23) Adjectives

Adjectives

Adjectives are words, phrases, or clauses which modify nouns, or pronouns. For example:

The big dog.

Here, the adjective ‘big’ is modifying the noun ‘dog’ to tell us something about its size. They aren’t all related to size though, there are many different categories. Let’s start by trying to classify the different adjectives into different categories based on their meaning.

1) Descriptive adjectives

Descriptive adjectives give an extra descriptive quality to a noun, and can be sub-categorised into common and proper adjectives. If you can remember all the way back to nouns, there are two major types of nouns which encompass all the others: the common and proper nouns. Common nouns are those which are very general, and therefore common, such as ‘monster’ or ‘book’. Proper nouns are their specific counterparts; so a proper noun which relates to ‘monster’ would be ‘Godzilla’, and a proper noun relating to ‘book’ would be ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone’. The common and proper adjectives have a similar relationship:

1) Common adjective: adds a descriptive element to the noun or pronoun which is broad and more common, like ‘monstrous’ in ‘the monstrous toy’.

2) Proper adjectives: adds a descriptive element to the noun or pronoun which is specific, like ‘Godzilla’ in ‘the Godzilla toy’. (It should be noted that some would place these under ‘limiting adjectives’ because they don’t just describe, but limit the noun to a specific one. They also describe the noun though, so I will put them under this for now).

Let’s look at these in more detail.

1.1 Common adjectives

Common adjectives are adjectives which are general, and therefore can be applied to many different situations. So, just like ‘monster’ is the common noun and ‘Godzilla’ is the proper noun, ‘monstrous’ is the common adjective and, as we will see below, ‘Godzilla’ could again be the proper adjective. Lets compare them in a sentence:

Stalin’s actions were monstrous.

The Godzilla toy was popular.

In the first sentence, the adjective ‘monstrous’ is modifying the noun phrase ‘Stalin’s actions’ to give it a characteristic. This is a very general description. In the second sentence, the proper adjective ‘Godzilla’ is modifying the noun ‘toy’, and is describing a very specific type of toy. A better comparison might be:

The Godzilla toy is monstrous.

where ‘Godzilla’ is a proper adjective modifying the noun ‘toy’ with a specific name, and ‘monstrous’ is the common adjective modifying the noun phrase ‘The Godzilla toy’ by giving it a more general characteristic.

Let’s look at some more examples of common adjectives in sentences, with the adjective in bold and the noun being modified underlined:

He lost his black kite.

She was hit with a rotten egg.

Gill got a huge pumpkin.

I hate my crooked nose.

I sat under an old tree.

The fox chased a scared rabbit.

All of the adjectives in bold above are common because they are very general, and therefore could be used for many different situations. For example, just taking ‘old’ we can say:

John is old.

Mary is old.

The dog is old.

The house is old.

etc.

Now let’s have a look at the more specific proper adjectives.

1.2 Proper adjectives

Proper adjectives describe, and point out, a very specific person, place, animal, thing, idea or state. For example in the sentence:

Their Orwellian nightmare is shocking.

‘Orwellian’ is a proper adjective modifying the noun ‘nightmare’ giving the specific characteristic of being like something in the Orwell novel 1984. Another example is:

The German book was interesting.

Here the proper adjective ‘German’ is modifying the noun ‘book’, and giving it the very specific quality of being from Germany. There is a close link here with proper nouns. Let’s take a look at comparisons of proper adjectives and proper nouns:

Proper noun Proper adjective
I live in Germany. I am a German man.
My favourite book is by Orwell. The Orwellian political language was infuriating.
Fighting was central to his character. His characteristic scowl said it all.
My book was written by Kafka. The Kafkaesque writing was interesting.
Catholicism is prominent in East Timor. It is a Catholic church.
America is very powerful. He loves American pie.

As we can see from the table, in many cases we can change the ending of a proper noun to create a proper adjective. So, in the sentence:

I live in Germany.

the proper noun is Germany, which is naming a specific country. However, in the sentence:

I am a German man.

the proper adjective is ‘German’ which is modifying the noun ‘man’. We can do this with many different countries, for example ‘England’ become ‘English’, ‘France’ becomes ‘French’, ‘Russia’ becomes ‘Russian’, ‘China’ becomes ‘Chinese’ and even ‘Europe’ becomes ‘European’.

There are some common changes that can be made, as shown in the table. If we add suffixes like ‘an’, ‘ian’, ‘esque’ ‘ean’ or ‘istic’ onto the end of words this often turns a proper noun in a proper adjective.

Not all adjectives are common or proper adjectives though. Let’s look at some of the other types next.

