Table of Contents

Adjective as name of a part of speech.

The words in 'a black cat' and 'a body politic', used as an addition to the name of a thing to describe the thing more fully or definitely, were usually called noun adjectives as an independent part of speech.

Some writers have used the word modifier to signify 'a word, phrase, or clause which modifies another'.

In traditional grammar, home in home counties and city in city council are called attributive uses of the nouns home and city.

An adjective has three forms, traditionally called a positive (hot), a comparative (hotter), and a superlative (hottest). In some modern grammars, the base form is called the absolute, not the positive, form.

Attributive and predicative adjectives.

Most adjectives can be used both attributively (a black cat, a gloomy outlook) and predi-catively (the cat is black, the outlook is gloomy, he found the door shut), that is, can within limits be placed after the noun to which it refers. Some adjectives, however, are normally restricted to the predicative position, e.g.

  • afraid (he is afraid but not *the afraid boy, though the somewhat afraid boy is admissible),
  • answerable (he is answerable to his superiors),
  • rife (speculation was rife that ...),
  • tantamount (his action is tantamount to treason), etc.

Conversely, numerous adjectives (if the meaning of the word is to remain unchanged) must be used only in the attributive position: e.g. - he is a big eater not as an eater he is big; - the sheer richness of his material not the richness of his material is sheer.

So also mere repetition, - my old self, pure fabrication, on the stout side, a tall order, the whole occasion, etc.


  • Monosyllabic and disyllabic adjectives normally form their comparative and superlative forms by adding -er and -est (soft, softer, softest).
  • Polysyllabic adjectives are more comfortably preceded by more and most (more frightening, a most remarkable woman).

For special effect, a polysyllabic adjective is sometimes used in an unexpected -er or -est form: e.g. - 'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice”L. Carroll, 1865 - one of the generousest creatures alive—Thackeray, 1847/8; Texas A&M's Shelby Metcalf, - the winningest coach in Southwest Conference basketball history, was relieved of his duties Monday.

'Absolute' adjectives.

Certain adjectives are normally incapable of modification by adverbs like largely, more, quite, too, or very: e.g. absolute, complete, equal, excellent, impossible, infinite, perfect, possible, supreme, total, unique, utter

But English is not a language of unbreakable rules, and contextual needs often bring theoretically unconventional uses into being, e.g.

  • "The . . . ghosts . . . made the place absolutely impossible”Harper's Mag., 188.4;
  • "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”G. Orwell, 1945;

Position of adjectives.

In numerous fixed expressions, an adjective is placed immediately after the noun it governs: e.g. attorney-general, body politic, court martial, fee simple, heir apparent, notary public, poet laureate, postmaster-general, president elect, situations vacant, vice-chancellor designate, the village proper.

These are to be distinguished from cases in which an adjective just happens to follow the noun it governs (e.g. - "The waiter ... picked up our dirty glasses in his fingertips, his eyes impassive”Encounter, 1987; - "1992, that hailed watershed for the SM between matters past and matters future”Linguist, 1991), or - "when the natural order is reversed for rhetorical effect (e.g. And goats don't have it [sc. self-consciousness], they live in a light perpetual”Maurice Gee, 199o; - "before the loving hands of the Almighty cradled him in bliss eternal”N. Williams, 1992).


There is an increasing and undesirable tendency at present to insert a hyphen in the type a highly competitive market, a newly adopted constituency (thus a highly-competitive market, etc.), i.e. where an adverb in -ly governs an adjective which is immediately followed by a noun. Printers and writers are sharply divided in the matter. Examples from my files:

(a) unwontedly clean clothes, a comparably enormous step, a genuinely wintry blackness, those handsomely engraved certificates, a statistically significant relationship; but also

(b) the abundant recently-published material, lawfully-elected prime ministers, fiercely-illuminated buildings, professionally-inclined Eastern European Jews, their scarcely-filled baskets of food. It is to be hoped that the hyphenless type will prevail.

Compound adjectives.

Compound adjectives of the types noun + adjective, noun + past participle, and noun + participle in -ing have proliferated in the 20c. Examples: (a) accident-prone (1926), acid-free (1930), child-proof (1956), computer-literate (1976), host-specific (1969), machine-readable (1961), sentence-final (1949), sentence-initial (1964), water-insoluble (1946), word-final (1918), word-initial (1918).

(b) computer-aided (1962), custom-built (1925), hand-operated (1936). (c) data-handling (1964), pressure-reducing (1934), stress-relieving (1938).

A new kind of compound adjective emerging in technical and scientific work is the type landscape ecological principles ( = the principles of landscape ecology). From the starting-point landscape ecology (the name of an academic subject), some writers are unwisely tempted into converting the second noun into an adjective to produce landscape ecological principles. Similarly from physical geography (name of subject) emerge such phrases as physical geographical studies. In all such cases it is better to use an of- or in- construction: thus studies in physical geography, the rules of diachronic linguistics, research in environmental psychology, students of historical geography, etc.

Adjectives used as adverbs.

In formal written work, adjectives are not often used as adverbs, but such uses are common enough and mostly unobjectionable in informal speech (e.g.

  • come clean, come quick, drive slow, hold tight).

To these may be added real and sure, which in the UK are often taken to be tokens of informal NAmer. speech:

  • that was real nice,
  • I sure liked seeing you), but are playfully used in other regions, including the UK, as well.

It is important to recognize that an adjective and an adverb sometimes have the same form:

  • He left in the late afternoon (adjective);
  • He left late in the afternoon (adverb).

The adverbial form lately has a different meaning:

  • Have you been to Oxford lately? ( = recently).

Other examples in which the adverb and the adjective have the same form are :

  • clean, close, deep, fine, light, straight, and wide; (with -ly) early, likely, monthly, nightly, etc.

Adverbs without -ly and those with -ly often occur in close proximity: - 'I play straight, I choose wisely, Harry,' he assured me—J. le Carr& 1989.

Adjectives as nouns.

For many centuries English adjectives have been put to service as nouns while remaining in use as adjectives. Thus (a), all of which can be used as count nouns: ancient classic classified daily (newspaper) explosive intellectual

(b) adjectives preceded by the and used as non-count nouns to indicate 'that which is”' or 'those who are”': beautiful the beautiful poor the (deserving, etc.) poor sublime the sublime unemployed the unemployed

Transferred epithets.

A curiosity of our language is the way in which an adjective can be made to operate in such a way that it has merely an oblique relevance to the noun it immediately qualifies. Examples:

  • "It's not your stupid place,' she says. It's anyone's place.”P. Lively, 1987 (the person addressed, not the place, is stupid);
  • "the possibility of somebody getting killed is only balanced by the improbability of either side adequately policing these melancholy waters [sc. the sea area round the Falklands]”Times, 1987 (the waters themselves are not melancholy);
  • "I will be sitting quietly at the kitchen table stirring an absentminded cup of coffee”Chicago Tribune, 1989 (the person, not the coffee, is absentminded).

The traditional name for this phenomenon is 'transferred epithet' or 'hypallage'.