Adjectives in English Grammar

What is an adjective?

Adjectives are descriptive words that are used to modify a noun or a pronoun. They make written and spoken English more precise and descriptive. Adjectives in English grammar are used to describe people, places, animals and things. We can use them to describe feelings; qualities and characteristics; nationality and origin; age; size and measurement; colour, material and shape; and judgment or value.

Example:
Look at that happy dog. (feelings)
The blade is sharp. (qualities and characteristics)

For more examples see the table below.

Opposite Adjectives

Many common adjectives can be learnt in pairs of opposites. Learning adjectives and their opposites is an easy way for beginners to boost their vocabulary.

Example:
good – bad
happy – sad
tall – short

Gradable Adjectives

Some adjectives can be modified to express different degrees of the same quality. These adjectives are called gradable adjectives. Gradable adjectives can be modified by an adverb, or used in their comparative or superlative form.

Example:
She is extremely/very/quite happy about the news.
She is happier than me.
She is the happiest I have ever seen her.

Other adjectives are ungradable. Ungradable adjectives, also known as extreme adjectives or absolute adjectives, do not have a comparative or superlative form and cannot be graded. That is because these adjectives already have an extreme or absolute meaning, for example, hilarious = very funny, huge = very big etc, or because they express something which cannot be modified, for example, dead or pregnant.

Example:
I think the clown is hilarious. (very funny)
She thinks the clown is terrifying. (very scary)
Mary and Paula are both pregnant. Mary is further along than Paula.
(not: Mary is more pregnant than Paula.)

Adjective Order

Adjectives generally modify people, places and things. For that reason, adjectives are placed before a noun or pronouns or after a linking verb.

Example:
The clown has a red nose.
The clown’s nose is red.

When more than one adjective comes before a noun, the adjectives usually follow a specific order:

  • opinion adjectives (beautiful, funny, nice, ugly etc.) come before before fact adjectives (small, young, pink, plastic etc.)
    Example:
    The clown has an ugly red nose.
  • fact adjectives usually follow a specific pattern (see table below)
    Example:
    The clown has an ugly big round red plastic nose. (opinion – size – shape – colour – material)
    He is a funny old American clown. (opinion – age – origin)
    Once he was a beautiful slim young man. (opinion – physical quality – age)
order type example
1 opinion beautiful, funny, interesting, unusual
2 size big, small, tall, long
3 physical quality bald, blond, thin, muscular
4 shape circular, round, square, triangular
5 age young, old, middle-aged, youthful
6 colour blue, green, pink, yellow
7 origin Canadian, European, Turkish
8 material cotton, wool, metal, paper