Adjectives are words and phrases that are used to modify nouns. To modify something means to change, or add something to it. Adjectives can modify nouns to describe them using many aspects, like shape, material, size, colour, and so on. They can also be used to compare things according to their descriptive elements. For example, one building can be taller, more expensive, more beautiful, and better situated than another.
Adjectives are often used to identify or define a noun. The sentence, I bought a car., does not provide enough information about the car to make the idea complete: is it a new car or a used one? Is it red, black, or green? Is it an American, German, or Japanese car? Adjectives can answer these questions clearly (I bought a new, red, German car.)
They can also identify a noun from a choice of two or more. Which shirt should I buy? I think the red one is prettier.
Adjectives come in different forms:
Nouns as Adjectives
We call these compound nouns, in which two nouns work together, and the first noun acts as an adjective to the second.
Basketball coach—basketball is a noun, but it describes what type of or which coach we are referring to.
Leather chair—leather is a material, but this material describes what the chair is made of. The same applies to glass (glass window), plastic (plastic spoon), cotton (cotton shirt), brick (brick house), and many other materials. Keep in mind, though, that some materials have adjective forms, such as wood (wooden desk), wool (woolen sweater, though wool sweater is also acceptable), rubber (rubbery dough), salt (salty soup), and others.
Possessive nouns (‘)
Student’s desk—though student is a noun, the apostrophe (‘) demonstrates possession or ownership of the noun and who possess/owns it. In this case, the student becomes an adjective when the apostrophe is added to it.
John’s best friend—in this case, best modifies friend, and John’s modifies best friend. Best friend is considered one element.
Employee’s pay and employees’ pay— if the possessive noun is a plural ending in ‘s’, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’. When the possessive is singular, it goes before it. thus employee’s pay refers to one employee and his/her pay. Employees’ pay refers to the pay of all the employees. For irregular plurals, add the apostrophe + ‘s’ after the possessive noun (children’s toys).
Thomas’ sister—if the noun is a proper name that ends in ‘s’ naturally (i.e., that is how the word is spelled), add only the apostrophe without the extra ‘s’ (note: this is disputed and people have different opinions. Regardless whether you want not add the extra ‘s’ or not, make sure you are consistent with that choice throughout the writing). However, with regular nouns that end in ‘s’, add the extra ‘s’: the bus’s schedule is not available yet.
Possessive and other Pronouns
My, your, his, her, their are all pronouns used to show possession. Do not mix these with the other forms (I, me, mine, myself; if you need more practice with pronouns in general, see here.) In other words, these pronouns must be followed by the noun that is possessed. My cat is cuter than his cat.
Possessive pronouns may also be used with gerund phrases to describe a situation—my being here should not suggest that I agree with the party. This sentence suggests my presence (my being here).
Other pronouns used as adjectives are called demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those), interrogative pronouns (which, whose, what), and indefinite pronouns (all, any, some, many, etc. (see pronouns page for more)). These must be followed by a noun. However, keep in mind that demonstrative and indefinite pronouns may also be used as nouns once their connection to another noun has been established. For example, 100 people were asked for their opinion about the candidate; some viewed him favourably, while many found him untrustworthy. In this example, some means some people, while many means many people.
Just as with proper nouns, proper adjectives refer to a name. These can be the names of a people (Chinese, Italian, etc.), a language (French, Swahili, etc.), organization (Harvard, Meryl Lynch, etc.), or actual people (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Notice that proper adjectives are formed from names of proper nouns and are therefore capitalized. It is a good idea to know the changes in names for different purposes, such as language or people.
China (n.)—Chinese (people, language) Spain—Spanish (people, language)
Canada—Canadian (people) Kazakhstan—Kazakh (people, language)
Note: When a people and a language share the same name, use “the” for the people, and no article for the language (The Chinese speak Chinese; I don’t speak French, but I like the French.)
Many people are surprised to find that articles (a, an, the) are actually adjectives. Because there is a lot to say about these, we have dedicated a separate page to them. See here.
To compound means to join (things) together into one whole. The same applies to compound adjectives.