2) Limiting adjectives

While all nouns can be described as either common, or proper, this is not the case for adjectives. A broad class for the rest of the adjectives which don’t fit into the descriptive section is the limiting adjectives. They are described as ‘limiting’ because they limit, rather than describe, the noun, to a specific one, in a number of ways As previously noted, the proper adjectives could also be put into this class because they also limit the noun to a specific one, as well as describing it. As a comparison, let’s look at this proper adjective example, in bold:

The Godzilla toy is great.

and compare it with these limiting adjective examples, in bold:

That toy is great.

My toy is great.

The toy is great.

Note how they are all limiting the noun to a particular one, but that it is only really the proper adjective ‘Godzilla’ that is adding an extra descriptive quality. Therefore, it can probably be placed in either group.

2.1 Demonstrative adjectives

Demonstrative adjectives are useful for referring to specific things. So, instead of saying:

Apples are tasty.

we might want to say:

That apple is tasty.

This apple is tasty.

Those apples are tasty.

These apples are tasty.

The most common demonstrative adjectives are:

that

this

those

these

What all of these have in common is they are directing us to a particular noun. Why ‘demonstrative’? Well, one particularly pertinent definition of demonstrative is:

‘Indicating or singling out the thing referred to.’

This is exactly what demonstrative adjectives are doing: they are ‘indicating or singling out’ a particular noun.

Let’s look at some examples.

This, that, these, those

Firstly, ‘this’ is singular, and ‘these’ is plural. Similarly, ‘that’ is singular, and ‘those’ is plural. So for example:

This apple is tasty.

These apples are tasty.

That apple is tasty.

Those apples are tasty.

However, what’s the difference between ‘that’ and ‘this’ or ‘those’ and ‘these’? The answer seems to largely be about proximity. ‘This apple’ or ‘These apples’ seems to imply the apple is in the person’s hand, whereas ‘that apple’ or ‘those apples’ seems to suggest the person is pointing to an apple.

If you have a better memory than me, you might have realised that we covered this earlier. This is because the demonstrative pronouns are also ‘this/that/these/those’. The best way to remember the difference is that demonstrative pronouns replace a noun, whereas demonstrative adjectives modify a noun. Let’s look at some examples:

Original sentence: ‘House number 53, Vine Street, East London, is my new home.’

Demonstrative pronoun: ‘This’/That’ is my new home. (‘This’/That’ replaces the noun phrase ‘House number 53, Vine Street, East London’)

Demonstrative adjective: ‘This’/That’ house is my new home. (‘This’/’That’ modifies the noun ‘house.’)

Now with plural:

Original Sentence: ‘The Lake district’s hills are stunning.’

Demonstrative pronoun: ‘These’/ ‘Those’ are stunning. (‘These’/Those’ replaces the noun phrase ‘The Lake district’s hills’)

Demonstrative Adjective: ‘These’/ ‘Those’ hills are stunning.(‘These’/Those’ modifies the noun ‘hills’.)

It is quite easy to get them mixed up. If we remember the rule that a pronoun replaces a noun and an adjective modifies it, we should hopefully be able to get this one right.

Ordinal demonstrative adjectives

‘Ordinal’ just means relating to things placed in a series. In a sentence like:

The second match is tomorrow.

In this example, the adjective ‘second’ is modifying the noun ‘match’ by pointing out what specific match it is. Let’s look at some more examples:

You are my first customer.

This is my second bike.

I came in third place.

This is my fourth accident.

Again, if we think back to pronouns we might remember that there is such a thing as ordinal pronouns. This means we have to be careful to not get them mixed up with ordinal adjectives. The best way to do this is always to remember that pronouns replace nouns and adjectives modify them. For example:

Ordinal pronoun: ‘We placed tenth in the country.’ (‘tenth’ is not modifying any noun)

Ordinal adjective: ‘This is the tenth race we’ve lost.’ (‘tenth’ is modifying the noun ‘race’)

This can get a bit confusing. For example, in the sentence:

I came in third place.

the ordinal adjective ‘third’ is modifying the noun ‘place’. However, in the sentence:

We placed third in the country.

the ordinal pronoun ‘third’ is not modifying a noun, even though the sentences are very similar.

