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Concourse 2

Adjectives

old

Adjectives in English are not simple.


1

Part 1: what adjectives do

write Task 1: Can you find the adjectives in this short text?
Click here when you have written down six.

When I got on my usual bus to work this morning, I was surprised that it was almost empty.  I took a seat at the back (where I usually sit) and started to read my English grammar book.  When I arrived at my office, the door was shut.  Then I remembered.  It was Sunday and I don't have to work on Sunday!

Did you find any of these words?

  • almost: this is not an adjective because it changes the meaning of empty so it's an adverb
  • this: this is not an adjective because it just tells us which morning so it's a determiner
  • usually: this is not an adjective because it changes the meaning of the verb sit so it's another adverb

All adjectives describe a person, a thing or an idea.  Most adjectives in English can do five things.  Like this:

  1. They can come before the noun (but after words like a, the, my, your, this, that) etc.:
    • It's heavy rain
    • That's a good idea
    • My oldest friend
    • That orange flower is lovely
  2. They can come after verbs like be, seem, appear, go, feel, grow, become etc.:
    • Mary is happy
    • He grew angry
    • The tree goes green in the spring
    • She appears unhappy
  3. They can be made stronger with very:
    • That's a very beautiful house
    • She is very tired
    • My very old friend
    • That a very wide road
  4. We can make a comparative or superlative with -er and -est or with more and most:
    • The most beautiful house in the street
    • He is older than me
    • That's the smallest car I have ever seen
    • That is more interesting
  5. We can make adverbs from adjectives by adding -ly to the end:
    • He was happy → He worked happily
    • The book was interesting → The author wrote interestingly
    • The journey was quick → We travelled quickly
    • It was a slow drive → She drove slowly

Unfortunately, we can't do all five things with all adjectives.

thinkwrite Task 2: Look at these adjectives and decide:
can we do all five things with each one?
Click on the eye open to see the answers.


happy

eye open
Can we:
  1. put the word before a noun?
  2. put the word after the verb be?
  3. make it stronger with very?
  4. make a comparative with -er?
  5. make an adverb by adding -ly?
We can do all five things:
  1. put the word before a noun:
    a happy man
  2. put the word after the verb be
    he is happy
  3. make it stronger with very
    she is very happy
  4. make a comparative with -er
    I am happier today
  5. make an adverb by adding -ly
    the children played happily
old

eye open
Can we:
  1. put the word before a noun?
  2. put the word after the verb be?
  3. make it stronger with very?
  4. make a comparative with -er?
  5. make an adverb by adding -ly?
We can do only four things:
  1. put the word before a noun:
    an old man
  2. put the word after the verb be
    he is old
  3. make it stronger with very
    she is very old
  4. make a comparative with -er
    I am older than him
  5. WE CAN'T MAKE THE ADVERB
    we cannot say:
    he did it oldly
awake

eye open
Can we:
  1. put the word before a noun?
  2. put the word after the verb be?
  3. make it stronger with very?
  4. make a comparative with -er?
  5. make an adverb by adding -ly
We can do only three things:
  1. WE CAN'T PUT THE WORD BEFORE A NOUN
    we cannot say:
    an awake person
  2. put the word after the verb be
    he is awake
  3. make it stronger with very
    she is very awake
  4. make a comparative with -er
    I am more awake than you
  5. WE CAN'T MAKE THE ADVERB
    we cannot say:
    the children ran awakely
twenty

eye open
Can we:
  1. put the word before a noun?
  2. put the word after the verb be?
  3. make it stronger with very?
  4. make a comparative with -er?
  5. make an adverb by adding -ly
We can do only two things:
  1. put the word before a noun:
    twenty people came
  2. put the word after the verb be
    he is twenty
  3. WE CAN'T MAKE IT STRONGER WITH VERY
    we cannot say
    she is very twenty
  4. WE CAN'T MAKE A COMPARATIVE
    we cannot say:
    I am more twenty than you
  5. WE CAN'T MAKE THE ADVERB
    we cannot say:
    she went twentily
paper

eye open
Can we:
  1. put the word before a noun?
  2. put the word after the verb be?
  3. make it stronger with very?
  4. make a comparative with -er?
  5. make an adverb by adding -ly
We can do only one thing:
  1. put the word before a noun:
    a paper aeroplane
  2. WE CAN'T PUT THE WORD AFTER THE VERB BE
    we cannot say
    the aeroplane is paper
  3. WE CAN'T MAKE IT STRONGER WITH VERY
    we cannot say:
    the book is very paper
  4. WE CAN'T MAKE A COMPARATIVE
    we cannot say:
    it is more paper
  5. WE CAN'T MAKE THE ADVERB
    we cannot say:
    she did it paperly


why

Why some and not others?

