair.
A large big comfortable chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big)
[Note: It is highly uncommon for any sentence to have more than three adjectives consecutively. The below are given for illustration purposes only.]
CORRECT: A large comfortable big round chair.
A large comfortable round big chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big), shape (round)
CORRECT: A large comfortable big round old chair.
A large comfortable big old round chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big), shape (round), age (old)
CORRECT: A large comfortable big round old red chair.
A large comfortable big round red old chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big), shape (round), age (old), colour (red)
CORRECT: A large comfortable big round old red Indian chair.
A large comfortable big round old Indian red chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big), shape (round), age (old), colour (red), nationality (Indian)
CORRECT: A large comfortable big round old red Indian leather chair.
A large comfortable big round old red leather Indian chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big), shape (round), age (old), colour (red), nationality (Indian), material (leather)
CORRECT: A large comfortable big round old red Indian leather study chair.
A large comfortable big round old red Indian study leather chair.
Adjective Order: General opinion (large), specific opinion (comfortable), size (big), shape (round), age (old), colour (red), nationality (Indian), material (leather), purpose (study)
Exercise: Which sentence is the correct sentence?
1A. A circular big table.
1B. A big circular table.
2A. A blue plastic mug.
2B. A plastic blue mug.
3A. A splendid old mahogany table.
3B. An old splendid mahogany table.
4A. A round red big lampshade.
4B. A big round red lampshade.
5A. A new comfortable good leather sofa.
5B. A good comfortable new leather sofa.
6A. A famous Indian middle-aged actor.
6B. A famous middle-aged Indian actor.
7A. A wonderful big house.
7B. A big wonderful house.
8A. He is a little clever boy.
8B. He is a clever little boy.
9A. It’s a bottle of old French wine.
9B. It’s a bottle of French old wine.
10A. A medium-sized long new white silk wedding gown.
10B. A new long silk medium-sized white wedding gown.
A circular big table
CORRECT: 1B. A big circular table (general opinion=big, specific opinion=circular)
CORRECT: 2A. A blue plastic mug (colour=blue, material=plastic)
A plastic blue mug
CORRECT: 3A. A splendid old mahogany table (general opinion=splendid, age=old, material=mahogany)
An old splendid mahogany table
A round red big lampshade
CORRECT: 4B. A big round red lampshade (size=big, shape=round, colour=red)
A good leather new comfortable sofa
CORRECT: 5B. A good comfortable new leather sofa (general opinion=good, specific opinion=comfortable, age=new, material=leather)
A famous Indian middle-aged actor
CORRECT: 6B. A famous middle-aged Indian actor (general opinion=famous, age=middle-aged, Nationality=Indian)
CORRECT: 7A. A wonderful big house (general opinion=wonderful, size=big)
A big wonderful house
He is a little clever boy
CORRECT: 8B. He is a clever little boy (specific opinion=clever, age=little)
CORRECT: 9A. It’s a bottle of old French wine. (age=old, Nationality=French)
It’s a bottle of French old wine.
CORRECT: 10A. A medium-sized long new white silk wedding gown. (size=medium-sized, shape=long, age=new, colour=white, material=silk, purpose=wedding)
A new long silk medium-sized white wedding gown.
Exceptions to the adjectival order of English
The normal adjectival order of English may be overridden in certain circumstances.
1. The ablaut reduplication rule that high vowels precede low vowels, overrides the normal order of adjectives. 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“.
2. 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.
3. 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).
4. All adjectives can follow nouns in certain constructions, such as tell me something new.
Comparative and Superlative Adjectives
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).
“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”. It may be argued 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. 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”.
1. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary on Perseus Project.
2. Dixon, R.M.W. (1977). “Where have all the adjectives gone?”. Studies in Language. 1: 19–80. doi:10.1075/sl.1.1.04dix.
3. Dixon, R.M.W. (1999). Adjectives. In K. Brown & T. Miller (Eds.), Concise encyclopedia of grammatical categories (pp. 1–8). Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN 0-08-043164-X.
5. Warren, Beatrice. (1984). Classifying adjectives. Gothenburg studies in English (No. 56). Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis. ISBN 91-7346-133-4.