2.2 Numerical adjectives

We have just looked at ordinal adjectives. However, let’s look at them again, but this time together with cardinal ones, to make up the numerical adjectives.

a) Cardinal adjectives

Cardinal numbers relate to the quantity of something such as ‘one’ ‘two’ ‘three’ etc. We must be careful not to mix these up with cardinal pronouns, because the same words are used. Let’s compare cardinal pronouns and cardinal adjectives:

Cardinal pronoun: ‘Those two are getting big.’ (pronoun ‘two’ is not modifying a noun)

Cardinal adjective: Those two elephants are getting big’ (adjective ‘two’ is modifying the noun ‘elephants’)

b) Ordinal adjectives

We have just looked at ordinal adjectives under ordinal demonstrative adjectives. I thought it worth putting them together with ordinal though, just because they provide a nice contrast.

‘Ordinal’ just means relating to things placed in a series. In a sentence like:

The second match is tomorrow.

The adjective ‘second’ is modifying the noun ‘match’ by pointing out what specific match it is. Let’s look at some more examples:

You are my first customer.

This is my second bike.

I came in third place.

This is my fourth accident.

Again, if we think back to pronouns we might remember that there is such a thing as ordinal pronouns. This means we have to be careful to not get them mixed up with ordinal adjectives. The best way to do this is always to remember that pronouns replace nouns and adjectives modify them. For example:

Ordinal pronoun: ‘We placed tenth in the country.’ (‘tenth’ is not modifying any noun)

Ordinal adjective: ‘This is the tenth race we’ve lost.’ (‘tenth’ is modifying the noun ‘race’)

This can get a bit confusing. For example, in the sentence:

I came in third place.

the ordinal adjective ‘third’ is modifying the noun ‘place’. However, in the sentence:

We placed third in the country.

the ordinal pronoun ‘third’ is not modifying a noun, even though the sentences are very similar.

1.3 Possessive adjectives

The Possessive adjectives are:

my, your, his, her, its, our, their and whose.

We have already dealt with them earlier when we looked at the possessive case for pronouns. This is because they work both as pronouns and adjectives. Lets go over them again, with our new knowledge about adjectives:

Possessive adjectives are both pronouns and adjectives. They are pronouns because they replace nouns, and they are adjectives because they modify nouns. For example:

Chris’ website

could become:

His website

In this example, ‘His’ is a possessive pronoun because it is replacing the noun ‘Chris’ with a word which is typically a pronoun. Moreover, it is also an adjective because it is modifying the noun ‘website’. These can be very useful in shortening sentences, and preventing repetition in writing. For example:

Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s mansion is so big he recently got lost and wasn’t seen for 3 weeks. Consequently, Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s mansion is now up for sale.

could be shortened to:

Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s mansion is so big he recently got lost and wasn’t seen for 3 weeks. Consequently, his mansion is now up for sale.

Here ‘his’ is working as a pronoun by replacing the noun ‘Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s’ and as an adjective by modifying the noun ‘mansion’.

Another example is:

The Galapagos islands’ tourism is a thriving industry because The Galapagos islands’ combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers.

This could be shortened to:

The Galapagos islands’ tourism is a thriving industry because its combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers.

Here ‘its’ is working as a pronoun by replacing the noun phrase ‘The Galapagos islands’ and as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance’. We can argue the latter is a noun phrase because it is naming a singular thing, is part of the subject of the subordinate clause ‘because its combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers’ and it can be replaced by a singular noun and pronoun.

We have to be careful with the pronoun ‘its’. It can be very easy to write ‘it’s’ because we are used to adding apostrophes on to the end of possessives. With possessive pronouns no apostrophe or ‘s’ is added. ‘It’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is,’ so you would be saying ‘It is combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers.’, if you use ‘It’s’ in this situation. Just to clarify:

Its = possessive

It’s = It is

Another use of the possessive adjective here is to let us know the writer and the person being talked about are the same thing:

John’s book is finally being published.

becomes

My book is finally being published.

Here ‘my’ is working as a pronoun by replacing the noun ‘John’, and as an adjective by modifying the noun ‘book’).

Absolute possessive pronouns vs possessive adjectives

Make sure to understand the difference between possessive adjectives/pronouns and absolute possessive pronouns. We dealt with that earlier in the possessive case for the pronouns, here. Briefly, the absolute possessive pronouns are mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs. The difference is that absolute possessive pronouns are able to stand alone, and therefore don’t modify a noun, while the possessive pronouns/adjectives do not stand alone, and therefore can modify a noun. Let’s compare some examples of possessive pronouns/adjectives with absolute possessive pronouns.

Possessive adjective: ‘My book is finally being published.'(adjective/pronoun ‘my’ is modifying the noun ‘book’)

Absolute possessive pronouns: ‘Mine will be the big portion.’

 

Possessive adjective: Your portion will be small.(adjective/pronoun ‘your’ is modifying the noun ‘portion’)

Absolute possessive pronouns: ‘Yours can be the small portion.’

