An adjective is a word used to describe, or modify, noun or a pronoun. Adjectives usually answer questions like which one, what kind, or how many:
that hilarious book
the red one
several heavy books
In English adjectives usually precede nouns or pronouns. However, in sentences with linking verbs, such as the to be verbs or the “sense” verbs, adjectives can follow the verb
Dave Barry’s books are hilarious; they seem so random.
One good adjective can be invaluable in producing the image or tone you want. You may also “stack” adjectives–as long as you don’t stack them too high. In general, if you think you need more than three adjectives, you may really just need a better noun. For instance, instead of saying the unkempt, dilapidated, dirty little house, consider just saying the hovel. (It’s not true that he who uses the most adjectives wins; it’s he who uses the most suitable adjectives.)
Descriptive adjectives (steamy, stormy) call up images, tones, and feelings. Steamy weather is different from stormy weather. Steamy and stormy conjure different pictures, feelings, and associations.
Many descriptive adjectives come from verbs. The verb had broken, without the helper had, is an adjective: a broken keyboard. Likewise, the -ing verb form, such as is running, used without its helper is, can be an adjective: running shoes. (For more on -ed and -ing forms, see the TIP SheetS “Verbs” and “Consistent Verb Tense.”)
Nouns can be used as adjectives, too. For instance, the noun student can be made to modify, or describe, the noun bookstore: the student bookstore. Nouns often combine to produce compound adjectives that modify a noun as a unit, usually joined by hyphens when they precede the noun. When they follow the noun, the hyphens are omitted:
He was an 18-year-old boy, but the girl was only 16 years old.
Other compound adjectives do not use hyphens in any case. In income tax forms, income tax is a compound adjective that does not require a hyphen.
The, an, and a, called articles, are adjectives that answer the question which one? The modifies a noun or pronoun by limiting its reference to a particular or known thing, either singular or plural. A expands the reference to a single non-specific or previously unknown thing. An is similar to a, but is used when the word following it begins with a vowel sound:
the books on the table
a book from an online store, the one we ordered last week
See the TIP sheet “Articles” for more information.
Demonstrative adjectives answer the question which one(s)? They are the only adjectives that have both a singular and plural form–this and that are singular; these and those are plural. Demonstrative adjectives point to particular or previously named things. This and these indicate things nearby (in time or space), while that and those suggest distance (in time or space):
This novel is the worst I’ve ever read; these biographies are much better.
Tell me more about that author; why does she write about those events?
Possessive adjectives answer the question whose? They include my, our, your, his, her, its, and their:
our joke book
its well-worn pages
Indefinite adjectives include some, many, any, few, several, and all:
Note that these words can also be used as pronouns: Some were in bad taste; few could carpool. For more, see the TIP Sheets “Pronouns” and “Pronoun Reference.”
Which and what are adjectives when they modify nouns or pronouns:
Which joke did you like better, and what reason can you give for your preference?
Like indefinite adjectives, the questioning (or interrogative) adjectives can also function as pronouns; see the TIP Sheets “Pronouns” and “Pronoun Reference.”
Adjective order and punctuation
Some stacks of adjectives can be rearranged freely without changing the meaning. They are coordinate adjectives, and they are equal and separate in the way they modify a noun. For example, we can freely rearrange a dull, dark, and depressing day: a depressing, dark, dull day. Separate two or more coordinate adjectives with commas (note that no comma goes immediately before the noun).
Other adjective groups cannot be freely rearranged. These cumulative adjectives are not separated by commas. Rich chocolate layer cake cannot be changed to layer chocolate rich cake. For more on identifying and punctuating coordinate and cumulative adjectives, see the TIP Sheet “Commas.”
If you were born to English, you may not realize that there are rules for placing adjective groups in order. For example, the determiner (a, an, the) comes first, then size words, then color, then purpose:
a large, purple sleeping bag
You can’t freely rearrange these adjectives and say, for example, sleeping, purple, a large bag without awkwardness, absurdity, or loss of meaning, The rule is that a stack of adjectives generally occurs in the following order: opinion (useful, lovely, ugly), size (big, small), age (young, old), shape (square, squiggly), color (cobalt, yellow), origin (Canadian, solar), material (granite, wool), and purpose (shopping, running).
scary, squiggly solar flares
lovely, cobalt, Canadian running shoes
Cobalt, running, Canadian, lovely shoes doesn’t work. If English is a second language for you, consult an ESL guide for more information