From New World Encyclopedia


An adjective is a describing word.

  • That is a big building.
  • I met a very old man.
  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
  • Most monkeys are arboreal creatures that inhabit tropical or subtropical areas.
  • That's a very nice dress you are wearing.

An adjective, in grammar, is a word whose main syntactic role is to modify a noun or pronoun (called the adjective's subject), giving more information about reference what noun or pronoun. (Some examples can be seen in the box to the right.) Collectively, adjectives form one of the traditional eight parts of speech, though linguists today distinguish adjectives from words such as determiners that used to be considered adjectives but that are now recognized as different. It derives from the Latin words ad and iacere (Latin words that start with an I change to a J in English); literally, to throw to.

Not all languages have adjectives, but most modern languages, including English, use adjectives. (English adjectives include big, old, and tired, among many others.) Those languages that do not employ adjectives typically use other parts of speech, often verbal constructions, to serve the same semantic function. For example, such a language might have a verb that means "to be big," and would use a construction analogous to "big-being house" to express what English expresses as "big house." Even in languages that do have adjectives, an adjective in one language might not be an adjective in another's; for example, where English has "to be hungry" (hungry being an adjective), French has "avoir faim" (literally "to have hunger"), and where Hebrew has the adjective "זקוק" (zaqūq, roughly "in need of"), English uses the verb "to need."

In most languages with adjectives, they form an open class of words; that is, it is relatively common for new adjectives to be formed via such processes as derivation.

Adjectives and adverbs

Many languages, including English, distinguish between adjectives, which modify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs, which modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Not all languages have exactly this distinction, however, and in many languages (including English) there are words that can function as both. For example, English fast is an adjective in "a fast car" (where it modifies the noun car), but an adverb in "he drove fast" (where it modifies the verb drove).

Classes of adjectives

There are six classes of adjectives in the English language:

Number: ex. six, three hundred

Quantity: ex. more, all, some, half, more than enough

Quality: ex. color, size, smell etc.

Possessive: ex. my, his, their, your

Interrogative: ex. which, whose, what

Demonstrative: ex. this, that, those, these

Adjectives also have different levels of intensity (See, superlative, comparative, nominative)


Linguists today distinguish determiners from adjectives, considering them to be two separate parts of speech (or lexical categories), but traditionally, determiners were considered adjectives in some of their uses. (In English dictionaries, which typically still do not treat determiners as their own part of speech, determiners are often listed both as adjectives and as pronouns.) Determiners are words that express the reference of a noun in the context, generally indicating definiteness (as in a vs. the), quantity (as in one vs. some vs. many), or another such property.

Attributive, predicative, absolute, and substantive adjectives

A given occurrence of an adjective can generally be classified into one of four kinds of uses:

  • Attributive adjectives are part of the noun phrase headed by the noun they modify; for example, happy is an attributive adjective in "happy kids." In some languages, attributive adjectives precede their nouns; in others, they follow their nouns; and in yet others, it depends on the adjective, or on the exact relationship of the adjective to the noun. In English, attributive adjectives usually precede their nouns in simple phrases, but often follow their nouns when the adjective is modified or qualified by a phrase acting as an adverb. For example: "I saw three happy kids," but "I saw three kids happy enough to jump up and down with glee."
  • Predicative adjectives are linked via a copula or other linking mechanism to the noun or pronoun they modify; for example, happy is a predicate adjective in "they are happy" and in "that made me happy."
  • Absolute adjectives do not belong to a larger construction (aside from a larger adjective phrase), and typically modify either the subject of a sentence or whatever noun or pronoun they are closest to; for example, happy is an absolute adjective in "The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going."
  • Substantive adjectives act almost as nouns. A substantive adjective occurs when a noun is elided and an attributive adjective is left behind. In the sentence, "I read two books to them; he preferred the sad book, but she preferred the happy," happy is a substantive adjective, short for "happy one" or "happy book." Similarly, substantive adjectives occur in phrases like "out with the old, in with the new," where "the old" means, "that which is old" or "all that is old," and the same with "the new." In such cases, the adjective functions either as a mass noun (as in the preceding example) or as a plural count noun, as in "The meek shall inherit the Earth," where "the meek" means "those who are meek" or "all who are meek."

