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Adjectives constitute a major open word class and this guide is accordingly quite long.
If you are here for the first time, the advice is to work through it sequentially but if you are returning to check something, here's a list of the contents to take you to its various sections.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

Definitions: central and peripheral Adjective formation Stative vs. Dynamic uses Predicative vs. Attributive Inherent vs. Non-inherent Adjective complementation
Double / compound adjectives Markedness Proleptic uses Adjectives from / as nouns Post-positioned attributive adjectives too, enough and so
Epithets vs. Classifiers Gradability Participle adjectives Adjective ordering Co-ordinating adjectives Comparative and Superlative

There are some long lists in what follows.  If you would like the most important of them as a PDF document, it is available from the list of related links at the end.



think Task:
Easy questions:
What's an adjective?
Can you tell a word is an adjective by looking at it and seeing how it behaves?
Can you give a brief definition of 'adjective'?
Click here when you have answers

adjective 1


Central and peripheral adjectives

As we saw above, some adjectives do not fulfil all the criteria to be classed as adjectives but are still recognisably adjectival in terms of their grammatical function.
The essential distinction here is:

Central adjectives:
  1. Test A:
    Can occur predicatively as the subject or object complement after a copular or pseudo-copular verb such as , be, seem, grow, appear etc.  For example:
        He seemed happy
        They grew defensive
        They made me unhappy
        They called her stupid
  2. Test B:
    Can occur attributively (i.e., directly before or, much less frequently, after the noun phrase) and not connected to it by a verb like be, seem, appear, grow etc.).  They slot in between the determiner (articles in this case) and the noun when appearing before the noun.  For example:
        He is a happy man
        The old woman
        The meeting proper started late
        The people responsible were arrested
  3. Test C:
    Are gradable so can be modified with amplifiers, limiters and downtoners like very, extremely, not quite, marginally etc.  For example:
        He was very unhappy
        She was extremely frightened
        I was marginally satisfied
        A mostly satisfied customer

  4. Test D:
    Take comparative and superlative forms.  For example:
        The wisest man
        The most interesting man
        The cleverer man
        That wine is the best
  5. Test E:
    Form adverbs with the addition of a suffix (not necessarily but usually -ly or -ally).  For example:
        wise → wisely
        happy → happily
        drastic → drastically
Peripheral adjectives:
Are those adjectives which do not fulfil all these criteria.
These include any which do not do one of the five things that central adjectives do such as asleep, bottom, alphabetic, proper etc.  In fact, some words which are very marginal (such as numerals and ordinals) are better classified as something else entirely (determiners, for example).
Examples of how peripheral adjectives cannot perform the five functions above are:
  1. Cannot occur predicatively:
        *The figure appeared particular
        *The excuse seemed main
        *A teacher was former
        *A stranger was total
    In these cases, we prefer:
        The particular figure
        The main excuse
        A former teacher
        A total stranger
  2. Cannot occur attributively:
        *The asleep dog
        *The ready man
        *An ill child
    In all these cases, we prefer:
        The dog seems asleep
        The man is ready
        A child appeared ill
  3. Are not gradable with very:
        *He was very unconscious
        *The restaurant was very deserted
        *I was very freezing

    In these cases, other adverbs are required (see below).
  4. Do not take comparative and superlative forms.  For example:
        *The people were more asleep
        *The situation was perfecter
        *The most boiling water
  5. Do not form adverbs.  For example:
        asleep → *asleeply
        devoid → *devoidly
        hand made → *hand madely

This guide considers both central and peripheral adjectives although the categories are not watertight, as we shall see.



Forming adjectives

Many adjectives are not formed from other word classes and are, indeed, often the bases from which other word classes can be formed so, for example, the adjective able can be used as the base to form ability, the adjective clean forms the base of the noun cleanliness and, by conversion, the verb clean and the adjective difficult forms the base of the noun difficulty.  There are hundreds more examples and, of course, the adjective is often the base from which adverbs are formed.

However, there are conventional ways to form adjectives from words in other classes:

