What Is an Adjective? | Definition, Types & Examples

An adjective is a word that modifies or describes a noun or pronoun. Adjectives can be used to describe the qualities of someone or something independently or in comparison to something else.

Examples: Adjectives in a sentence
I like old houses.

The boy is tall and skinny.

Jane is smarter than her brother.

How are adjectives used in sentences?

Adjectives modify or describe nouns and pronouns. They can be attributive (occurring before the noun) or predicative (occurring after the noun). Predicative adjectives typically follow a linking verb (such as forms of the verb “to be”) that connects the subject of the sentence to the adjective.

Examples: Attributive and predicative adjectives
The proud soldier is home.

The soldier is proud.

The dedicated employee starts early.

The employee is dedicated.

Note
While most adjectives can occur in both the attributive and predicative position, some can only be used in one position. For example, the word “main” can only be used in the attributive position, while the word “asleep” can only be used in the predicative position.

  • The main reason is that …
  • The reason is main.
  • The man is asleep.
  • The asleep man is …

Comparative and superlative adjectives

Comparative adjectives are used to compare two things. They’re usually formed by adding the suffix “-er” (or “-r” if the word ends in the letter “e”). For two-syllable words that end in “y,” the “y” is replaced with “-ier.”

Comparative adjectives can also be formed by adding “more” or “less” before an adjective that has not been modified. The “more” form is typically used for words with two or more syllables, while the “less” form is used for all adjectives.

Examples: Comparative adjectives in a sentence
Simon’s essay is longer than Claire’s.

The room is cozier with the fire lit and less cozy without it.

I have never met a more honorable person.

Superlative adjectives are used to indicate that something has the most or least of a specific quality. They’re typically preceded by the definite article “the” and usually formed by adding the suffix “-est” (or “-st” if the word ends in the letter “e”). For two-syllable words that end in “y,” the “y” is replaced with “-iest.”

Superlative adjectives can also be formed by adding “most” or “least” before an adjective that has not been modified. The “most” form is typically used for words with two or more syllables, while the “least” form is used for all adjectives.

Examples: Superlative adjectives in a sentence
Even the greatest athletes need adequate rest.

All the courses were delicious, but the dessert was the tastiest.

Alicia is the most charming person at the party, but her partner is the least charming.

Absolute adjectives

An absolute adjective is an adjective describing an absolute state that cannot be compared. For example, the word “dead” is often considered to be an absolute adjective because it’s not possible to be “deader” than someone else.

However, actual usage varies, and absolute adjectives are often modified by words such as “almost.”

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Coordinate adjectives

Coordinate adjectives are two or more adjectives that modify the same noun in a sentence. Coordinate adjectives can be separated by commas or by the conjunction “and.”

Examples: Coordinate adjectives in a sentence
The plums were cool and delicious.

Aaron wrote a heartbreaking, inspiring novel.

Adjectives vs. adverbs

Adverbs can be used to modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, whereas adjectives only modify nouns and pronouns. When used to modify a verb, an adverb describes how an action is being performed (e.g., Brandon runs slowly).

Adverbs are often formed from adjectives by adding the suffix “-ly.” However, not all words ending in “-ly” are adverbs (e.g., “ugly” is an adjective).

Adverbs can be formed from adjectives in numerous other ways, depending on the ending.

Original ending Adverbial ending Example
-y -ily (replacing the “y”) easy; easily
-le -y (replacing the “e”) gentle; gently
-ic -ally tragic; tragically

Some words can be used as either an adjective or adverb without being changed (e.g., “fast,” “late,” “early”).

Tip
If you are unsure whether a word is being used as an adjective or an adverb, check the word that it’s modifying. If it’s modifying a noun or a pronoun, it’s an adjective. If it’s modifying a verb, adjective or adverb, it’s an adverb.

For example, in the sentence “the man left early,” the word “early” is an adverb because it’s modifying the verb “left.”

In the clause “an early dinner,” the word “early” is an adjective because it’s describing the noun “dinner.”

