What is an Adjective?

An adjective is a word that alters nouns and pronouns, and its purpose is simple: to describe.

It bestows qualities, and tells you if something is great or insignificant; tall or short; big or small; black or white; and so on.

Most languages (but, surprisingly, not all) have adjectives. Languages that don’t adjectives usually use adverbs instead.

The adjective is the embellisher of the English language, and creates phrases such as these:

The azure sky.

A great woman.

That fantastic ride.

An angry bird.

Such a beautiful shirt!

As you can see, adjectives usually come before nouns, but this is not always the case, such as in sergeant major or Alexander the Great.

Most adjectives are created from nouns. Take for example angry—it spawned from anger, a noun. In fact, many adjectives are also nouns; and some adjectives are also verbs.

One type of adjective is the proper adjective, which always begins with a capital letter. Examples include: Christian choir, Bush war, Alaskan salmon, Mexican pie. Check out this list of proper adjectives if you want a more in-depth view of the subject matter.

Another kind of adjective is the article, a limiting adjective. It comes before a noun phrase or a noun and it is used to show if something is definite (the) or indefinite (a or an). Examples of use include: a rifle, a big dog, an apple, the sweet chocolate. The definite article comes before a definite object such as the knife, the molecule, the book, and so on. The indefinite article comes before nonspecific objects—things that are part of a class, uncountable or generalized—examples include a violet, an extraterrestrial, a feeling.

However, remember that you can write a knife in the kitchen or the knife in the kitchen, a molecule in the body or the molecule in the body, a book on the table or the book on the table. Whether you use the definite article or the indefinite article depends on the kind of sentence you’re trying to construct.

A” or “An” are chosen depending on the sound of the word that follows; A comes before words with a consonant sound; it doesn’t matter how it’s spelled. Examples include a dog, a Ouchaita tribe member, and a pen.

An precedes words with a vowel sound. Examples: an hour, an army, an elephant.

When you have several nouns in a row, you do not need to write like this:

The kitchen and the toilet are dirty.

You can, instead, write:

The kitchen and toilet are dirty.

There are many other instances where the definite article doesn’t need to be repeated, such as in the first and second Balkan wars.

Many times a noun doesn’t need an article. We call this zero article; examples include: by twilight; I’m from Londontravel by car.

A predicative adjective is an adjective that comes after a verb. Examples: the bed feels nice, the song is distasteful, this tastes heavenly.

Dates are often used as adjectives, such as in August 8 stock market crash and September 5 education reform bill.

The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.

Adjectives have three degrees, absolute (big), comparative (bigger) and superlative (biggest). Many adjectives cannot take on the comparative or superlative attributes. Take, for example, the word infinite. You cannot say “infiniter” or “infinitest”.

Finally, there are three unique adjectives: participial, coordinate and phrasal.

Participial adjectives are adjectives as well as participles that change a noun or pronoun. They usually (but not always) end in -ed or -ing. Their purpose is the same as a regular adjective—to describe a noun. Examples include terrified, terrifying; surprised, surprising; disturbed, disturbing.

Coordinate adjectives show up with other related adjectives to modify the same noun. They’re either separated by and or by commas. Examples: big, strong engine or great and powerful nation or dark, shadowy figure or noisy and intrusive wildlife.

Phrasal adjectives, also known as compound modifiers, are phrases that modify nouns. If placed before a noun, they are usually hyphenated. Examples: best-of-three chess match; heart-shattering pain; jet-black hair. If placed after a noun, they lose their hyphenation: chess match with a best of three format, his pain was heart shattering, hair that is jet black.


González-Díaz, Victorina. 2008. English Adjective Comparison. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub.

Hofher, Patricia Cabredo, and Ora Matushansky. 2010. Adjectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub.

Lass, Roger. 1999. The Cambridge History Of The English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr.

Matthews, P. H. The Positions Of Adjectives In English.

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Tirumalesh, K. V. 1999. Grammar And Communication. New Delhi: Allied Publishers.