From nouns:
Adding -ly as in
    friend → friendly | mother → motherly | home → homely etc.
(See below.  This suffix is no longer very productive of new adjectives in English.)
Adding -y as in
    grass → grassy | leaf → leafy | hair → hairy etc.
This is still very productive of new adjectives and people often simply tack the suffix on to make a new adjective which serves for the time being (a nonce word) such as:
    a lawny sort of place, a chromy kind of colour etc.  Frequently these are modified with sort of, kind of etc.
The suffix is particularly productive in making adjectives from names of materials, how things look and the properties they have as in woody, papery, grassy, leafy, hardy, lumpy and so on.
Adding -al as in
    music → musical | function → functional | occupation → occupational etc.
Adding -ic as in
    hero → heroic | metal → metallic | patriot → patriotic etc.
Adding -ese (for nationalities) as in
    Japan → Japanese | Siam → Siamese | China → Chinese | Vietnam → Vietnamese etc.
Adding -ate as in
    compassion → compassionate | college → collegiate | passion → passionate etc.
This suffix is more often used for forming verbs, in fact.
Adding -ary as in
    parliament → parliamentary / discretion → discretionary / compliment → complimentary / precaution → precautionary etc.
Adding -ish as in
    fool → foolish | child → childish | man → mannish etc.
Adding -ous as in
    courage → courageous | advantage → advantageous | synonym → synonymous etc.
Adding -less as in
    clue → clueless | accent → accentless | spot → spotless etc.
Adding -ful as in
    man → manful | art → artful | beauty → beautiful | help → helpful | hope → hopeful | boast → boastful etc.
Adding -like as in
    child → childlike | life → lifelike | dream → dreamlike etc.
This is a very productive suffix for forming new adjectives from nouns.  The suffix is also used to form adjectives from frozen similes constructed with the like or as ... as formulations so we get, e.g.:
    a grip like a vice → a vice-like grip, as stubborn as a mule → mule-like stubbornness etc.
Adding -ward for directions (often also adverb uses) as in
    home → homeward / north → northward / down → downward / back → backward / sea → seaward etc.
From verbs:
Adding -ive as in
    attract → attractive | select → selective | abuse → abusive etc.
Adding -able as in
    drink → drinkable | fix → fixable | do → doable etc.
This is a productive suffix and can be used to form on-the-spot nonce words when the need arises such as cutable, stickable, parkable etc.  Few of these forms survive beyond the conversation in which they occur.
Adding -ible as in
    access → accessible | force → forcible | digest → digestible etc.
This suffix is no longer productive and no new coinages are possible.  Many are derived from base verbs or nouns no longer in the language such as edible, negligible, plausible, eligible etc. in which the base forms, ed-, neglig-, plaus-, elig- are traceable to Latin roots but are bound bases in that they do not appear independently.
Adding -ent or -ant as in:
    fluoresce → flourescent | depend → dependent | insist → insistent / resist → resistant / comply → compliant / observe → observant etc.
Again, these suffixes are no longer productive and again, some adjectives are derived from Latin bases no longer, or which never were, in the language such as incipient, quiescent, recumbent, negligent, truculent, cognizant, elegant, relevant, distant etc.
Adding -ing or -ed or using the irregular participle form as in
    surprise → surprised / surprising | break → broken / breaking | sink → sunken / sinking etc.

Simply alerting your learners to the adjectives which may be formed from words they encounter is a useful way to increase their personal lexicons quite painlessly.
It is also the case that many of the suffixes above can only be adjectival in nature and that helps considerably to unpack the meaning of what learners see and hear.
For example:

Unfortunately, it is also the case that many adjectives do not have a distinctive form in English (unlike some other languages) so words like broad, hollow, tight, faint, brief, blue, rotten, deep, old, young and hundreds more can only be identified as adjectives by seeing what they do in a sentence, i.e., identifying their grammatical function.  Even that, as we shall see, is not always as straightforward as spotting the relationship between the word and a noun.
For reference, here is an alphabetic list of 25 adjective-forming suffixes, with examples:

Suffix Example Suffix Example Suffix Example Suffix Example Suffix Example
-able lovable -ative cooperative -ible permissible -ive attractive -ory transitory
-al sensational -(e)d* terraced -ic heroic -less harmless -ous courageous
-ant observant -ent flourescent -ing exciting -like childlike -some toothsome
-ary imaginary -ese Japanese -ish foolish -long headling -ward homeward
-ate compassionate -ful hopeful -itive competitive -ly friendly -y hairy
* adjectives are also formed from irregular and some archaic past-participle forms as in e.g.:
    the drunken party
    the broken furniture



Adjectives masquerading as adverbs

An area which causes a good deal of difficulty for learners (and many other users of English) is the sheer number of adjectives which are formed with the -ly ending which many associate purely with adverbs.  The ending is the preferred way to make adverbs in Modern English but here is a list of adjectives masquerading as adverbs.  These cause some awkwardness when we try to form the corresponding adverb because words such as friendlily and livelily are so unattractive to the ear.
In this list, the items marked * are also usable as adverbs.

* daily
* early
* fortnightly
* early
* hourly
* kindly
* monthly
* nightly
* only
* quarterly
* unkindly
* weekly
* yearly

A few notes:

  1. Adverbs formed from such adjectives are so unappealing to many that the preferred adverbial expression will be something like
        in a(n) [adjective] manner / way. for example:
        She welcomed us in a friendly manner
    rather than
        She welcomed us friendlily
    The adjective sly is an exception, forming the adverb normally.
  2. Nonce words, such as jungly or tangly, may often be formed this way from nouns ending in -le because the -y suffix is still very productive in the formation of adjectives from nouns.
    However, the -ly suffix, once used widely to form new adjectives (as the list above shows), is now much less productive, having been overtaken in English by -like so we have childlike, warlike, godlike, businesslike and so on.  The -like ending (sometimes hyphenated) is also used to form nonce adjectives such as soldier-like, saucer-like etc.
    It is still possible to use the -ly ending to form new adjectives such as teacherly, schoolmasterly etc. but such coinages are rare.
  3. The words kindly and unkindly function as both adjectives and adverbs as in respectively:
        He was a kindly man
        It was unkindly said
  4. Adjectives referring to definite frequency such as daily, monthly etc. are also used adverbially so we see both:
        It's a daily event
        She delivers the figures monthly
    The words seasonally and annually do not work in this way, being confined to adverb status, derived from the adjectives seasonal and annual.
  5. The word early functions as an adjective or an adverb so we can have:
        We had an early breakfast
        We ate breakfast early
  6. The word only is usually adverbial but functions as an adjective in, e.g.:
        She's an only child
        That not the only reason

If you would like the list above as a PDF document, it is available here.
It also forms part of the list of adjectives with special characteristics, available from the link at the end.

