Adjective Formation in English Grammar

Forming English adjectives

We can create adjectives from nouns, verbs or even other adjectives by using suffixes (endings) and prefixes (letters placed before the word).

Examples:
child → childish (noun + suffix)
inform → informative (verb + suffix)
possible → impossible (prefix + adjective)

Although there are many common prefixes and suffixes, there are no fixed rules that tell us when to use which one. The best way to learn is through repetition and practice – which is why Lingolia offers plenty of online exercises to help you master English adjectives.

Making adjectives with suffixes

Many adjectives are formed by adding suffixes (endings) to nouns and verbs.

Many suffixes only fulfil a grammatical role and simply indicate that the word is now an adjective, but there are some suffixes that carry their own meaning:

  • The suffix -less means without something, whereas the suffix -ful usually means to have something.
Example:
hopeful ≠ hopeless
  • However, only few adjectives can be made into opposite pairs like this.
Examples:
homeless
but not: homeful
beautiful
but not: beautiless
  • We can add the suffix -ish to nouns and adjectives to change their meaning to like something.
Examples:
Don’t be childish.
= like a child
The jacket is a bluish colour.
= like blue
  • For some materials, we can add the suffix -en to create adjectives that mean made of.
Examples:
A wooden chair.
A woollen jumper.
  • When added to a verb, the suffix -able creates adjectives that express ability.
Examples:
Is the water drinkable?
= can you drink it?

Spelling rules

Usually, we just add the suffix to the end of the verb or noun.

Examples:
drink → drinkable
success → successful

However, sometimes we must add, remove or change letters before adding a suffix.

  • We double the final consonant after a short stressed vowel.
Example:
sun → sunny
  • A -y at the end of a word becomes -i.
Example:
beauty → beautiful
  • We remove the final -e if the suffix begins with a vowel, but -ee, -oe and -ye stay the same.
Example:
fortune → fortunate
but: agree → agreeable

Table: Adjectives from nouns

The table below shows a list of common suffixes we can add to nouns to form adjectives:

Suffix Noun Adjective More Examples
-able comfort comfortable accountable, memorable …
-al nature natural brutal, foundational, magical, logical, normal …
-ate passion passionate accurate, corporate, fortunate …
-en gold golden silken, wooden, woollen …
-etic energy energetic genetic, magnetic …
-ful colour colourful beautiful, painful, peaceful, thoughtful, successful …
-ible response responsible accessible, horrible, sensible, terrible …
-ic history historic athletic, catastrophic, heroic, poetic, scientific …
-ical alphabet alphabetical economical, historical …
-ish child childish foolish, selfish, greenish …
-less home homeless careless, doubtless, jobless, motionless …
-ly day daily friendly, lovely, monthly …
-ous fame famous advantageous, disastrous, religious, suspicious …
-y wind windy bloody, chilly, dirty, easy, rainy, sunny, wealthy …

Adjective or Adverb?

As shown in the table, the suffix -ly can be used to make adjectives from nouns.

Example:
friend → friendly

But wait! I hear you ask, I thought -ly is the ending for adverbs and not adjectives?

Actually, it’s both!

  • Some words ending in -ly are purely adjectives:
Examples:
That’s a lovely dress.
He’s a friendly guy.
  • Some words ending in -ly are solely adverbs:
Examples:
He ran quickly.
The teacher speaks slowly.
  • And some words ending in -ly are both:
Example:
A weekly meeting. (adjective)
We update the website weekly. (adverb)

The difference depends on how they are used in a sentence. Head over to our page all about adjectives vs. adverbs in English grammar to learn more!

Table: Adjectives from verbs

The table below shows some of the most common suffixes we can add to verbs to form adjectives:

Suffix Verb Adjective More Examples
-able read readable adaptable, believable, forgettable, reliable …
-ative talk talkative conservative, informative …
-ive attract attractive active, creative, negative, relative …
-ed* annoy annoyed confused, embarrassed, excited …
-ing* annoy annoying confusing, embarrassing, exciting …
-ful help helpful harmful, hopeful, playful, useful …

*-ed or -ing?

Some adjectives formed from verbs can have two possible endings: -ed or -ing.

Examples:
confuse – confused/confusing
bore – bored/boring

The difference between -ed and -ing adjectives is as follows:

  • -ed adjectives describe a person’s feelings.
Example:
Erica is bored at work.
= she feels bored
  • -ing adjectives describe the effect of a noun. Adjectives ending in -ing describe the thing or person that causes a feeling.
    Example:
    Erica’s job is boring.
    = the job bores Erica

Info

Be careful! Confusing the -ed and -ing endings can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

Example:
I was terrified on Halloween.
I felt scared
I was terrifying on Halloween.
I was scary and caused everyone else to feel scared

See participles and confusing words for more information and exercises on the difference between -ed and -ing.

Country Adjectives

Adjectives that describe nationality are always written with capital letters.

  • We usually form country adjectives by adding -n to the end of the word.
    Example:
    America → American
    Russia → Russian
    Australia → Australian
  • But we can also use -ese, -i, -ian and -ish to build country adjectives.
    Example:
    Japan → Japanese
    Iraq → Iraqi
    Ukraine → Ukrainian

The table below provides an overview of country adjectives.

Suffix Country Adjective Example
-ese

China

Portugal

Suda

Chinese

Portuguese

Sudanese

In China, we met a lot of Chinese people.
-i

Pakistan

Yemen

Qatar

Pakistani

Yemeni

Qatari

Pakistani cuisine is often served with rice or bread.

-ian

Canada

Italy

Palestine

Canadian

Italian

Palestinian

Canadian people are famous for being very polite.

-ish

Great Britain

Spain

Turkey

British

Spanish

Turkish

British weather is not the best.
-n

Austria

Jamaica

Russia

Austrian

Jamaican

Russian

Jamaican music is famous all of the world.
  • Some countries have irregular forms.
    Example:
    Germany → German
    France → French
    Greece → Greek
    Switzerland → Swiss
    Ireland → Irish

For a detailed list of countries, languages and adjectives see: List of Countries and Nationalities

Adjectives with prefixes

Most adjectives in English have an opposite. Often, these word pairs are completely different to one another:

Examples:
big ≠ small
hot ≠ cold
tall ≠ short

However, we can also use prefixes to form opposite adjectives.

il-, im- and ir-

The prefixes il-, im- and ir- are only used before particular letters:

  • il- comes before words that start with an -l
Example:
legal → illegal
  • im- comes before words that start with an -m or a -p
Example:
patient → impatient
  • ir- comes before words that start with an -r
Example:
responsible → irresponsible

The table below shows the most common adjectives that form their opposites with the prefixes il-, im- and ir-:

Prefix Adjective Opposite Adjective More Examples
il- legal illegal illiterate, illegible, illegitimate …
logical illogical
im- patient impatient immobile, immoral, impartial, impersonal, impolite, impossible, improper …
mature immature
ir- regular irregular irrational, irrelevant, irreparable, irreplaceable …
responsible irresponsible

dis-, in- and un-

The most common prefixes for forming opposite adjectives are un-, dis-, and in-.

Unlike the prefixes above, there are no fixed rules as to which letters can follow the prefixes un-, dis- and in-. The table below shows some typical examples:

Prefix Adjective Opposite Adjective More Examples
un- lucky unlucky unable, unapologetic, uncertain, unclear, unimportant, unprepared, unsure …
comfortable uncomfortable
dis- honest dishonest disagreeable, disheartened, disgraceful, disobedient …
respectful disrespectful
in- correct incorrect inefficient, inexplicable, infamous, informal, inhumane …
accurate inaccurate