We can take these one at a time and see the reasons.

word like happy
adjectives like happy are variable.  This means that we can change them to make them stronger or weaker and we can do things in the way the adjective describes.  For example:
    She is very calm
    They are extremely sad
    This is a more difficult job
    She is better at mathematics than I am

and so on.
With these adjectives we can do all the five things in the list above.
words like old
these adjectives are also variable, BUT we cannot change them if we want to.  They are part of the thing or the person so you cannot do things in the way the adjective describes.  For example:
    She is younger than him
    They are very young
    The hardworking student
    That is very red
    The door is nearly open

etc.
BUT NOT:
    They did it youngly
or
    That was redly done
etc.
words like asleep
This is a special group of adjectives which do not come before the noun in English.  Some of these adjectives can be made more or less but not all of them.  Here are some more examples:
    She is afraid
    They are awake
    The plant is alive
    I want to be alone
BUT NOT:
    An alive animal
    Some alone people
words like twenty
These words are not really adjectives at all, they are called numeral determiners.  We can only use them in two ways:
Before the noun:
    Bring six chairs
    Take two cakes

and after the noun:
    Anne is twenty-one tomorrow
    We will be six for dinner
words like paper
These words are also not really adjectives.  They are classifiers because they tell us sort of thing we are talking about, not describing it.  They usually come directly before the noun but can sometimes come after the verb be.  The but the best place to put them is just before the noun.
    The wooden boat
    The metal fence
    There is a brick wall around my garden
    The boat was wooden
    The fence was metal
    The wall was brick
    He opened the kitchen window

BUT NOT:
    The window was kitchen!
test Task 3: Take a test to see if you can remember this.


2

Part 2: two kinds of adjectives

There are two kinds of adjectives.  Here are some examples:

Type 1 Type 2
happy
sad
pleased
interesting
stupid
intelligent
healthy
ill
difficult
easy
fantastic
perfect
terrible
awful
marvellous
unique
boiling
freezing
original
English

1

Type 1: gradable adjectives

We can make these adjectives stronger or weaker by putting a word with them like this:

  1. Making them stronger:
    That is interesting → This is very interesting
    This is a nice hotel → That is a really nice hotel
    She is pleased → He is more pleased
    Peter is healthy → Peter's father is extremely healthy
  2. Making them weaker:
    She feels ill → I feel slightly ill
    That is cold → This is a little cold
    She is intelligent → He is not very intelligent
    That is a stupid idea → This idea is even stupider

These adjectives are called gradable because we can put them on a line like this:
hot cold

2

Type 2: ungradable adjectives

These are sometimes called extreme adjectives.  There are three sorts:

  1. Adjectives already at the top or the bottom of the scale.  These adjectives include the idea of very or extremely so we can't use words like those to make them stronger or weaker.  Like this:
    freezing boiling
  2. Adjectives which are like a switch.  They are either on or off.  For example, a light can either be on or off.  It can't be a little on or a little off!  Like this:
    dead alive
    All the adjectives for nationality are in this group.  You can be Mexican or not but you can't be very Mexican.
  3. Adjectives which are absolute or total.  For example, you can be first in the class but not a little first or more firstFirst means first and only that.  Like this:
    perfect unique
    average total
    faultless single
    alone comprehensive
    empty full

When we want to make some of these adjectives stronger we must use some special words.  Here are some examples:
That is fantastic → This is absolutely fantastic
This is a nice hotel → That is a completely wonderful hotel
She is delighted → He is utterly delighted
This tree is dead → Is it
completely dead?
The glass is absolutely full but the bottle is completely empty

test Task 4: Take a test to see if you can decide what is right and what is wrong.

That's the end of this lesson.  Click here to go to the lesson index.


There is another lesson on ELT Concourse about where to put the adjectives.  For example, do we say:
    The wooden, old, beautiful, fishing boat
or
    The old, wooden, beautiful, fishing boat
or
    The old, beautiful, fishing, wooden boat
or
    The beautiful, old, wooden fishing boat?
Click here to do that lesson now.