A few adjective-adverb forms are identical and the list includes hard and fast so we find:
    It's a fast car
    It's a hard job
    She drove too fast
    They worked very hard

And also:
    We need an outside light
    We went outside
    He's in the upstairs / downstairs study
    He walked upstairs / downstairs

Finally, there are some adjectives which take on adverb-like characteristics because, semantically, they imply the description of a verb not a noun.  In this list we find:
    She's a hard worker (i.e., She works hard)
    It's a fast road (i.e., You can drive fast on it)
    They are frequent visitors (i.e., They visit frequently)
    I was a heavy smoker (i.e., I smoked heavily)
    She's a light sleeper (i.e., She sleeps lightly)
    They are occasional customers (i.e., They come occasionally)
    It was heavy rain (i.e., It rained heavily)
    She's an attractive writer (i.e., She writes attractively)
    He's a beautiful dancer (i.e., He dances beautifully)


Prefixing adjectives


Many adjectives also accept prefixation which alters their meaning while retaining their word class.  There is a good deal more on the meaning of a range of prefixes in the guide to word formation, linked at the end, so some examples here will suffice:

co-operative, counter-productive, dys-functional etc.
un-important, ir-relevant, non-porous etc.
mal-adjusted, pseudo-authentic, quasi-military etc.
mono-lingual, bi-annual, multi-functional etc.
sub-terranean, trans-atlantic, inter-national etc.
pre-war, post-industrial, re-stated etc.
super-natural, under-stated, hyper-active etc.

The right-headed nature of English means that the second element determines the word class and the first element modifies the meaning of the adjective.



Adjectives and Syntax

Syntactically, adjectives are quite complicated so, for teaching purposes, you would be well advised to focus on discrete areas, especially at lower levels.
Teachers also need to be alert to the characteristics of adjectives as and when they arise in any teaching session because restrictions to the use are common.  If learners are not told what restrictions apply to adjectives they encounter, they will, naturally enough, assume that they work as central adjectives.


Stative and Dynamic uses

Most adjectives are stative.  I.e., they refer to a state in being or a condition, for example:

The milk cannot become fresh, the girl cannot affect how tall she is and the window frame will remain blue.
There are two consequences:

  1. Stative adjectives are not used with progressive tense forms: we cannot have
        *The milk is smelling sour
        *The girl is looking tall.
  2. Stative adjectives are not used with imperatives: we cannot have
        *Be tall
        *Don't be French
        *Be young
        *Be important
    for example.

Dynamic adjectives, by contrast, are to some extent under the control of whomever or whatever they describe.
Examples are: agreeable, calm, careful, cruel, difficult, disruptive, envious, friendly, good, happy, impatient, obedient, obnoxious, proud, rude, shy, suspicious, troublesome, unkind, vain etc.
When adjectives are dynamic (or used that way), it is appropriate to use them with progressive tense forms and in the imperative:

They describe a quality which can be varied by the noun it refers to and is open to subjective rating.  The nouns with which they collocate are generally animate because we do not perceive inanimate objects acting on themselves.
Occasionally, inanimate subjects may be used but generally as something called a pathetic fallacy.  An example is
    The weather is being disruptive
in which the speaker is imposing a human attribute on an inanimate noun.  The example above of the car is becoming troublesome is another pathetic fallacy.  Cars and other machines do not intend to be troublesome or unreliable although it may seem that way.
The list will, therefore, include many adjectives which describe personality or behaviour.

With a slight change in meaning, many adjectives in this list can be used both statively and dynamically.  For example:

The following are used dynamically (and many can also be used statively) but the list is not exhaustive.


This list also forms part of the list of adjectives with special characteristics, available from the link at the end. 