 

Possessive adjective: ‘His mansion is now up for sale.'(adjective/pronoun ‘his’ is modifying the noun ‘mansion’)

Absolute possessive pronouns: ‘My mansion is not for sale. His is.’

 

Possessive adjective: Her voice is beautiful.’ (adjective/pronoun ‘her’ is modifying the noun ‘voice’)

Absolute possessive pronouns: ‘My voice is terrible. Hers is beautiful.’

 

Possessive adjective: ‘Our car is wrecked.'(adjective/pronoun ‘our’ is modifying the noun ‘car’)

Absolute possessive pronoun: ‘Is the wrecked car ours?’

 

Possessive adjective: ‘Their holiday sounds awful.'(adjective/pronoun ‘our’ is modifying the noun ‘holiday’)

Absolute possessive pronoun: ‘Our holiday was amazing, but theirs sounds awful.’

It is important not to use ‘s’ to show possession for any of these. So it is:

yours NOT your’s

hers NOT her’s

ours NOT our’s

theirs NOT their’s

1.4 Articles

1.4.1 Definite article

The definite article is ‘the’, which is also the most common word in the English language. It is named ‘definite’ because it modifies a noun whose identity is known. One definition of the word definite is:

‘Clearly stated or decided; not vague or doubtful.’

This fits nicely with the function of the definite article as pointing out something which is somehow known. Let’s look at some examples:

They will meet us at the station.

Here the adjective ‘the’ is letting us know that it is a particular station, not just any station. The use of the definite article stands out more clearly when seen next to the indefinite article, ‘a’, as in:

They will meet us at the station.

They will meet us at a station.

In the second sentence this could mean any station, whereas, in the first, it is a specific, known one. It is interesting, because ‘the’ implies the station is a specific, known one, but doesn’t actually give us the information. A sentence like:

They will meet us at London Bridge station.

would be much more informative. When we replace ‘London bridge’ with ‘the’ the definite article, ‘the’, is allowing us to create a more economical sentence – although this only works in circumstances where we know the recipient knows which station we mean. We can imagine going through all three of these as we are making plans:

‘They will meet us at a station.’ (when deciding how to meet up, before the station is known)

‘They will meet us at London Bridge station.’ (when deciding which station)

‘They will meet us at the station.’ (now we know which station that means)

Let’s look at some more examples:

The house was huge.

Here the adjective ‘the’ is modifying the noun ‘house’. This is telling us that it is a specific house, not any house.

Another example is:

He is the man.

Here the adjective ‘the’ is modifying the noun ‘man’. This can be read in a couple of ways. If we emphasise the definite article it becomes ‘He is THE man’. This is an expression meaning something like ‘he is the best/coolest/strongest/smartest man’. However, if we we stress ‘he’ it will be ‘HE is the man.’ and we can imagine a scene where someone is pointing out this particular man as the one who was, for example, rude to them.

The definite article can also be used to modify both plural and singular nouns as in:

The woman was tall. (singular)

The women were tall. (plural)

There are some circumstances where we use the definite article in relation to places, such as:

The Tower of London is situated next to the River Thames.

The Mississippi river is in North America.

The United Kingdom is made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

In contrast, you wouldn’t start these sentences with ‘the’:

London is busy today.

Mississippi is a state

One might say this is because ‘London’ and ‘Mississippi’ are being used as place names alone here, whereas they are part of a larger place name in the previous examples. For example, you would say:

Brazil is a country in South America.

but also

The Brazilian football team is playing in the world cup final.

One could write ‘Brazil is playing in the world cup final’ but, of course, it isn’t the whole country of Brazil playing, rather, more specifically, it is ‘the Brazilian football team’.

Actually, this can get confusing, because we have examples like:

Mount Kilimanjaro

which are talking about a specific mountain but which don’t use ‘the’; so there doesn’t appear to be a clear unifying rule.

We can also change a proper noun into a common noun by placing the definite article before it. For example:

He was the Hitler of the school.

Here, the proper noun ‘Hitler’ has gone from meaning a specific person to a more general idea of a controlling, fascist person.

1.4.2 Indefinite article

The indefinite article is either ‘a’ or ‘an’. It is an adjective used to modify a singular noun which is non-specific. One definition of indefinite is:

‘Not clearly defined or determined; not precise or exact.’

This fits the function perfectly, as in the sentence:

A car just parked in my space.

We have no idea whose car it is, so it is not precise, or exact. Comparing this with the definite article shows this more clearly:

Definite article: ‘They will meet us at the station.’

Indefinite article: ‘They will meet us at a station.’