Adjectives with linking verbs

Adjectives are often confused with adverbs when they are used as complements for linking verbs (e.g., “the wife is devoted”). In these instances, a common mistake is to use an adverb in place of an adjective.

While adverbs describe how an action is performed, linking verbs (e.g., “be,” “seem,” “become,” “feel”) often refer to a state rather than an act and therefore take an adjective. In the example below, an adjective is needed because “feel” is a linking verb.

Examples: Adjectives and adverbs with linking verbs
  • Jesse feels badly when he doesn’t finish his homework.
  • Jesse feels bad when he doesn’t finish his homework.

How to order adjectives

Attributive adjectives and determiners are typically given in a specific order according to their function. This isn’t an order that English speakers learn as a set of rules, but rather one that people pick up intuitively and usually follow without thinking about it:

  • Determiner (e.g., a, the, one)
  • Opinion (e.g., beautiful, valuable, indecent)
  • Size (e.g., big, small, tiny)
  • Shape or age (e.g., round, square, hundred-year-old)
  • Color (e.g., white, brown, red)
  • Origin (e.g., Dutch, aquatic, lunar)
  • Material (e.g., wooden, metal, glass)
Examples: Adjective word order
A valuable lunar stone.

A beautiful, small, Dutch windmill.

Other types of adjectives

There are many types of adjectives in English. Some other important types of adjectives are:

Appositive adjectives

An appositive adjective is an adjective (or series of adjectives) that occurs after the noun it modifies. It is typically set off by commas or dashes. It works similarly to an appositive noun.

Example: Appositive adjective in a sentence
Then the cliffs, ominous and dark, came into view.

Compound adjectives

A compound adjective is an adjective that is formed using two or more words that express a single idea (e.g., in-depth). When a compound adjective occurs before the noun it modifies (attributive), the individual words are typically connected by a hyphen. Frequently, no hyphen is needed when the compound adjective is placed after the noun (predicative).

Examples: Compound adjectives in a sentence
A well-known man lives here.

Mark is well known.

Note
When a compound adjective is formed using an adverb that ends in “-ly,” no hyphen is used regardless of its position.

  • A highly-respected public official.
  • A highly respected public official.

    Participial adjectives

    A participial adjective is an adjective that is identical to the participle form of a verb (typically ending in “-ing,” “-ed,” or “-en”).

    Examples: Participial adjectives in a sentence
    It is a very annoying song.

    Eva was pretty confused.

    Note
    A noun formed from a present participle is called a gerund.

    Proper adjectives

    A proper adjective is an adjective formed from a proper noun and used to indicate origin. Like proper nouns, proper adjectives are always capitalized.

    Examples: Proper adjectives in a sentence
    There is a popular Indian restaurant nearby.

    Liza is not a fan of Shakespearean drama.

    Denominal adjectives

    A denominal adjective is an adjective formed from a noun, often with the addition of a suffix (e.g., “-ish,” “-ly,” “-esque”).

    Example: Denominal adjective in a sentence
    Amira thinks Han is childish, but at least he’s friendly.

    Nominal adjectives

    A nominal adjective (also called a substantive adjective) is an adjective that functions as a noun. Nominal adjectives are typically preceded by the definite article “the.”

    Nominal adjectives in a sentence
    The candidate appealed to both the rich and the poor.

    It’s important to take care of the elderly.

    Frequently asked questions about adjectives

    What are the different types of adjectives?

    There are many ways to categorize adjectives into various types. An adjective can fall into one or more of these categories depending on how it is used.

    Some of the main types of adjectives are:

    Are numbers adjectives?

    Cardinal numbers (e.g., one, two, three) can be placed before a noun to indicate quantity (e.g., one apple). While these are sometimes referred to as “numeral adjectives,” they are more accurately categorized as determiners or quantifiers.

    What is a proper adjective?

    A proper adjective is an adjective that was derived from a proper noun and is therefore capitalized.

    Proper adjectives include words for nationalities, languages, and ethnicities (e.g., “Japanese,” “Inuit,” “French”) and words derived from people’s names (e.g., “Bayesian,” “Orwellian”).

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    Eoghan Ryan

    Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.