Restrictions on the use of these dynamic adjectives are mostly semantic in that the meaning of some of them forbids the use of a progressive verb form or simple imperative:
  1. Progressive aspect use
    Not all of these can conventionally be used with the progressive form of the verb.
    We can have:
        He is being obedient
        He is being stupid
    because both attributes are, at least some extent, under the control of the person in question.
    However, we cannot have:
        *She is being bewildered
        *She is being embarrassed
    because the sense of the adjective is that it is beyond the person's control.
    A few adjectives vary in use depending on In the sense in which they are used.  An example is the adjective suspicious which varies depending on whether the person suspects something or is being suspected of something so:
        He looks suspicious
    can mean either that he is suspected or that he suspects but
        She is looking suspicious
    can only usually mean that she suspects something.
  2. Imperative mood use
    The use with the imperative is slightly more forgiving.
    Not all of these can conventionally be used with the imperative forms of the verb.
    We can have
        Be obedient!
        Be grateful!
    because these are attributes under the control of the individual addressed but, of course, we cannot allow:
        *Be fat!
    because this is not something that the individual can change.
    We can also have
        Don't be bewildered!
        Don't be embarrassed!
    but not
        *She is being bewildered
        *She is being embarrassed
    because the sense of the adjective is that it is possible for the person to control a sense of embarrassment or bewilderment but not to be progressively in that condition.
    Again, an adjective like suspicious shows its double nature.  We can allow:
        Don't be suspicious!
        Be suspicious!
    when the reference is to how the person feels but this is the only sense in which the adjective may be used in the imperative.
    There are two supplementary issues concerning the use in the imperative:
    1. Negative uses
      Some of these, mostly the negative ones, only allow a negative imperative: angry, jealous, cruel, clumsy, repulsive, obnoxious etcWe can have, therefore:
          Don't be impatient
          Don't be repulsive
          ?Be impatient
          ?Be repulsive
      are very unusual if not wrong.  (But note, Be afraid, be very afraid.)
    2. Shades of meaning
      A few have quite subtle shades of meaning when used statively or dynamically.  For example:
          Don't be clever!
          You are just being clever
      imply criticism of someone for being too sharp or showing off and
          The animal is fierce
      is a stative use and we cannot allow
          *The animal is being fierce
          Don't be fierce!
      is a dynamic use reserved for people who, it is presumed, can control their behaviour in a way the animals do not.



Predicative or Attributive?

three brown eggs
the eggs are brown
An attributive adjective directly pre-modifies (or, more rarely, post-modifies) the noun it describes.
For example:
    the lovely picture
    the huge population
    the deafening roar
    something nice
    the people responsible
    the definition proper
A predicative adjective follows the noun, after a copular, pseudo-copular or causative verb, and can be
a subject complement
    He is angry
    She looks tired
    The car is economical
where angry, tired and economical refer to the subjects of the clause (he, she, the car)
an object complement
    You made him angry
    It got him impatient
    She called me stupid
    I painted the door green
    The jury found her innocent
where angry, impatient, stupid, green and innocent refer to the objects of the clause (him, him, me, the door, her).
The verbs make and get in this case are causative verbs.

The verb used with subject-complement predicative adjectives need not be be.  It can be any of a number of other, pseuso-copular verbs such as seem, sound, appear, feel, look (like) etc.  (For more, see the guide to copular verbs and their complements on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end.)


Modifying a clause

Predicative adjectives only can refer to a clause:

In English, we cannot use an attributive adjective to modify a clause, so,
    *Impossible what you want
is unacceptable.
That is not the case in all languages and in some a clause can be modified attributively with an adjective.  This may lead to errors such as:
    *Difficult how you do it
    *Simple doing that

So, no, adjectives don't only modify nouns, they can also modify clauses providing:

  1. the clause is nominalised (i.e., acting as a noun as the subject or object of a verb) and
  2. the adjective is used predicatively.

Adjectives only used predicatively (after the noun and connected by a copular or pseudo-copular verb)

There are four areas to consider here:

  1. The a-series adjectives
    These include the usually disyllabic adjectives beginning in a, hence the name.  An almost(?) complete list is:
    (This list also forms part of the list of adjectives with special characteristics, available from the link at the end.)
    Many of these adjectives derive from an obsolete Old English preposition, a, meaning on, and a verb.  For example, awake derives from a + wacan (arise).
    Some of these are rarely used with the colourless be copula and are almost confined to certain combinations with particular pseudo-copular verbs as in, e.g.
        look askance
        go awry
        look alike
        take amiss
        become averse

    We have included abreast in the list but its adjective use is often confused with the adverbial use.  As an adjective, it is generally used with the verb keep and means something akin to up to date.  Most usually, it's an adverb as in, e.g.:
        They were walking three abreast
    The word akin often requires complementation (see below for others) as in, e.g.:
        The second issue is akin to the first
    Other similarly formed words are often cited as adjectives but are not and these include:
        abaft, aback, aboard, ahead, amok
    all of which are adverbs (although abaft and aboard are a nautical prepositions, too).
    1. None of the true a-series adjectives can be used attributively so we cannot allow:
          *an asleep man
          *the afloat boat
    2. Negative derived adjectives are slightly irregular:
          unaware, unalike, unafraid and the rare BrE unawake
      are not used attributively but unashamed and unabashed are occasionally seen in attributive structures but the predicative use is almost always preferred (and the way for learners to understand them).
    3. The adjective aplenty does not belong in this group structurally and is discussed below in the consideration of post-positioned adjectives.
    4. See below under too, enough and so for a small complication of the a-series of adjectives concerning their modification.
    5. The a-series of adjectives can, however, be used attributively if they are modified (either with another adjective, making a double adjective or with an adverb) so we allow, for example:
          The wide-awake child
          The half-aground ship
          The deeply ashamed pupils
          The very alert dog