Compound adjectives come in different forms. They can be combined into a one-word adjective by joining an adjective and a noun (fulltime) or vice versa (waterproof, airtight), a prefix and another word, such as a participle or a number (overjoyed, subzero, underestimated), a noun and gerund (lifesaving), and some others. Keep in mind that some of these compounds are used as nouns where the first part of the compound acts as adjective t the second (minivan, copywriting, shipbuilder, cookbook, website). Use the context of the word to understand its function.
Another form of the compound adjective is the hyphenated form. There are various ways to combine words using a hyphen ( – ) in order to make them function as one word.
Numbers + nouns: a 20-storey building, a 4-man band, a two-party system
Numbers + measurements/time (and an adjective): a 10-foot pole, a 2-meter-tall wall (if using the abbreviated form of the measurement, no hyphen is needed: a 2m-tall wall), an inch-thick board, a 2-hour lecture, a five-night vacation.
We can also use a number + a noun+ an adjective all together to modify a noun: a 5-year-old boy, a 10-month-old baby.
Note: The noun in the compound does not become a plural (no s in meter, year)
Note: You can use either the word form of the number or the numerical form. The key is to be consistent in your writing, so if you begin with one form, maintain that form throughout the writing piece.
Noun + adjective or participle: world-famous, industry-leading, nation-wide, gas-powered, alcohol-free
Adjective + noun: last-minute, special-interest, high-tax
Adjective + Participle: a slow-moving train (NOT a slowly-moving train—a slowly moving train is acceptable, but remember that slowly is an adverb that modifies the verb (participle) moving. Slow is an adjective and, along with moving, modifies the train. When an adverb is used to modify the adjective, do not use a hyphen.), a sharp-witted boy, a long-lasting treat, a dull-edged sword, an old-fashioned dress.
We use this structure when describing living things using body parts (simply alter the body part into a past participle form, even though it is not a verb)— a blue-eyed girl, a long-trucked elephant, a thick-barked tree. If you are not sure of your formation, simply write out as a full clause using the preposition with or the verb has in an adjective clause with that (a girl with blue eyes, a tree that has a thick bark.
Adverb + participle: Well-lit room, well-known author, densely-populated area, deeply-engrained beliefs
Preposition/prefix + (noun, participle, date, verb): below-average earnings, under-performing, mid-1950s, mid-century, pre-dawn, self-aware, ex-boyfriend (Note: some prefixes compound with their extra word without a hyphen (underweight). There are no distinguishable rules to know which are hyphenated and which are not; if you are not sure, consult a dictionary.)
Mixed origin/heritage: Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Austro-Hungarian (Don’t forget to capitalize both words in the compound)
When to hyphenate: The general rule to keep in mind is to hyphenate componds that appear before the noun they are modifying. If they are positioned after a “be’ verb, do not hyphenate:
Jill is a brown-eyed girl of 17.
Jill, who has brown eyes, is a girl of 17.
Note: Some compounds are hyphenated regardless of their position: these are nouns, not adjectives; do not confuse them (well-being— The CEO wants us to believe he is concerned about our well-being, but we are sure he only cares about the well-being of his investors.)
Three-or-more-word compounds: a five-year-old boy, state-of-the-art equipment (this compound is hyphenated regardless of position), Jake walked into the room and had an I’ve-been-here-before sort of feeling about the place.
A participle is actually a verb in its participle form that is used as an adjective. The key point to note is that past participle verbs are passive, while present participle forms are active.
The window that was broken has been fixed.—The broken window has been fixed.
The music, which pleased (everyone), was composed by a blind musician.—The pleasing music was composed by a blind musician.
Note: Again, remember that a participle adjective is a verb and thus describes an action, not a state/condition:
The sleeping baby looks cute.—sleeping describes what the baby is actually doing.
The baby looks cute when it is asleep.—asleep describes the baby’s state.
Some participles and adjectives are of completely different forms and cannot be interchanged:
After seeing the scary movie, the child was afraid all night and couldn’t sleep.
After seeing the scary movie, the frightened child couldn’t sleep all night.
The Earth is a living thing. The Earth is alive.