With the indefinite article example, the adjective ‘a’ is modifying the noun ‘station’. It is referring to the idea of a station more generally, thus suggesting to us that the specific station is not known.

Earlier on, we saw that we can’t use ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of countable nouns. For example:

I like a flowers. (incorrect)

is incorrect; in fact, you can remove the ‘a’ and just say:

I like flowers.

Now that we know what the indefinite article is, this should make more sense. The indefinite article, ‘a’, is pointing to a singular undefined thing, and ‘flowers’ is a plural noun. It should be noted that the definite article allows for both singular and plural nouns:

I like the flower.

I like the flowers.

It is also worth pointing out that ‘a’ can relate to singular collective nouns like ‘flock’ as in:

I waited around for a flock of birds to fly overhead.

But, again, we can’t use it for the plural ‘flocks’:

I waited around for a flocks of birds to fly overhead.(incorrect)

use ‘the’ for this:

I waited around for the flocks of birds to fly overhead.(correct)

So when do we use ‘an’? We covered this earlier with countable nouns also. Let’s reiterate it here though because it usually helps to be reminded.

The general rule is that words beginning with a vowel sound use ‘an’ before them, and those without should use ‘a’. For example:

apple: I would like an apple.

egg: I would like an egg.

infant: I am an infant.

orange: I would like an orange.

undertaker: I am an undertaker.

hour: I will be there in an hour.

honour: It will be an honour to work with you.

It is important to go back over what vowel sounds are because thinking of them as words which begin with the vowels a,e,i,o,u will only get you so far. This is demonstrated in the last example above, where ‘hour’ begins with the consonant ‘h’ but actually begins with the diphthong produced by two vowel sounds together (‘a’ and ‘ʊ’ to give us ‘aʊ’ in the IPA and denoted as ‘ou’ in the other key). This means it starts with a vowel combination vowel sound, and, therefore, has ‘an’ before it. The reason this happens is because the ‘h’ is silent in it. This is similar in ‘honour’ which starts with the consonant ‘h’ in spelling, but which actually begins with the short vowel sound ‘ŏ’ (or ‘ɒ’ in IPA) because the ‘h’ is silent. The ‘h’ isn’t always silent though. Some examples where a word begins with a ‘h’ consonant sound are:

house: I want to buy a house.

haircut: I need a haircut.

historic: It was a historic day.

In all three examples the ‘h’ is not silent, and they begin with the ‘h’ consonant sound, so they use ‘a’ before them. It should be noted this can sometimes change. For example, ‘herb’ was previously pronounced with a silent ‘h’ and now is pronounced with a stressed ‘h’. In fact, in American English, it is still pronounced ‘erb’.

The reverse situation also occurs, where words begin with a consonant sound, but the first letter is a vowel. An example of a word beginning with the vowel ‘o’ but which has a consonant sound is:

one-track-mind: He has a one-track-mind.

‘One-track-mind’ begins with a consonant ‘w’ sound, even though the first letter is the vowel ‘o’.

There are also many examples beginning with the vowel ‘u’, where the consonant ‘y’ sound is actually made. For example:

unicorn: I would like to ride a unicorn.

university: I visited a university.

universe: While I was sleeping I created a universe.

An example which begins with a vowel ‘e’ letter, but a consonant ‘y’ sound is:

eulogy: I have to write a eulogy.

3) Position of adjectives

Now that we have explored the different types of adjectives, lets have a look at their positions in sentences, to make it easier to recognise them.

3.1 Attributive adjectives

Attributive adjectives come before the noun they are modifying to add an attribute to it, such as the adjectives in bold below:

They were a big family.

He is a fantastic juggler.

The world is a scary place.

These are the most easy to find.

3.2 Appositive adjective

An appositive adjective comes after the noun, to give an extra explanation. These work in a similar way to nouns in apposition.

For example:

The family, big and strong, stared at us.

Here the adjective phrase ‘big and strong’ is working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘The family’.

Another example is:

The jugglerfast, fearless, comical – was about to start his show.

Here the adjective phrase ‘fast, fearless, comical’ is modifying the noun phrase ‘The juggler’.

3.3 Predicate adjectives

Predicate adjectives can be found after linking verbs and in the predicate part of the sentence. They work to modify the subject, or the noun, even thought they are in this predicate position. As a reminder, the most common linking verbs are forms of ‘be’ such as: am, is, are, was and were. Moreover, if you can remember back to the predicate nominative, which we looked at when studying the nominative case, you might remember there are predicate nouns and predicate adjectives. As a reminder, predicate nouns rename the subject, as in:

The animal is a gorilla.