      There is more on modification to come.
    We should be careful not to assume (or imply to learners) that all adjectives beginning with a belong in this group.  Some appear as if they belong but may be used both attributively and predicatively.  They include:
    so we allow, e.g.
        The man was amazed
        The amazed man
        An abrupt end
        The end was abrupt
        An acerbic response
        Her response was acerbic
        An acute problem
        The problem was acute

        Readers who are alert
        Alert readers

    and so on.
    (The adjective rife (meaning prevalent or common) is also a predicative-only item so while we allow:
        Crime is rife in this neighbourhood
    we do not allow
        *This neighbourhood has rife crime
    The adjective is also commonly used with pseudo-copular verbs such as seem or appear (see below).)
  2. Dynamic vs. stative use
    When adjectives are used dynamically, predicative position is used.  We have, therefore, a difference in meaning between these pairs:
        The rude girl in room 12
    which is a stative use because we imagine the girl is usually or always rude so the attributive adjective use is chosen
        The girl in room 12 is being rude
    which implies that her behaviour is not permanent but under her control so the predicative use is the only available choice.
        The patient customers waited in line
    in which we assume the people were characteristically patient
        The customers were patient and waiting in line
    in which no characteristic behaviour is implied and the customers might suddenly decide to become impatient.

    In both cases, a stative adjective may be used predicatively, but not the other way around so
        The girl in room 12 is rude = The rude girl in room 12
        The customers were patient = The patient customers
    are possible with no change in meaning.

    The rule is that stative adjective use can be both predicative and attributive but dynamic adjective use demands only the predicative form.

  3. Adjectives requiring complementation
    Some adjectives require an explicit or implicit complement and, for that reason, can only be used predicatively.  For example:
    1.     The book is devoid of humour
          *The devoid book
    2.     She is fond of the children
          *The fond person
      (but this adjective is used attributively (only) in its sense of treasured as in, e.g.:
          It was a fond memory).
    3.     The woman was content with the answer
          *The content woman
    4. The students were inclined to cheat
          *The inclined students
    5.     The policy is tantamount to giving up completely
          *The tantamount policy
    6.     She is accustomed to the weather
          *The accustomed woman
    A somewhat archaic adjective which is still heard is the Middle English wont meaning accustomed.  It is confined to predicative use as in, e.g.:
        She is wont to complain
    and requires complementation with a to-infinitive.)
    See below for more on adjective complementation with prepositional phrases.
  4. Pseudo-copular verbs
    Pseudo-copular verbs is the name sometimes given to verbs like feel, seem, stay, remain, taste, smell, become, grow etc. which perform a similar function to the colourless copular verb be in linking the subject and an attribute.  With these, predicative use is the only possible structure:
        The woman feels ill
    is not the same as:
        The ill woman
        The garden became overgrown
    is not the same as
        The overgrown garden
        The manager grew angrier
    is not the same as
        The angrier manager
    With these verbs, health adjectives, in particular, are frequent and the adjectives cannot be used attributively.  For example:
        The woman felt faint
        *The faint woman
    The adjective faint has an alternative downtoning meaning of not strong a and can be used attributively as in, e.g.:
        A faint sound
    The adjective bad is somewhat ambiguous in this respect.  For example:
        She felt bad
    could imply that she felt unwell or that she felt guilty although this can be disambiguated with the use of the adverb so:
        She felt badly
    can only mean unhappy or guilty, not unwell.
    The adjectives good and well are distinguishable with the pseudo-copular verb look so:
        The boy looks well
        The boy looks good
    are different because the first means:
        The boy looks healthy
    and the second means
        The boy looks smart
in front of

Adjectives only used attributively
Adjectives with an attributive / predicative change in meaning

  1. Intensifiers: amplifiers, limiters and downtoners
    Intensifiers emphasise, enhance, limit or reduce.  Some common adjective intensifiers are:
    Emphasisers Amplifiers Limiters Downtoners

    (This list also forms part of the list of adjectives with special characteristics, available from the link at the end.)
    We cannot safely use emphasisers, amplifiers or limiters predicatively.  We can have, for example, the attributive uses as in:
        The main reason
        The utter madman
        The outright idiocy
        A mere feeling
        The rightful heir
    but not predicative uses:
        *The reason is main
        *The madman was utter
        *The idiocy was outright
        *The feeling was mere
        *The heir was rightful
    There are, however, some complications to consider (and these are considered more fully in the guide to intensifying adjectives linked below).
    1. Non-intensifying, non-limiting meanings
      Some of these adjectives have non-amplifying meanings and can be used predicatively.  Compare, for example:
          His work was complete (non-intensifying use)
          The complete works of Shakespeare (intensifying use)
      If we say:
          The works of Shakespeare were complete
      then we are suggesting that the playwright had finished everything he wanted to write.
      Compare these uses with:
          The complete fool (emphasising use)
      but not:
          *The fool is complete
          The measurement was precise (non-limiting use)
          The precise measurement was 6.246mm (non-limiting use)
          The precise reason (limiting use)
      but not:
          *The reason is precise

      The rule is that adjectives used as emphasisers or limiters can't be predicative.

