What is an Adjective?

In this post, we’ll cover adjective, one of the parts of speech, comprehensively.

What’s an adjective?

What difference do you notice in these two sentences?

The flowers survived the weather.

The yellow flowers survived the wintry weather.

The second sentence contains an adjective yellow describing flowers and an adjective wintry describing weather. That’s why adjectives are also called describing words. Without them, we wouldn’t know specific details of nouns and pronouns: What color the flowers were? How was the weather?

A sentence is nothing but participants (represented by nouns and pronouns) doing something (represented by verbs). Adjectives describe (or provide details about or add color to) the participants. In the sentence we saw earlier, the adjectives yellow and wintry describe the two participants flowers and weather, respectively. Without adjectives, sentences will be colorless. Let’s see what impact they make, visually.

In the three images below, read each sentence and see how progressive addition of adjectives (in bold) changes the two participants, flowers and weather, in the image.

Impact adjectives create in sentences by describing nouns

Note: Feel free to use the above image, using the link (url) of this post for reference/attribution.

That’s what adjectives do. You just saw how adjectives can add description or color to the participants. You can add even more through adjectivals, which comprise of all words, phrases, and clauses that function as adjective. Adjective is a small subset of adjectivals. In the fourth image, an adjectival adds another description, which wouldn’t have been possible with adjectives.

The difference that adjectivals make in a sentence

To use the above image, cite the link in the button below (click to copy):


From grammatical point of view, adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. They’re one of the two parts of speech – the other being adverbs – that function as modifiers of other parts of speech.

Depending on where they’re placed in a sentence, adjectives are classified as attributive and predicative adjectives.

Note: strictly speaking, attributive and predicative adjectives are descriptive adjectives, which describe a noun. However, there is another category of adjectives called limiting adjectives, which limit or specify a noun. In common parlance, people associate adjective with descriptive adjective. Going by that, we’ll limit to descriptive adjective in this post.

1. Attributive adjective

We all know attributive adjectives; we’re almost brought up on them. An attributive adjective is placed immediately before the noun it describes. In the above examples, white and wintry are attributive adjectives. More examples:

(Note: The adjectives in all the examples have been underlined, and the noun or pronoun being modified is shown in magenta font. Second, comments that go with examples have been enclosed in square brackets.)

It’s difficult to breathe foul air.

Can you show me that grey t-shirt?

It was an awful performance.

Some adjectives can be used only attributively

Some adjectives though can be used only as attributive adjectives. Examples: atomic, east/west/north/south, maximum/minimum, nationwide, supplementary, and woolen. These sentences, for example, sound awkward with predicative adjective.

The judge awarded him maximum sentence. [Correct]

His sentence was maximum. [Awkward]

The pandemic caused nationwide panic. [Correct]

The panic caused by the pandemic was nationwide. [Awkward]

2. Predicative adjective

A predicative adjective describes a noun or a pronoun from distance: they’re placed after the linking verb. In a way, an adjective, whether attributive or predicative, is positionally fixed in a sentence and can’t occupy multiple positions like adverbs can. Examples:

Peter is lazy. [Comment: The adjective is located in the predicate part of the sentence. That’s why it’s called predicative adjective.]

He seems uninterested. [A pronoun being modified. You’ll rarely find an attributive adjective modifying a pronoun.]

The weather looks gloomy.

The weather looks very gloomy. [Here, very is an adverb modifying the adjective gloomy. Remember, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. The adjective still is gloomy.]

If you recall, such sentences are formed with linking verbs: be verbs and non-action verbs (in other words, the subject doesn’t act on an object). Here are some common linking verbs:

  • Be verbs: is, am, are, was, were, been, being, etc.
  • Non-action verbs: act, appear, become, feel, look, seem, smell, sound, taste, etc.

A word of caution though. Linking verbs can also be followed by nouns. For example, boxer, workaholic, and disaster are nouns in these sentences.

He is a boxer.

In his new job, Tom became a workaholic.

The team’s performance was a disaster.

So, you can’t blindly say that the word following a linking verb is an adjective. You’ve to distinguish it from nouns.

Some adjectives can be used only predicatively

Some adjectives can be used only as predicative adjectives. Examples: afraid, alive, alone, aware, glad, ill, likely, ready, safe, sure, and unable. These sentences, for example, sound awkward with attributive adjective.

Tom was sick yesterday. [Correct]

Sick Tom didn’t attend school yesterday. [Awkward]

The dog was alone in the house. [Correct]

The alone dog waited for its owners to return. [Awkward]

So far, we’ve looked at adjectives that were born as adjectives. But words derived from verb, called participles, are also widely used as adjectives.

Participles as adjectives

Consider these sentences:

I baked potatoes for lunch. [Verb]

I am eating baked potatoes. [Adjective]

He is drinking milk. [Verb]

I went on a drinking binge. [Adjective]

A verb has two participle forms: present participle and past participle. Bake, a regular verb, has baking and baked as its participles. And drink, an irregular verb, has drinking and drunk as its participles.

The past participle baked is functioning as verb in the first sentence but as an adjective in the second. The present participle drinking is functioning as verb in the third sentence but as an adjective in the fourth. If you noticed, like any attributive adjective, the two participles are placed just before the noun they’re describing. But, like predicative adjectives, they can also come after the linking verb.

His parents were worried.

The result was surprising.

Don’t confuse them with verbs. The verbs in the above two sentences are were and was, respectively.

Participles functioning as adjectives are so common that some participles such as tired, surprised, depressed, exciting, boring, and charming are now treated as adjectives.

