Adjectives

Learning Objectives

  • Correctly identify and use adjectives
A list of several adjectives.

Figure 1. Another term used for adjectives is a “describing word”. Oftentimes they are a good descriptor of the subject of a sentence.

Adjectives

An adjective modifies a noun and, in so doing, provides more information or detail about the noun. It might be anything from color to size to temperature to personality. Adjectives usually occur just before the nouns they modify, but they can also follow a linking verb (in these instances, adjectives can modify pronouns, as well):

  • The generator is used to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.
  • The kids’ schoolhouse was red.

In certain cases, numbers can also be adjectives. When you say, “Seven is my lucky number,” seven is a noun, but when you say, “There are seven cats in this painting,” seven is an adjective, because it is modifying the noun cats.

Comparable Adjectives

Some adjectives are comparable: they exist on a continuum. For example, a person may be polite, but another person may be more polite, and a third person may be the most polite of the three. The word more here modifies the adjective polite to indicate that a comparison is being made (a comparative), and most modifies the adjective to indicate an absolute comparison (a superlative).

Table 1. Comparative and Superlative Adjectives
Adjective Comparative Superlative
kind kinder kindest
strong stronger strongest
good better best
bad worse worst
careful more careful most careful
awesome more awesome most awesome

There is another way to compare adjectives in English. Many adjectives can take the suffixes –er and –est to indicate the comparative and superlative forms, respectively (e.g., great, greater, greatest). Some comparable adjectives are irregular: for example, good, better, bestbad, worse, worst).

There is no simple rule for knowing which pattern is correct for a particular adjective; however, the general tendency is for shorter adjectives to take the suffixes and for longer adjectives to use more and most.

  • hotter (not more hot)
  • more beautiful (not beautifuller)
  • more pretentious (not pretentiouser)

A Note about Fun

The adjective fun is a notable exception to the tendency we just described. You might expect the comparative to be funner and the superlative to be funnest. However, for a long time, these words were considered nonstandard, so more fun and most fun became the correct forms.

The reasoning behind this rule is now obsolete (it has a lot to do with the way fun became an adjective), but the stigma against funner and funnest remains. While the tides are beginning to turn, it’s safest to stick to more fun and most fun in formal situations (such as in academic writing or in professional correspondence).

When you use comparative adjectives, the adjective is often accompanied by the word than (e.g., “He is taller than I am”). When using than, there are two things you should keep in mind:

  1. You should use than, not the word thenThen indicates time, rather than comparison.
  2. When you’re trying to emphasize just how “adjective” a thing is, you shouldn’t follow than with a second instance of the comparative. “She is shorter than shorter,” is incorrect. The emphatic phrase “She is shorter than short” would be correct.

Non-Comparable Adjectives

Non-comparable adjectives, on the other hand, are not measured on a continuum but are binary. Something is either “adjective,” or it is not. For example, some English speakers would argue that it does not make sense to say that one thing is “more ultimate” than another or that something is “most ultimate,” since the word ultimate is already an absolute. Other examples include deadtrue, and unique.

Native speakers will frequently play with non-comparable adjectives. Although pregnant is logically non-comparable (a woman is either pregnant or not), you may hear a statement like “She looks more and more pregnant each day.” Likewise extinct and equal appear to be non-comparable, but one might say that a language about which nothing is known is “more extinct” than a well-documented language with surviving literature but no speakers. George Orwell once wrote: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Try It

Are the following adjectives comparable or non-comparable? For example:

  • Tall is a comparable adjective. Height exists on a continuum: there are many different heights. The comparative is taller, and the superlative is tallest.
  • Dead is a non-comparable. You are either dead or alive. However, this concept is played with in the movie The Princess Bride. Miracle Max says Wesley is “only mostly dead.” Max is expressing the fact that Wesley is still alive, despite being very close to death.

Adjectives need to be placed in a particular order. What information do you post first? If you’re a native English speaker, you can probably figure out the order without any thought—even if it’s only because you know what “sounds” right. And, if you’re a non-native English speaker, you’ve probably been taught about the order.

Below, you’ll find a table illustrating the royal order of adjectives. Again, native English speakers follow the order—but we don’t always know WHY. Think about it. Why would we automatically write four gorgeous, long-stemmed, red, silk roses rather than four silk, long stemmed, gorgeous, red roses? What drives the order in our description? The first example leads us down a logical path; the second example doesn’t let us know which details are most important.

The Royal Order of Adjectives[1]

Determiner Observation Physical Description Origin Material Qualifier Noun
Size Shape Age Color
a beautiful old Italian touring car
an expensive antique silver mirror
four gorgeous stemmed red silk roses
her short black hair
our big old English sheepdog
those square wooden hat boxes
that dilapidated little hunting cabin
 several giant young American basketball players
some delicious Chinese food

There are some rules, though. Here is the specific order for English language adjectives—intensifier, quality, size, age, color. Look at the two sentences again.

Four gorgeous provides the intensifier and quality; long-stemmed provides the size; red, provides the color; and silk provides an additional detail. Now look at the order of the adjectives in one of your own sentences and see if it makes sense to you.

Try It

Contribute!

Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More


  1. Adapted from Adjectives. (n.d.) Capital Community College Foundation. Retrieved from grammar.ccc.commnet.edu