    2. Inherent vs. non-inherent properties
      The distinction between these ideas is discussed in the next section but, briefly, when intensifying adjectives refer to the noun directly (describing its inherent and unchanging quality) we can use them both predicatively and attributively as in, e.g.:
          There was great damage to the town
          The damage to the town was great

      However, sometimes the adjective does not refer to the noun but to an associated idea as in, e.g.:
          She's a great friend of the family
      in which great refers to her friendship, not to her directly.  In this case, we cannot use the adjective predicatively and produce
          The friend is great
      because that implies an inherent quality of the person and is not what we mean.
    3. Downtoners
      These are distinguished in the table above because they may be used predicatively and attributively so we allow all of these examples:
          A slight earthquake
          A faint sound
          The sound was faint
          Their excuse was feeble
          The problem was minor
          The grounds for action were slender
          The effect was slight

      Nevertheless, the preferred use is often attributive.
  2. Noun-derived adjectives
    are confined to attributive use, so we allow
        biological laboratory
        chemical plant
        nuclear fission
        countryside authority

    but not
        *The laboratory is biological
        *The plant is chemical
  3. Archaic participles
    always appear in attributive structures so we encounter:
        a sunken ship
        a drunken party
        a shrunken head
        a stricken look
        a graven image
        a woven carpet
        a cloven hoof
    but not
        *The ship is sunken
        *The party is drunken
        *The image is graven

  4. Adjectives derived from or close in meaning to adverbs
    do not appear predicatively so we see, e.g.:
        an indoor event
        an outside door
        the upstairs windows
        an uptown area
    but when the structure is altered, the items take on their adverbial nature as in e.g.:
        the door leads outside
        we enjoyed ourselves uptown

    etc. and these are not examples of adjective uses at all.
  5. Adjectives referring to a noun which has already been identified
    do not appear predicatively so we have, for example:
        He is the same man you saw
        That's the very tool I asked for
        That's the exact quotation she wanted
    But we cannot allow these adjectives (the list also includes particular, and self-same) to appear in the predicative slot as, e.g.:
        *The man is same
  6. Adjectives which limit the noun by time or place
    These include, for example:
        The former president
        His then teacher
        The house's previous occupant
        The present company
        The future games
        A southern gentleman
        A northern accent
        An urban setting
        A rural dwelling

    etc. and we cannot have
        *The president was former
        *The teacher was then
        *The occupant was previous

  7. abiding and aforesaid
    These two adjectives look like members of the a-series adjectives (which generally are only used predicatively) but are, in fact, only used attributively so we find:
        The abiding problem
    but not
        *The problem was abiding
        The aforesaid proposition
    but not
        *The proposition is aforesaid
  8. little and small
    These two words differ slightly insofar as little is usually confined to attributive use but small may appear in both positions so, e.g., we allow:
        It was a small house near the river
        It was a little house near the river
    but we usually prefer
        The house near the river was small
        ?The house near the river was little.
    See below for the oddity with small and little when it comes to comparative and superlative uses.
    (The other issue with the difference between small and little is that the second of these contains the connotation of attractive which the first does not.  We would prefer, therefore:
        What a lovely little kitten
        What a lovely small kitten.)
  9. fine
    The adjective fine is also unusual in this respect:
    When it is used attributively, the sense is of high quality or delicate construction as in, for example:
        It's a fine, old building
        That's a fine distinction
        We need a finer filter

    When it is used predicatively, the sense is not ill, not damaged, not faulty or happy as in, e.g.:
        The dog is fine
        I'm feeling fine now, thanks
    There is, therefore, a distinction in meaning between:
        The car is fine (in good condition)
        It's a fine car (of good quality)



Inherent and non-inherent qualities

Most adjectives describe a particular quality of a noun.  For example, a blue car tells us about the car.  What we mean here is that blue is an inherent quality of the car itself.  However, more than a few adjectives can be used non-inherently.  Consider for example:

In the first of these examples, it is not the noun itself that is old, small or heavy; it is what we associate with the noun which carries the quality.  In these cases, it is the friendship, the business or the drinking which is old, small or heavy.  That's non-inherent use.

tiger friend

Friends, enemies and relations

There are other adjectives which also apply non-inherently to the word friend (or a synonym such as pal, acquaintance, chum, ally, mate etc.).  For example, the following will be understood to refer non-inherently to the relationship not to the person directly:
    She's a close friend
    They are long-standing chums
    Mary is a nodding acquaintance
    The countries are close allies
    He's a good friend
    They are intimate pals
    She's a devoted friend
    They are great mates
and so on.
When the adjective is used predicatively, however, we either get a very different meaning of we get nonsense as in:
    The friend is close
    The acquaintance is nodding
    My friend is good
    The pals are intimate
    Her friend is devoted
    The mates are great
The word relative (and cousin but no other kinship term) exhibits the same phenomenon but with fewer collocating adjectives:
    She's a close relative
    They are distant relatives
    She's a distant cousin
etc., none of which will be taken to refer to physical proximity but to the nearness of the family relationship.
It can be seen that any adjective which cannot apply to a relationship will automatically be understood as referring to an inherent property of the noun.
    She's a tall friend
although that would usually be preferred as
    My friend is tall
because tall cannot collocate with friendship or any other kind of relationship.
The opposite also applies with the word enemy and its synonyms (although some different adjectives may be appropriate collocates) so we have, e.g.:
    They are bitter enemies
    Mary and Joan are old adversaries
    They are long-standing rivals
etc. in which it is the enmity, competition and rivalry which are being described.
There is a grey area here and a source of some confusion for a hearer because some adjectives can apply to both the person and the relationship.  In, e.g.:
    He's a reliable friend
    She's a remarkable friend
    She's her little sister
it isn't wholly clear whether reference is being made to a reliable / remarkable person, a reliable / remarkable friendship or a smaller or younger person.
Ambiguity can be avoided by using the adjective predicatively because then the assumption will always be that it applies to the person:
    My friend is reliable
    Her friend is remarkable
    Her sister is little
although in the last case, small would be preferred because of the positive connotations of little.


