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Attributive use

  • All things green aren't red.

Post-positive use

  • All things green aren't red.

Predicative use

  • All things green aren't red.

An adjective is a part of speech which modifies a noun, usually describing it or making its meaning more specific. Adjectives do not exist in all languages; for example, according to some accounts, the Chinese languages have no adjectives and instead use stative verbs.

The most widely recognized adjectives are those words, such as big, old, and tired that actually describe people, places, or things. These words can themselves be modified with adverbs, as in the phrase very big.

The articles a, an, and the and possessive nouns, such as Mary's, are classified as adjectives by some grammarians. However, such classification may be specific to one particular language. Other grammarians call such noun modifiers determiners. Similarly, possessive adjectives, such as his or her, are sometimes called determinative possessive pronouns, and demonstrative adjectives, such as this or that, determinative demonstratives.

In some languages, participles are used as adjectives. Examples of participles used as adjectives are lingering in the phrase lingering headache and broken in the phrase broken toys. Nouns which modify other nouns are sometimes called modifying nouns, nouns used adjectivally, or just part of a compound noun (like the word ice in ice cream).


[edit] Adjectival phrases

An adjectival phrase is a phrase with an adjective as its head (e.g. full of toys). In English, an adjectival phrase may occur as a postmodifier to a noun (a bin full of toys), or as a predicate to a verb (the bin is full of toys and clothes).

[edit] Attributive and predicative

Adjectives can be used either attributively or predicatively; in English, most adjectives can be used either way, but some are commonly found in only one or the other use.

  • An attributive adjective is part of the noun phrase headed by the noun it modifies; for example, in the noun phrase the big book, the attributive adjective big modifies the noun book, which heads the phrase. In the Germanic languages, including English, attributive adjectives commonly precede their nouns, though some English adjectives — such as aplenty, elect, galore, and proper — follow their nouns, and some fixed expressions — such as attorney general, court martial, and knight errant — use postpositioned adjectives. In many languages, however, attributive adjectives typically follow their nouns.
  • A predicative adjective is not part of the noun phrase headed by the noun it modifies; rather, it is the complement of a verb or copula that links it to the noun. For example, in the book is big, the predicative adjective big is linked by is (which is both a verb and a copula) to the noun book, which it modifies.

In English, not all adjectives can be used in both ways. Some adjectives, such as main and former, can only be used attributively: "This is the main reason" and "This is the former president" are both grammatical, but *"This reason is main" and *"This president is former" are not. Conversely, some adjectives, such as alone, can only be used predicatively: "This woman is alone" is grammatical, but *"This is an alone woman" is not; lone is used instead.

[edit] Nominal use of adjectives and adjectival use of nouns

[edit] Nominal use of adjectives

Adjectives are sometimes used in place of nouns, as in many of the Beatitudes (e.g. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy"); these are called substantive adjectives. Such usage is very common in the Romance languages. In languages with grammatical genders, such as Latin, the gender of the adjective may indicate the gender of the implied noun; thus:

malus means "the bad man"
mala, "the bad woman"
malum, "the bad thing".

[edit] Adjectival use of nouns

English (like some other Germanic languages) is unusual in that it allows nouns to be used adjectivally (i.e., in function they are "adjectives", in structure they are nouns), as in

a Georgia peach


his farewell letter.

In other languages, some sort of grammatical functor between the two nouns may be required.

These attributive nouns are not classed as adjectives, and they cannot be used in post-position; while the majority of adjectives can function both attributively and predicatively, an attributive noun cannot be made predicative by simply putting it after the head word. Such post-position would require expansion into a phrase:

Attributive Post-Position
a Georgia peach this peach was from Georgia
a farewell letter a letter of farewell

This adjectival use of nouns occurs very often in discussion of history or politics, where events or periods are often characterized by key figures or concepts involved; hence, the Whiskey Rebellion was a 1791–1794 rebellion in response to an excise tax on whiskey and other liquors; the Dred Scott Decision was an 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision rendered on the case of a slave named Dred Scott; and so on.

[edit] Adjective order

In many languages, adjectives usually occur in an unmarked order. However, some languages do not have this tendency.

English is a language with a preferred order of adjectives. Native speakers pick this up as a matter of course; those who are learning it as an adult have to memorize it. Telugu and Hungarian have adjective order preferences similar to English. Other languages may have other sequences.

The adjectives which appear nearest the noun may be called phrase-making, classification or qualifier adjectives, e.g. tree frog. Before this can come color adjectives, e.g. red tree frog, and before that, participial adjectives, e.g. whining red tree frog. The first adjectives are sometimes called absolute adjectives, e.g. nasty whining red tree frog.

Grammarians have numerous opinions on adjective order. These are some of them:

  • Determiner, Opinion, Description (size, age, shape, color, origin, material), classification
  • Determiner, Opinion, Dimension, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material
  • Determiner, Opinion, Size, Age, Color, Nationality, Material
  • Determiner, Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Material, Origin, Purpose
  • Determiner, Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material
  • Determiner, Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, Purpose
  • Determiner, Opinion, Size, Shape, Condition, Age, Color, Origin
  • Determiner, Opinion/Evaluation, Appearance, Age, Color, Origin
  • Determiner, Opinion/General description, Dimension/Size/Weight, Age, Shape, Colour, Country of origin, Material, Purpose/power
  • Determiner, Opinion/Judgement, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Nationality, Material, Purpose/Qualifier
  • Determiner, Opinion/Value, Size, Age/Temperature, Shape, Color, Origin, Material
  • Determiner, Observation, Physical Description (Size, Shape, Age, Color), Origin, Material, Qualifier

In addition, determiners sometimes have their own order. Here are some opinions:

  • Quantifier, Determiner, Order, Number, Intensifier
  • Quantifier, Article/Possessive/Demonstrative
  • Determiner (Articles/Demonstratives/Indefinites/Possessives), Order, Quantity
  • Article, Order, Number

[edit] Comparison of adjectives

See also Comparison in grammar.