More than one adjective can modify the same noun

So far, we’ve seen an adjective describing a noun. Multiple adjectives too can describe a noun in two different ways, with the use common mainly in attributive position.

1. Coordinate adjective

Each adjective among a group of attributive adjectives can individually describe the noun. Examples:

His blue, cheap shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

The sentence has two coordinate adjectives: blue and cheap. Both of them individually describe shirt: blue shirt and cheap shirt. Coordinate adjectives, as shown in the example, are separated by commas.

2. Cumulative adjective

Sometimes though, each attributive adjective piles on the adjective after, and then they together (not individually) describe the noun. Example:

His light blue shirt doesn’t go with the occasion.

In this sentence, light and blue individually don’t describe shirt. Light adds on to blue, and they together describe shirt. The shirt is light blue; it’s not light; it’s not blue. Unlike coordinate adjectives, they don’t take commas in between.

Learn more on the topic:

There is a third way as well to describe a noun with more than one adjective. Combine the attributive and predicative adjectives. Example:

The young lion was hungry. [Here, young describes lion attributively and hungry describes lion predicatively]

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Common adjective error

Do you see any problem with the adverb awfully modifying the verb smells in this sentence?

The fermented rice smells awfully.

On the surface, awfully looks fine. After all, adverbs are supposed to modify verbs, aren’t they?

But smell here is functioning as a linking verb, and not a regular verb performing any action. (Is rice performing an action like in He hit the ball? No.) And linking verbs aren’t modified by adverbs. As mentioned earlier, they can take either a noun or an adjective. So, the above sentence should take the adjective awful and not the adverb awfully.

The fermented rice smells awful.

People forget that non-be verbs such as seem, look, appear, become, feel, taste, and smell can also be linking verbs and erroneously modify them with adverbs. So:

I feel badly bad about the entire episode.

She looked beautifully beautiful in that dress.

The food tastes deliciously delicious.

The pie smells well good.

But these verbs can take adverbs when they’re not functioning as linking verbs. Here, look and smell aren’t linking verbs; they’re performing some action.

She looked carefully at the document.

I smelt the dish hesitatingly.

Learn more on adjective vs. adverb:

How adjectives affect your writing?

At the beginning of the post, we saw how adjectives add color to sentences. But unnecessary or inappropriate colors can spoil sentences, like they can spoil a design.

Let’s take each.

  1. Unnecessary colors or unnecessary adjectives: Do you even need an adjective?
  2. Inappropriate colors or inappropriate adjectives: If you do need an adjective, is it appropriate?

1. Unnecessary adjectives

Do you even need an adjective?

Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.” Eliminate as many unnecessary adjectives as you can.

Adjectives describe nouns, but they should be used if a noun needs description. For example, adjectives in these sentences aren’t required because nouns themselves express the intended meaning.

Here is a quick recap. [Recap, or repetition of main points, is always quick.]

They are constantly working on new innovations in gambling. [Innovation means using a new idea.]

The white swan floated on the still lake. [Swans are mostly white and lakes are mostly still. You don’t need to mention the obvious. Use adjectives if the swans are pink or the lake is choppy.]

The sun peeped from the blue sky. [Blue is understood. Use the adjective if the sky is orange or yellow.]

You may, however, use an adjective if it serves purpose. The adjective blue, for example, makes the following sentence parallel.

The snow-covered mountains and the blue sky seemed a blessing.

Bottomline, use precise nouns, which obviates the need of adjectives.

2. Vague adjectives

If you do need an adjective, is it appropriate?

You’ve dropped unnecessary adjectives. Now, it’s time to make the necessary appropriate (or precise). Consider these examples.

The manager was angry at the team’s loss.

The crime scene was ugly.

Was the manager angry? Maybe he was annoyed, exasperated, or sullen. Maybe he was enraged. All these adjectives describe the manager’s mood more precisely. Similarly, was the crime scene ugly? Or was it repulsive or even grisly?

Let’s consider few examples of adjectives from the real world of product description, which directly influences whether you or me will buy a product or not. These are two descriptions of Apple products, each of which contains a vague, invented version followed by the real. Notice the difference.

High quality microphones [High quality can mean many things.]

Dual beamforming microphones [This is precise.]

Precise high-technology accelerometer [Vague]

Motion-detecting accelerometer [Far more precise]

And here is a description of a product from Ikea.

From a foam filling that makes you feel like you’re on cloud nine to a latex-wool mix that relieves the pressure on your muscles – we have got different fillings to suit your needs. Keep your bed fresh and cosy – the removable covers are machine-washable while the toppers can be aired regularly.

Look at how precise the adjectives foam, latex-wool, removable, and machine-washable are.

When truckload of money is at stake, each and every word is picked carefully, delineating the product benefits as precisely and vividly as possible. In these examples, adjectives have been used profusely, but it’s not contradicting the first guidance we covered earlier – avoid too many adjectives. The first guidance, if you noticed, asked to use adjectives if necessary. Here they’re necessary to describe what the products are. This reminds me of Joe Moran’s lines from First you write a sentence:

Verbal economy in a sentence is a virtue but an overprized one: words are precious but they need to be spent.

To sum both the guidance, minimalist designs with plenty of white space (or few necessary adjectives) and the right colors (or appropriate adjectives) can be pleasing to eyes. Modifiers – adjectives and adverbs – come with great power to modify or manipulate other parts of speech. And all great powers should be used with great care.

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Anil Yadav

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