New, young and old

The adjective new is often cited as the antonym of old and that is the case when it applied to inanimate objects.  Unlike old however, the use is ambiguous.  For example:
    There's a new car in the car park
    That car in the car park is new

could both mean either:
that the car has recently appeared (so the use in non-inherent and applies to its position)
that the car is, in fact, recently manufactured.
Which meaning is understood may depend on the noun and be semantically determined so, for example:
    She's a new acquaintance
can only be understood as a recent acquaintance, not a new person.
When the adjective is applied to people, then, only the non-inherent use is understood because for animate nouns, the opposite of old is young.  Therefore:
    The colleague is new
    She's a new friend
can both only refer to the non-inherent quality of being a recently employed person or acquired friend.
The adjective young suffers from no such ambiguity so, e.g.:
    My young friend is here
can only be a reference to the person's age.
When young is applied to inanimate objects, the use is often metaphorical so we encounter:
    This is a young company
which sounds more innovative and flexible than
    This is a new company
which implies that it may be inexperienced.
The adjective old, on the other hand does not work exactly like its antonym new so while:
    He's an old colleage
    She's an old friend
both refer to the relationship,
    The colleague is old
    My friend is old
will both be taken to refer inherently to the age of the person in quation.


Emotive and taboo adjectives

A few adjectives denoting the speaker's emotional state are used attributively only in certain senses and, when used predicatively, have a different, usually more literal, interpretation.  So ,we encounter, for example:
    that damned man
signalling dislike, whereas:
    the man was damned
signals that the man was sent to hell.
    the poor child
signals the speaker's sympathy, whereas:
    the child was poor
refers to the child's financial hardship.
    my dear friend
refers to the speaker's affection for a friend whereas:
    *my friend is dear
is nonsense because when the word dear is used predicatively, it refers to expense.
The rather old-fashioned word wretched also follows this pattern, so, e.g.:
    The people were wretched
refers to their condition but
    The wretched people forgot to lock the door
refers to the speaker's disapproval of them.
Some ambiguity may arise because, for example:
    The car they rented to me was in wretched condition
refers, presumably, with some disapproval to the poor mechanical condition of the vehicle but
    The people were in a wretched condition
refers to general misery.

The mild taboo adjectives bloody and bleeding are confined to attributive use when they betoken disapproval so we allow:
    that bloody idiot
    this bleeding photocopier
but the words are confined to meaning spattered with, covered in blood or actually emitting blood when they are used predicatively as in, e.g.:
    the knife was bloody.
The much stronger taboo adjective fucking cannot be used predicatively at all and retain its adjectival sense.
Oddly, the taboo adjectives shitty, crappy, piss-poor etc. do not exhibit this pattern and can be used in both syntactical forms with no change in meaning although attributive use is more common.

old friends


old friends  

When there is a choice of understanding inherent or non-inherent meaning, the hearer's assumption in English will vary depending on the adjective use.

attributive adjectives
will, as we saw above, be understood to apply non-inherently whenever possible.  So,
    He's a light sleeper
    She's a small shopkeeper
    Mary's an old friend
    He's my little brother
will all be understood that it is the sleep, the shop, the friendship and the age relationship which are light, small, old and little respectively, not the people.
predicative adjectives
will be more rarely encountered in this respect but when they are, the understanding will be the inherent meaning.  So,
    The businessman is big
    My friend is old
    The shopkeeper is small
    My brother is little
will be understood to refer to the people, not the business, the friendship, the shop or the family relationship.
post-positioned adjectives
often imply a non-inherent or temporary property (because they are also attributive).  For example:
    The person responsible for the mess [only temporarily guilty in this instance]
    The person responsible for the achievement [this particular achievement only]
    The responsible authorities [a permanent, inherent characteristic]
    A responsible person [a permanent, inherent characteristic]
There is a little more on this in the section of this guide on post-positioning of adjectives.



The summary so far and a check test

Here is the summary of the four main divisions discussed so far.


If you would like to reassure yourself that you have the four main divisions of adjectives clear in your mind, there is a short test here to check your understanding.
Click here to do the test.