In many languages that have adjectives, the adjectives may have comparative and superlative forms, as does English. Adjectives which can be compared in this way are called gradable adjectives.

Not all languages have comparative and superlative forms. For instance the Chadic language Bole uses verbs meaning "to surpass" and "to be equal to": "I am taller than you" would in Bole be something like "I surpass you concerning height", no comparative needed. As for showing equality, the verbs used mean "to reach", "to suffice" and even "to do": "I am as tall as you" would be "I do you concerning height". In some Romance languages, there are no superlative and comparative forms of adjectives per se, but they are instead constructed with adverbs meaning "more," "most," "less," and "least." So, in literal translation, a French speaker would say "I am more tall than you" rather than "I am taller than you." Indonesian has a similar rule.

[edit] English

Most English adjectives have comparative and superlative forms. These are constructed in one of two ways: either by suffixes (big, bigger, biggest) or by the use of the grammatical particles more and most. Some adjectives have suppletive forms in their comparison, such as good, better, best. Comparative and superlative forms apply only to the base form of the adjective (e.g. lessest is forbidden).

Some adjectives – such as male, female, extant and extinct – express "absolute" qualities and do not admit comparisons (one animal cannot be more extinct than another). Similarly in a planktonic organism the adjective planktonic simply means plankton-type; there are no degrees or grades of planktonic.

Other cases are more debatable. Grammatical prescriptivists frequently object to phrases such as more perfect on the grounds that something either is perfect or it is not. However, many speakers of English accept the phrase as meaning more nearly perfect. An adjective that causes particular controversy in this respect is unique. The formulations more unique and most unique are guaranteed to raise the hackles of purists.

Which English adjectives are compared by -er/-est and which by more/most is a complex matter of English idiom. Generally, shorter adjectives (including most monosyllabic adjectives), Anglo-Saxon words, and shorter, fully domesticated French words (e.g. noble) use the suffixes -er/-est.

Adjectives with two syllables tend to vary. Some take either form, and the situation determines the usage. For example, one will see commoner and more common, depending on which sounds better in the context. Two-syllable adjectives that end in the sound [i], most often spelled with y, generally take -er/-est, e.g., pretty : prettier : prettiest.

Longer adjectives, especially those derived from Greek and Latin, and including most adjectives with three or more syllables, require more and most, though the use of -er/-est extends to more polysyllabic adjectives in American English than in British English. A fair number of words, especially longer adjectives that end in Anglo-Saxon derivative suffixes like -ly, can take either form.

Adjectives which end in ous do not take -er/-est. (The stock phrase curiouser and curiouser, coined by Lewis Carroll, is an exception.)

A good general rule is to use whatever form sounds natural and gives the desired effect. It should be remembered in particular that the suffix -er has other meanings. For example it is an extremely common way of converting action nouns to the individual who performs the action (e.g. talk, talker). Putting -er on an unfamiliar adjective can easily lead to confusion.

[edit] Adjectives of relation

"Adjectives of relation" are adjectives formed from a noun, with the general meaning "of, relating to or like (the noun)" (the precise range of meanings, and shades of meaning, varies case by case). In English these adjectives are often constructed by adding a suffix to the noun or noun root. A variety of suffixes may be used in this way: -al or -ial (e.g. behavioural), -ous (famous), -y or -ly (manly), -ic (angelic), -an or -ian (Amazonian), -ary (planetary), -ile (infantile), -ine (elephantine), -ive (instinctive), -ish (boyish), -like (birdlike).

Of these, the suffixes -y (IPA: [i]), -ish and -like are "living" suffixes and may be used to form new words. For example, something that tastes of apples may be described as appley or (less commonly) appleish; something resembling honey may be described as honeylike (or honey-like). Many of these formations are colloquialisms or ad hoc coinages not usually included in dictionaries, but will nevertheless be readily understood.

English also contains a number of "non-standard" adjectives of relation that are not derived from the same root as the corresponding noun, or are based on the same root, but in a way that is non-intuitive even to a native English speaker. Examples are paternal, meaning "like a father", and ovine meaning "relating to sheep". See List of irregular English adjectives for further examples.

Frequently, these alternative adjectives are derived from Latin or, to a lesser extent, Greek, while the more common adjectives are of Germanic origin. Indeed, a useful way of finding the stem of a non-standard adjective is to look up the Latin or Greek word for the noun. For example, the Latin for "father" is pater, which gives us paternal. Many such Latinate words entered English via the Norman French spoken by the aristocracy in England following the Norman Conquest, or as scientific terms from the period when all scientific work was done in Latin.

Some nouns have related adjectives of both Latin and Greek origin. For example, "tree" has arboreal and dendroid, the former deriving from the Latin arbor and the latter from the Greek δενδρον (dendron).

In many cases, the Latinate or Greek adjective is an uncommon and literary alternative to a more standard and generic one, connotated variously as more erudite, florid, old-fashioned, pretentious or facetious. For example, for an adjective form of "charity" we could say "eleemosynary", though in most cases charitable would work just as well, and indeed most native English speakers will not understand eleemosynary, but will readily recognize charitable. Sometimes, these non-standard adjectives may convey subtle shades of meaning or bear connotations not shared with the standard adjective, even though the overall meaning is essentially the same.

[edit] See also

[edit] Bibliography

  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1977). Where have all the adjectives gone? Studies in Language, 1, 19-80.
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1994). Adjectives. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 29-35). Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-035943-4. (Republished as Dixon 1999).
  • 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.

[edit] External links

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