Here we have the noun phrase subject ‘The animal’, the linking verb ‘is’ and the predicate noun phrase ‘a gorilla’ – which is renaming the noun phrase subject ‘the animal.

For an example of a predicate adjective, see:

Jane is happy.

Here we have the subject ‘John’, the linking verb ‘is’ and the predicate adjective ‘happy’ – which is modifying the noun subject ‘John’. Note it isn’t renaming ‘John’ completely, merely adding an extra descriptive detail about him.

Let’s look at an example with a linking verb that isn’t from the ‘be’ forms:

Pete seems angry.

Here the noun subject is ‘Pete’, the linking verb is ‘seems’ and the predicate adjective is ‘angry’ – which is modifying the subject noun ‘Pete’.

Because predicate adjectives modify the subject, they are sometimes also called the ‘subject complement’.

4) Degrees of comparison

Adjectives have the ability to describe and to compare. The degree at which they compare can be broken down into 3 tiered degrees which occur in this order: positive, comparative and superlative.

4.1 Positive degree

The positive degree is the lowest form of comparison because these adjectives aren’t used to compare at all. For example we might say:

Bolt is a fast runner.

China has a big population.

You are a smart person.

Football is a popular sport.

Hendrix was a brilliant guitarist.

You will be an incisive writer.

Note how the subjects (‘Bolt’, ‘China’, ‘You’, ‘football’, ‘Hendrix’ and ‘you’) are not being compared to anything else here. Instead, the adjectives are modifying a noun which is adding some extra information about these subjects.

These words are formed in exactly the same way as they are in the dictionary; therefore, we do not have to worry about inflection (i.e., changing the spelling to fit a different meaning).

4.2 Comparative degree

The comparative degree is the next step up in comparison, usually being used to compare two things, but not any more. For example:

Bolt is a faster runner than me.

China has a bigger population than America.

You are a smarter person than him.

Football is a more popular sport than Rugby.

Hendrix was a more brilliant guitarist than I could ever hope to be.

You will be a more incisive writer than your brother.

Note how the subjects are being compared to one other thing now. The adjective is pivotal in this comparison, providing the main word in the middle which allows the comparison to happen.

If we compare these with the positive, we can also start to recognise some rules in how to convert/inflect the positive into the comparative degree. One rule that is largely true is if the positive adjective has one syllable, the comparative degree will add ‘er’ onto the end, such as ‘large’ becoming ‘larger’. Furthermore, if the positive adjective with one syllable has a consonant sound on the end, we often have to add an extra one of that consonant then ‘er’ such as ‘big’ becoming ‘bigger’.

If the positive adjective has 2 syllables, or more, the general rule is to add ‘more’ or ‘less’. For example ‘brilliant’ becomes ‘more brilliant’ rather than ‘brilliantter’. Take a look at the table for examples:

Number of syllables in positive degree Positive degree Comparative degree
1 Bolt is a fast runner. Bolt is a faster runner than me.
1 China has a big population. China has a bigger population than America.
1 You are a smart person. You are a smarter person than him.
3 Football is a popular sport. Football is a more popular sport than Rugby.
3 Hendrix was a brilliant guitarist. Hendrix was a more brilliant guitarist than I could ever hope to be.
3 You will be an incisive writer. You will be a more incisive writer than your brother.

But hang on a second: what about when the positive adjective has 2 syllables? The rules appear to be less consistent in this case. Take a look at this table for comparisons:

Number of syllables in positive degree Positive degree Comparative degree
2 He is a loving person. She is a more loving person than me.
2 A recent poll showed large support for the president. A less recent poll showed no support for the president.
2 He is an able student. He is a more able student than me.
2 That is a narrow space. That is a narrower space than the one I expected.
2 He was a simple man. He was a simpler man than me.
2 You will be a clever writer. You are a cleverer writer than your brother.

Firstly, the examples with ‘er’ added on the end are contentious. We could easily write:

That is a more narrow space than the one I expected.

He was a more simple man than me.

You are a more clever writer than your brother.

However, it would be odd to write:

She is a lovinger person than me. (incorrect)

A recenter poll showed no support for the present. (incorrect)

Furthermore, I suppose we could write:

He is abler then me.

though this may be a little less common.

So what is the magic ingredient that makes one word get used over another? In a word: euphony. This is defined as:

‘A harmonious succession of words having a pleasing sound.’

In essence, some words sound better with ‘er’ on the end, and others with ‘more’ or ‘less’ before them. This is really quite subjective, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Clear, flowing, pleasant sounding language is always going to be more effective than the unclear, clunky, unpleasant kind.

