What is an adjective?
Adjectives are words that describe the qualities or states of being of nouns: enormous, doglike, silly, yellow, fun, fast. They can also describe the quantity of nouns: many, few, millions, eleven. They describe people, places, or things. “Old,” “green,” and “cheerful” are examples of adjectives. (It might be useful to think of adjectives as “describing words.”)
Adjectives modify nouns
Most students learn that adjectives are words that modify (describe) nouns. Adjectives do not modify verbs or adverbs or other adjectives. In the sentences below, the adjectives (in bold) are easy to spot because they come immediately before the nouns they modify.
Margot wore a beautiful hat to the pie-eating contest.
Furry dogs may overheat in the summertime.
My cake should have six candles.
Jane Austen is the greatest author of all time.
A descriptive adjective is probably what you think of when you hear the word “adjective.” Descriptive adjectives are used to describe nouns and pronouns.
Words like beautiful, cute, silly, tall, annoying, loud and nice are all descriptive adjectives. These adjectives add information and qualities to the words they’re modifying.
“The flowers have a smell” is just stating a fact, and it has no adjectives to describe what the flowers or their smell are like.
“The beautiful flowers have a nice smell” gives us a lot more information, with two descriptive adjectives.
Quantitative adjectives describe the quantity of something.
In other words, they answer the question “how much?” or “how many?” Numbers like one and thirty are this type of adjective. So are more general words like many, half and a lot.
“How many children do you have?” “I only have one daughter.”
“Do you plan on having more kids?” “Oh yes, I want many children!”
A demonstrative adjective describes “which” noun or pronoun you’re referring to. These adjectives include the words:
Demonstrative adjectives always come before the word they’re modifying.
- This — Used to refer to a singular noun close to you.
- That — Used to refer to a singular noun far from you.
- These — Used to refer to a plural noun close to you.
- Those — Used to refer to a plural noun far from you.
Sometimes, like when you’re responding to a question, you can leave off the noun being described and only use the adjective. For example, if someone asks you how many cakes you want to buy you can respond: “I want to buy two cakes,” or you can just say: “I want to buy two.”
Possessive adjectives show possession. They describe to whom a thing belongs. Some of the most common possessive adjectives include:
- My — Belonging to me
- His — Belonging to him
- Her — Belonging to her
- Their — Belonging to them
- Your — Belonging to you
- Our — Belonging to us
All these adjectives, except the word his, can only be used before a noun. You can’t just say “That’s my,” you have to say “That’s my pen.” When you want to leave off the noun or pronoun being modified, use these possessive adjectives instead:
For example, even though saying “That’s my” is incorrect, saying “That’s mine” is perfectly fine.
Interrogative adjectives interrogate, meaning that they ask a question. These adjectives are always followed by a noun or a pronoun, and are used to form questions. The interrogative adjectives are:
- Which — Asks to make a choice between options.
- What — Asks to make a choice (in general).
- Whose — Asks who something belongs to.
Other question words, like “who” or “how,” aren’t adjectives since they don’t modify nouns. For example, you can say “whose coat is this?” but you can’t say “who coat?”
Which, what and whose are only considered adjectives if they’re immediately followed by a noun. The word which is an adjective in this sentence: “Which color is your favorite?” But not in this one: “Which is your favorite color?”
“Which song will you play on your wedding day?”
“What pet do you want to get?”
Distributive adjectives describe specific members out of a group. These adjectives are used to single out one or more individual items or people. Some of the most common distributive adjectives include:
- Each — Every single one of a group (used to speak about group members individually).
- Every — Every single one of a group (used to make generalizations).
- Either — One between a choice of two.
- Neither — Not one or the other between a choice of two.
- Any — One or some things out of any number of choices. This is also used when the choice is irrelevant, like: “it doesn’t matter, I’ll take any of them.”
These adjectives are always followed by the noun or pronoun they’re modifying.
“Every rose has its thorn.”
There are only three articles in the English language: a, an and the. Although articles are their own part of speech, they’re technically also adjectives! Articles are used to describe which noun you’re referring to. Maybe thinking of them as adjectives will help you learn which one to use:
- A — A singular, general item.
- An — A singular, general item. Use this before words that start with a vowel.
- The — A singular or plural, specific item.
Simply put, when you’re talking about something general, use a and an. When you’re speaking about something specific, use the. “A cat” can be used to refer to any cat in the world. “The cat” is used to refer to the cat that just walked by.
Here’s a quick tip that can sometimes help you decide which article to use: Try using a demonstrative adjective before the noun. If it makes sense, use the word the. If it changes the meaning of what you’re trying to say, use a or an.
For example, if it makes sense to say “I don’t understand this question,” you can also say “I don’t understand the question.” On the other hand, it sounds strange to say “I need this tissue” because you don’t need that specific tissue. You just need “a tissue.”
“The elephants left huge footprints in the sand.”
“An elephant can weigh over 6,000 pounds!”
The 3 Different Degrees of Adjectives
Imagine changing the temperature on your air conditioner. The air conditioner has different degrees of temperature you can select. Adjectives have different degrees, as well.
The three degrees of an adjective are positive, comparative and superlative. When you use them depends on how many things you’re talking about:
- A positive adjective is a normal adjective that’s used to describe, not compare. For example: “This is good soup” and “I am funny.”
- A comparative adjective is an adjective that’s used to compare two things (and is often followed by the word than). For example: “This soup is better than that salad” or “I am funnier than her.”
- A superlative adjective is an adjective that’s used to compare three or more things, or to state that something is the most. For example: “This is the best soup in the whole world” or “I am the funniest out of all the other bloggers.”
These three degrees only work for descriptive adjectives.
If a descriptive adjective has one or two syllables, you can turn it into its comparative and superlative forms by adding -er and -est. For example, you can say that a song is loud, louder (than another song) or the loudest (out of all the other songs).
Descriptive adjectives with three or more syllables don’t use the -er and -est endings. The word beautiful, for example, can’t be turned into beautifuler or beautifulest—those aren’t words! Instead, you add the words more and the most before it to turn it into a comparative or superlative adjective: Beautiful, more beautiful, the most beautiful.