Notice especially that a participle comes before the noun whereas the adjective beginning with a usually follows a verb.
To learn more about participles and how they are formed, see the Participles page.
Adjectives without Nouns
The poor, the rich, the educated, the young, the homeless, etc. Adjectives that can refer to entire groups do not have to include the noun—it is obvious (the poor people, the homeless people, etc.)
Adjectives can often be formed by adding a suffix (word ending) and they can be recognized in context by these suffixes. Keep in mind, however, that some of these adjective suffixes can also be used with nouns.
-al, – ic, -ary, -ful, -atic, -ical, -less, -like-, ly, -ish,, -ous, -y, -able, -ible, -ant, -ent, -ive, -ing, -ed, -en
Logical (note: logic is a noun), terrific, customary, fearful, problematic, magical, homeless, childlike, happily, selfish, dangerous, dirty, doable, sensible, ignorant, dependent, creative, exciting, relaxed, frozen
How to position adjectives:
When listing multiple adjectives to modify a noun, you need to keep in mind that they should be listed in a particular order. While it is likely that even most native English users don’t know the order, most have a “sense” of it that comes from their years of experience with the language. The best way to attain this sense is to read a lot and often. Otherwise, you can study the order as presented here and try to remember it. That being said, a sentence with too many adjectives will appear awkward and will lose its effectiveness; it would be better to split the description into two or more sentences, depending on the situation.
Determiners (articles, possessives, demonstratives —use just one of these per modification (e.g., do not write, “The my noun…”)): an, the, his, their, that, those, etc.
Quantifiers and sequence (numbers, amounts, sequence): 5, twenty-two, many, a few, first, last, etc.)
Judgements/evaluations and attitudes/opinions: pretty, mean, generous, efficient, diligent, sound, etc.
Real/physical: size, length/shape/height, condition, age, colour, pattern, origin/nationality, material, purpose/kind, noun as adjective) a large, two-inch-wide, rectangular, used, old, silver, heat-melded, Norwegian, metal, cutting, chef’s knife.
Technically correct, but bad sentence: Jill’s two cute, cuddly, friendly, small, healthy, 4-year-old, black and grey, long-haired, American, hunting terrier puppies had to be put down.
Better approach: Jill’s two 4-year-old puppies, who were cute and cuddly and friendly, had to be put down. They black and grey, long-haired dogs were small and healthy, but these American hunting terriers had bitten a small child and were thus considered dangerous.
Best approach: choose the most important descriptors, and minimize the use of adjectives. If you are writing a longer paragraph about these dogs, you can add details as you write.
Relation to Noun
Before the noun: a red rose; five old men; a happy, young girl; my workaholic partner
After the noun: adjectives can come after the noun, between commas. These are usually reduced adjective clauses (appositive phrase): A man, old and grey, walked into the store. This structure is mostly used for style and emphasis.
After the verb: adjectives may describe a noun that is the subject of the sentence, meaning they act as subject complements and follow a linking verb, especially the ‘be’ verb: The sky is blue, Terence seems upset, Bill felt angry.
With comma, or without
In most cases, commas are overused and can be omitted if the message is clear enough without them. That being said, there are times when you must separate adjectives with commas and times when you don’t need to.
If each adjective works on its own to modify the noun, and each adjective is of a different kind (as mentioned above in the order of adjectives then usually no commas are needed. If the adjectives are of a same kind, then they should e separated by a comma.
The unprepared young students all did poorly on their quiz.—ok (adjectives are of different kind)
The unprepared, frightened young students all did poorly on their quiz—ok (adjective unprepared and frightened are both evaluations and need to be separated; you can also separate them using and (the unprepared and frightened young students…))
Sometimes commas need to separate the adjectives because the adjective closest to the noun is part of that noun (similar to a compound adjective). This means that the adjective that comes prior modifies the adjective/noun combination. Another reason to use the comma is that you may want to emphasize each adjective separately:
The inexperienced young men made many mistakes: the young men, who were inexperienced, made many mistakes.
The inexperienced, young men made many mistakes: the men, who were young and inexperienced, made many mistakes.