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The Bridge: Adjectives

The nice rickshaw driver is asleep

? There are three words in the sentence above which are definable as adjectives.
Find them and then click here.

However, these three adjectives behave very differently as the next mini-task will show.

? Try putting the adjectives into the gaps in this sentence:
The __________ driver is ___________.
and then click here.


Central or peripheral

What we have discovered above is important because, although adjectives are an identifiable word class and teachers often mark words on the board with, e.g., adj., and tell learners that this or that word is an adjective, there are different sorts of adjectives and they behave differently.
If learners aren't told this then you can expect errors such as:
    *The afraid child
    *The more asleep dog
    *The car is sports

and even
    *The concreter wall
and so on because all these adjectives are non-central.  They are peripheral in the sense that they cannot do what central adjectives do.

  1. Central adjectives
    1. can be used predicatively and attributively, so we can have:
          a beautiful house
          the house is beautiful
    2. can form comparatives and superlatives so we can have:
          the faster car
          the slowest horse
          the most beautiful chocolate
          the more interesting idea

    3. allow modification with a wide range of adverbs so we can have:
          the incredibly clear water
          the very old man
          the exceptionally beautiful castle

  2. Peripheral adjectives fall into a number of types:
    1. Classifiers
      Many nouns can act as classifiers and come before the main noun to signal what sort of thing it is.
      To distinguish central adjectives from classifiers, the former are often called epithets.
      1. can only be used attributively so we can have:
            the sports car
            the village hall
            the alpine snow

        but not
            *the car is sports
            *the hall is village
            *the snow is alpine
      2. cannot take comparative or superlative forms, so we cannot have:
            *the sportser car
            *the villagest hall
            *the most alpine snow

      3. cannot be modified with adverbs, so we do not allow:
            *the very sports car
            *the really village hall

            *the extremely alpine snow
    2. the a-series adjectives
      1. can only be used predicatively so we allow, e.g.:
            the dog is aware of you
        but not
            *the aware dog
      2. can rarely be used comparatively or superlatively, so we do not allow:
            *The dog is asleeper than the cat
            He is more aware of the problem than her
        is possible.
      3. sometimes only allow modification with a narrow range of adverbs so we can have:
            the cat was sound asleep
            the woman was acutely aware

            John was deeply afraid
        but not
            *the dog was very asleep
    3. Ungradable adjectives
      1. cannot be used comparatively or superlatively when they represent on-off states, so we do not allow:
            *the deader tree
            *the more boiling water
            *the more unlocked house

        these are often called absolute adjectives because they allow no middle way.
        Materials and nationalities fall into this category by some analyses although there is an overlap with the category of classifiers which are, by their nature, ungradable.
      2. can only be modified by certain amplifying adverbs, so while we allow:
            the very nice man
            the really good essay

        etc., we cannot allow:
            *the very freezing weather
            *the play was a bit marvellous

        but do allow:
            the absolutely freezing weather
            the play was really marvellous

        These are sometimes called extreme adjectives.
        This distinction is not as clear cut as it seems.  See the guide to gradability, linked below.
? Try classifying some adjectives with this test.


Forming adjectives from other words

Adjectives can be derived from a number of sources:

from verbs
often by adding -able to the verb as in:

or by adding -ive as in:

from nouns:
often by adding -ful as in:

or by adding a range of other endings as in:


A more complete list is in the in-service guide to this area, linked at the end.


A special class of adjectives

Some adjectives are formed more directly from verbs and they are called participle adjectives because they are formed from one of the two participles available for English verbs: the -ing form and the past participle, sometimes referred to as the -en form.  (On this site, we refer to the past participle forms as -ed / -en forms.)  They can be epithets (central adjectives), classifiers or ungradable adjectives depending on their meanings.

  1. Present participle adjectives or -ing forms
    refer to how people see the world and items in it.  For example:
        The film was frightening
        The children were annoying
        She's an interesting person
        That's a developing problem
  2. Past participle adjectives or -ed / -en forms
    refer to how people or things are.  For example:
        The child is terrified
        The pencil is broken
        That's the only unlocked door
        I need your completed forms

These sorts of adjectives have some special characteristics which are covered in some detail in the in-service guide to this area.


Comparative and superlative forms

There are two ways to make comparatives and superlatives of adjectives:

adding -er or -est to the adjective as in, e.g.:
    black > blacker > blackest
using more and most or less and least as in e.g.:
    interesting > more interesting > most interesting
    attractive > less attractive > least attractive

The simplest rule, that you may have encountered on an initial training course, is that monosyllabic and disyllabic adjectives form the comparative and superlative by inflexion with -er and -est.  So we get, e.g.:
    old > older > oldest
    small > smaller > smallest
    happy > happier > happiest
    bitter > bitterer > bitterest

and so on.
but adjectives with three or more syllables take the periphrastic form with more and most or less and least, so we get, e.g.:
    conventional > more conventional > most conventional
    traditional > less traditional > least traditional
    uncaring > more uncaring > most uncaring

    complicated > less complicated > least complicated
and so on.

As far as it goes the two rules work but they soon break down and in reality, life is more complicated.
The complications are considered in some detail in the in-service guide to this area but here we can note three important issues:

  1. It is possible to use periphrastic forms with all adjectives, especially when we insert even, so we allow, for example:
        The car was even more dirty than I thought
  2. With disyllabic adjectives, simply tacking on the inflexions will often work but there are numerous exceptions.  For example:
        more basic
        more useful
        more bored
  3. Some tri-syllabic adjectives do not take more and most but use inflexions.  They end in -y and begin un-.  For example:


Ordering adjectives

The following is taken with some changes from the essential guide to this area so if you have been there, skip to the end and pursue more advanced guides to this area.

Many books for students delight in giving complex and elaborate rules for why we say, for example:

Some of the rules in course books identify seven or so types of adjective to consider, all of which must be put in the right order.  This is nonsense for two reasons:

  1. Nobody can remember and apply the rules in real time.
  2. The rules don't work very well.
? But actually the general rule is quite simple.  Why is the following the 'correct' ordering?
    the pleasant, old, blind, French man
rather than:
    the French, old, blind, pleasant man
Any ideas?  Click when you have some.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
adjective essentials adjectives
gradability intensifying adjectives
collocation essentials adverbial intensifiers