We also have to consider positive adjectives ending in ‘y’. If they are one syllable, they tend to follow the rule of ‘er’ such as:

The coy cat had very few friends.

becoming

The coyer cat had less friends than the other.

There is also this example, which has two adjectives with ‘y’ endings being changed to the comparative degree for the price of one:

The dry dog had a happy owner.

becoming

The dryer dog had a happier owner.

However, as we can see from this example, when the positive adjectives have two, or more, syllables, and ‘y’ on the end we remove the ‘y’ and add ‘ier’. So ‘happy’ becomes ‘happier’.

Common mistake of having two comparatives in a row

A very common mistake, that is particularly easier to make when we are speaking, is to put two comparative adjectives in front of each other, such as ‘more cleverer’, ‘more narrower’ or ‘more simpler’. Let’s take a quick look at this in a sentence:

You are a more cleverer writer than your brother. (incorrect)

This is wrong because the ‘more’ is redundant; we only need one comparative. It is almost like saying:

You are a more more clever writer than your brother. (incorrect)

As you can probably see, the second ‘more’ is redundant here: we can get rid of one ‘more’ and still have the same meaning. The reason it is easy to do this is that we could correctly have said:

You are a cleverer writer than your brother.

or

You are a more clever writer that your brother.

and this likely causes the two to get mixed up.

4.3 Superlative degree

The superlative degree is the highest degree of comparison, and is often used for comparing 3 or more things. For example, we might say:

Bolt is the fastest runner in the world.

China has the biggest population in the world.

You are the smartest person in the room.

Football is the most popular sport in the school.

Hendrix is the most brilliant guitarist ever.

You will be the most incisive writer in your school.

Notice how each of these is now comparing the subject to more than one thing. For example, ‘Bolt’ is now being compared to ‘the world’ rather than ‘me’. Also notice that the indefinite article, ‘a’ or ‘an’ is used with the positive and comparative degrees, whereas the definite article, ‘the’ is used with the superlative.

There are some general rules for the formation of superlatives as well. When the positive adjective is one syllable and it ends in an ‘e’ we usually have ‘st’ as the ending, as in ‘large’ becoming ‘largest’. In similar fashion, when the positive adjective is one syllable and it doesn’t end in an ‘e’ we usually have ‘est’ added on the end, as in ‘small’ becoming ‘smallest’. We also follow the same rule as comparative which says that when there is a consonant ending we usually add an extra one of that consonant + ‘est’ as in ‘big’ becoming ‘biggest’ or ‘hot’ becoming ‘hottest’. In contrast, if the positive adjectives have 3 syllables, we almost always add ‘most’ or ‘least’, such as ‘positive’ becoming ‘most positive’. See the table for some examples:

Number of syllables in positive degree Positive degree Comparative degree
1 Bolt is a fast runner. Bolt is the fastest runner in the world.
1 China has a large population. China has the largest population in the world.
1 You are a smart person. You the smartest person in the room.
3 Fencing is not a popular sport. Fencing is the least popular sport in the school.
3 He is a creative person. He is the most creative person I have ever met.
3 You will be an incisive writer You will be the most incisive writer in your school

A lot of these examples sound very strange if we don’t follow the rule. For example:

Bolt is the most fast runner in the world. (incorrect)

or

He is the creativest person I have ever met. (incorrect)

sound very wrong

We also have to consider two syllable words. Let’s use the same table from before:

Number of syllables in positive degree Positive degree Comparative degree
2 He is a loving person. He is the most loving person I know.
2 A recent poll showed large support for the president. The most recent poll showed no support for the president.
2 He is an able student. He is the most able student here.
2 That is a narrow space. That is the narrowest space I have ever seen.
2 He was a simple man. He was the simplest man alive.
2 You will be a clever writer. You are the cleverest writer I know.

Again, there seems to be a lot of contention here:

He is the most able student here.

could become

He is the ablest student here.

Similarly:

That is the narrowest space I have ever seen.

could become

That is the most narrow space I have ever seen.

Again, this is down to euphony, so my advice would be to go with whatever sounds the best.

As with comparative adjectives, we have to look at examples with ‘y’ as the ending for superlative adjectives. When the positive adjective ends in ‘y’ and there is one syllable, we still use the ‘est’ ending as in ‘coy’ becoming ‘coyest’. However, when the positive adjective has two or more syllables and ends in ‘y’ we remove the ‘y’ and add ‘iest’ to the end as in ‘happy’ becoming ‘happiest’.