Adjectival phrases

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

Other noun modifiers

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) are not predicative; a red car is red, but a car park is not "car." In English, the modifier often indicates origin ("Virginia reel"), purpose ("work clothes"), or semantic patient ("man eater"). However, it can generally indicate almost any semantic relationship. It is also common for adjectives to be derived from nouns, as in English boyish, birdlike, behavioral, famous, manly, angelic, and so on.

Many languages have special verbal forms called participles that can act as noun modifiers. In some languages, including English, there is a strong tendency for participles to evolve into verbal adjectives. English examples of this include relieved (the past participle of the verb relieve, used as an adjective in sentences such as "I am so relieved to see you"), spoken (as in "the spoken word"), and going (the present participle of the verb go, used as an adjective in sentences such as "Ten dollars per hour is the going rate"). In English, these constructions tend to follow the noun that they modify. In other languages, such as Russian, they can either follow or precede the noun. (In English, you do not say the "condemned to death man," but rather the "man condemned to death." In Russian, it can be said either way.)

Other constructs that often modify nouns include prepositional phrases (as in English "a rebel without a cause"), relative clauses (as in English "the man who wasn't there"), other adjective clauses (as in English "the bookstore where he worked"), and infinitive phrases (as in English "pizza to die for").

In relation, many nouns take complements such as content clauses (as in English "the idea that I would do that"); these are not commonly considered modifiers, however.

Adjective order

In many languages, attributive adjectives usually occur in a specific order; for example, in English, adjectives pertaining to size generally precede adjectives pertaining to age ("little old," not "old little"), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color ("old green," not "green old"). This order may be more rigid in some languages than others; in some, it may only be a default (unmarked) word order, with other orders permitting a shift in emphasis. Less inflected languages, such as English, (without case endings) tend to have more fixed word order. Those with more case endings may have certain fixed patterns, but they tend to allow greater flexibility for poetic use or for adding emphasis.

Comparison of adjectives

In many languages, adjectives can be compared. In English, for example, we can say that a car is big, that it is bigger than another is, or that it is the biggest car of all. Not all adjectives lend themselves to comparison, however; for example, the English adjective even, in the sense of "being a multiple of two," is not considered comparable, in that it does not make sense to describe one integer as "more even" than another.

Among languages that allow adjectives to be compared in this way, different approaches are used. Indeed, even within English, two different approaches are used: the suffixes -er and -est, and the words more and most. (In English, the general tendency is for shorter adjectives and adjectives from Anglo-Saxon to use -er and -est, and for longer adjectives and adjectives from French, Latin, Greek, and other languages to use more and most.) By either approach, English adjectives therefore have positive forms (big), comparative forms (bigger), and superlative forms (biggest); however, many languages do not distinguish comparative from superlative forms.


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 an already-identified noun). In some languages, such as Spanish, restrictiveness is consistently marked; for example, Spanish la tarea difícil means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task that is difficult" (restrictive), while 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).

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 1977. Where have all the adjectives gone? Studies in Language, 1, 19-80. ISSN 0378-4177
  • Dixon, R. M. W. 1994. Adjectives. In R. E. Asher (ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics, pp. 29-35. Oxford: Pergamon Press. (Republished as Dixon 1999). ISBN 9780080359434
  • 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
  • Warren, Beatrice. 1984. Classifying adjectives. Gothenburg studies in English (No. 56). Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis. ISBN 91-7346-133-4
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 1986. What's in a noun? (or: How do nouns differ in meaning from adjectives?). Studies in Language, 10, 353-389. ISSN 0378-4177

External links

All links retrieved June 15, 2023.


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