Adjectives are one of the traditional eight English parts of speech, although linguists today distinguish adjectives from words such as determiners that formerly were considered to be adjectives. In this paragraph, “traditional” is an adjective, and in the preceding paragraph, “main” is.
Adjectives and adverbs
Many languages, including English, distinguish between adjectives, which qualify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs, which modifyverbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Not all languages have exactly this distinction and many languages, including English, have words that can function as both. For example, in English fast is an adjective in “a fast car” (where it qualifies the noun car), but an adverb in “he drove fast” (where it modifies the verb drove). In Dutch and German, almost all adjectives are implicitly also adverbs, without any difference in form.
Types of use
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 people”. 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”, and “I saw three kids happy enough to jump up and down with glee.” See also Postpositive adjective.
- Predicative adjectives are linked via a copula or other linking mechanism to the noun or pronoun they modify; for example, happyis a predicate adjective in “they are happy” and in “that made me happy.” (See also: Predicative expression, Subject complement.)
- Absolute adjectives do not belong to a larger construction (aside from a larger adjective phrase), and typically modify either thesubject 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.”
- Nominal adjectives act almost as nouns. One way this can happen is if 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 nominal adjective, short for “happy one” or “happy book”. Another way this can happen is 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 similarly 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”.
- Determiners — articles, adverbs, and other limiters.
- Observation — postdeterminers and limiter adjectives (e.g., a real hero, a perfect idiot) and adjectives subject to subjective measure (e.g., beautiful, interesting), or objects with a value (e.g., best, cheapest, costly)
- Size and Shape — adjectives subject to objective measure (e.g., wealthy, large, round), and physical properties such as speed.
- Age — adjectives denoting age (e.g., young, old, new, ancient, six-year-old).
- Color — adjectives denoting color (e.g., red, black, pale).
- Origin — denominal adjectives denoting source of noun (e.g., French, American, Canadian).
- Material — denominal adjectives denoting what something is made of (e.g., woolen, metallic, wooden).
- Qualifier — final limiter, often regarded as part of the noun (e.g., rocking chair, hunting cabin, passenger car, book cover).
So, in English, adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age (“little old”, not “old little”), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color (“old white”, not “white old”). So, we would say “One (quantity) nice (opinion) little (size) round (shape) old (age) white (color) brick (material) house.”
This order may be more rigid in some languages than others; in some, like Spanish, it may only be a default (unmarked) word order, with other orders being permissible.
Due partially to borrowings from French, English has some adjectives that follow the noun as postmodifiers, called postpositive adjectives, such as time immemorial and attorney general. Adjectives may even change meaning depending on whether they precede or follow, as in proper: They live in a proper town (a real town, not a village) vs. They live in the town proper (in the town itself, not in the suburbs). All adjectives can follow nouns in certain constructions, such as tell me something new.
Comparison of adjectives
In many languages, some adjectives are comparable. For example, a person may be “polite”, but another person may be “more polite”, and a third person may be the “most polite” of the three. The word “more” here modifies the adjective “polite” to indicate a comparison is being made, and “most” modifies the adjective to indicate an absolute comparison (a superlative).
Many adjectives do not lend themselves to comparison, however. For example, it does not make sense to speak of something that is “more here” than another, or of something “most here”. Such adjectives are called non-comparable.
Comparable adjectives are also known as gradable adjectives, because they tend to allow grading adverbs such as “very”, “rather”, and so on.
Among languages that allow adjectives to be compared, different means are used to indicate the comparison. Many languages do not distinguish comparative from superlative forms.
In English, there are three different means to indicate comparison: most simple adjectives take the suffixes “-er” and “-est”, as
- “big”, “bigger”, “biggest”;
a very few adjectives are irregular:
- “good”, “better”, “best”,
- “bad”, “worse”, “worst”,
- “old”, “elder”, “eldest” (in certain contexts only; the adjective is usually regular)
- “far”, “farther/further”, “farthest/furthest”
- “many”, “more”, “most” (usually regarded as an adverb or determiner)
- “little”, “less”, “least” (ditto);
all others are compared by means of the words “more” and “most”. There is no simple rule to decide which means is correct for any given adjective, however. The general tendency is for simpler adjectives, and those from Anglo-Saxon to take the suffixes, while longer adjectives and those from French, Latin, Greek do not—but sometimes sound of the word is the deciding factor.
Even most non-comparable English adjectives may however sometimes be compared; for example, one might say that a language about which nothing is known is “more extinct” than a well-documented language with surviving literature but no speakers, or say that in an egalitarian society, some people are “more equal” than others. These cases may be viewed as statements about the degree to which the subject fits the adjective’s definition, rather than the degree of intensity of the adjective.