Common mistake of having two superlatives in a row

Just as with comparatives, a very common mistake, that is particularly easy to make when we are speaking, is to put two superlative adjectives in front of each other, such as ‘most cleverest’, ‘most narrowest’ or ‘most simplest’. Let’s take a quick look at this in a sentence:

You are the most cleverest writer I know. (incorrect)

This is wrong because ‘most’ is redundant; we only need one superlative. It is almost like saying:

You are the most most clever writer that I know. (incorrect)

In this incorrect example, we can get rid of the second most’ and still have the same meaning. The reason it is easy to do this is that we could easily have said:

You are the cleverest writer I know.

or

You are the most clever writer I know.

and this likely causes the two to get mixed up.

4.4 Discussion on absolutes

An adjective is known as ‘absolute’ when it already modifies a noun to its highest, or lowest degree. For example, ‘perfect’ as in:

A perfect novel.

Can something be raised to a higher degree than perfect? Theoretically, the answer would be no, because one definition of the word is:

‘Excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.’

So a sentence like:

His novel was more perfect than hers.

doesn’t really make sense, though it could be used as some form of hyperbole, to really exaggerate the point of how good the novel is. How about something like:

It was the most perfect novel I have ever read.

On first reading that might seem OK, but when we break down what it means, it falls apart. What this sentence is saying is that out of all the novels the writer has read which are perfect, this particular one is the most perfect. However, if we agree that something can’t be more perfect than something else, the correct sentence might be something like:

It was a perfect novel, taking its place among the best I have ever read.

or

It was a perfect novel; the greatest I have ever read.

Then again, perhaps when someone says ‘It was the most perfect novel I have ever read’ what she really means is ‘It was the closest to perfect novel I have ever read’. What this means is that out of all the novels the reader has read, this is the one closest to perfection. This is something that happens commonly with these absolute adjectives. Take this example showing two different potential meanings:

Use of absolute: ‘His career is even more dead than mine.’

What it means: ‘His career is even closer to death than mine.’

Another potential meaning: ‘Both our careers are finished. However, his did even worse than mine.’

The fact that there is some ambiguity here makes it unclear English. This is really easy to do, and I am sure I have done it many times in the past. For example, I am certain, I have previously said something like:

That was the most pointless article I have ever read.

What is the definition of pointless that I am ascribing to? One definition is:

‘Without force, meaning, or relevance’

If something is completely ‘without force, meaning, or relevance’ then can it be this way to any higher degree? Perhaps what I really meant to say was:

Out of all the articles I have ever read that I learnt the least from, this was the worst offender.

In reality, I probably didn’t even mean that; instead, this was probably just an example of hyperbolic language to exaggerate just how bad the article was.

This brings up an important point about being precise with language. What did I really not like about that article? Were its arguments illogical? Was it irrelevant to the majority of people in the world? Was it morally unjust? Was it unclear? What I really should have done is use the precise word to describe what I mean by ‘pointless’, otherwise my speaking, or writing, is not clear. This is an example of not taking time to choose the correct word, and, therefore, blunting the clarity of what is being said. The most common one in use today is ‘awesome’ which I had to ban myself from saying apart from in exceptional circumstances where I really am in awe. Unfortunately, I still have certain words such as ‘weird’, ‘terrible’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘fantastic’ which I repeat way too often. Self obsessed rambling aside, the question of whether to use absolute adjectives with comparatives and superlatives is a good opportunity to start looking at how precise we are with our language.

4.5 Reference for regular adjective positive, comparative and superlative forms

As a reference, here are some examples of regular adjectives and their positive, comparative and superlative forms

Positive Comparative Superlative
Bolt is a fast runner. Bolt is a faster runner than me. Bolt is the fastest runner in the world.
He is a loving person. He is a more loving person than me. He is the most loving person in the family.
Jane is a happy girl. Jane is a happier girl than Meg. Jane is the happiest girl in the world
This is a narrow space. This is a narrower space than that. This is the narrowest space here.
This is a dry room. This is a drier room than there. This is the driest room in the house.
He is an able student. He is a more able student than me. He is the most able student in the school.

4.6 Irregular adjectives

In a similar way to verbs, some adjectives are described as ‘irregular’. This is because their forms change in an irregular way when moving from positive to comparative to superlative. Here are a couple of examples in a table:

Positive Comparative Superlative
He is a bad cook. He is a worse cook than you. He is the worst cook in the world.
She is a good writer. She is a better writer than you. She is the best writer in the world.

5) Questions

1) Explain the different types of adjectives.

2) Explain the positions within a sentence you might find adjectives in.

3) Explain the different degrees of comparison.

OK, we are done with adjectives. Let’s more on to adverbs next.

NEXT: 24) Adverbs

Posted in English Grammar