Adjective complementation

The verb complement means to improve by adding extra features of information and adjectives are prone to complementation by their nature.  For example, these expressions evince questions requiring the adjective to be complemented in the absence of a context:
    He is different (from what?)
    She was reluctant (to do what?)
    They are unsure (about what?)
    We are uncertain (about what?)
and can be complemented to make things clear.  For example:
    He is different from his brother
    She was reluctant to stay
    They are unsure whether they can come
    We are uncertain where to start
These examples show the four main ways in which predicative adjectives are usually complemented:

  1. With a prepositional phrase
        That is open to doubt
  2. With a to-infinitive
        We are happy to help
  3. With a nominalised clause
        I'm not sure that is a good idea
  4. With a wh-word
        I am happiest when I am alone

As we shall see, attributive adjectives can also be complemented, but rather differently.


Complementation with predicative adjective uses

The beach was free of other people  


Predicative adjective + prepositional phrase complementation

She is unafraid of the animal  

Many adjectives, especially those derived from prepositional verbs, are routinely complemented by prepositional phrases.
For example:

He's good at baseball The web site is accessible to members only
He is capable of anything She was deaf to his requests
I'm used to getting up early Shut is synonymous with closed
He's liable to a prison sentence / for the costs We are anxious about the costs
He's eligible for election I'm familiar with the argument
I'm due for a holiday She is dependent on his good will
I'm eager for the challenge That comment is not consistent with our policies
He's guilty of theft This is free from additives
That's inferior / superior to the old one He did it heedless of the consequences
The film is popular with children She came in oblivious of the danger
It isn't suitable for children They are responsible for the damage
In addition, the formulations of be + participle adjective + prepositional phrase form learnable chunks of language.  Other, pseudo-copular, verbs such as seem, appear, become etc. also follow this pattern.
They appeared amazed at the weather I'm not interested in grammar
They grew vexed at their bad luck I'm surprised at his indifference
I became acquainted with the class It is comprised of three sections
I'm delighted with the place She seemed delighted with her new job
I'm opposed to hunting The referee was prejudiced against the team
I'm prepared for anything He is not suited to this work
She ended up dissatisfied with her life The books slow fell into disorder
In many cases, especially with verbs of sensation or feelings, a parallel passive form using by exists.
For example:
    surprised by, amazed by, vexed by, delighted by
This produces parallel, pseudo-passive expressions with quite subtle variations in meaning (if a variation exists at all):
    I was surprised by his agreement
    I was surprised at his agreement
with no discernible change in meaning.
    She was delighted by the offer
    She was delighted with the offer
the first of which suggests she was delighted that she was offered something and the second of which implies that the offer itself was delightful to her.  That is almost too subtle to mention.
With others, only the passive by structure is possible:
    characterised by, affected by

Some adjectives require complementation by a prepositional phrase.  For example:

Allowed Not allowed
They are averse to risks
That is synonymous with clean
This is devoid of sense
She is reliant on the money
She is fond of animals
They are prone to errors
It is subject to approval
That is tantamount to idiocy
It is dependent on his approval
It is bereft of logic
They are averse
That is synonymous
This is devoid
She is reliant
She is fond
They are prone
The contract is subject
That is tantamount
It is dependent
It is bereft

And all these adjectives may only be used predicatively.  The adjectives content, indebted and answerable are usually used with a prepositional phrase but may stand alone.  Other adjectives, such as indistinguishable, different, identical and so on may stand alone and can be used attributively but the prepositional phrase is usually understood.
Occasionally, the complement may be ellipted and it then appears that the adjective is being used without a complement but the complement is understood and does not need, in these cases, to be repeated.

There are nine prepositions which frequently occur in phrases complementing adjectives.  Here are some examples of all of them:

He was angry about the damage
I was happy about the quality
She is worried about the result

Other adjectives often followed by about include: annoyed, glad, knowledgeable, mad, pleased.
She is good at French
He's clever at twisting the argument
She's hopeless at sport

Other adjectives often followed by at include: alarmed, amused, awful, dreadful, surprised, terrible.
They were sorry for the trouble
The town is known for its crime
She is responsible for the project

Other adjectives often followed by for include: bad, embarrassed, hopeful, optimistic, renowned.
That is different from what we ordered
She is indistinguishable from her sister
They are tired from their walk

Other adjectives, usually verbal participles often followed by from include: defended, exhausted, kept, protected, secured, sheltered.
They were successful in their examinations
She is interested in astronomy
You are mistaken in your assumption

Other adjectives often followed by in include: experienced, justified, persistent, unsuccessful.
I am afraid of snakes
We are fond of France
He is tired of the book

Other adjectives often followed by of include: aware, certain, conscious, glad, scared, terrified.
It is dependent on his agreement
I am keen on fishing
We are reliant on the money

Other adjective often followed by on include: intent, severe, based, set.
The preposition upon is more formal in many circumstances and not possible for some adjectives so we allow, e.g.:
It is dependent upon the weather
She is reliant upon her parents

but not
*I am keen upon chess
Using on is always secure.
She is answerable to the manager
I'm inclined to the cheaper hotel
He is liable to a fine

Other adjectives often followed by to include: averse, opposed, subject.
The preposition to is actually quite rare in adjective complementing phrases and should not be confused with the use of the to-infinitive (see below).
This is not compatible with the policy
I am familiar with the problem
They are impatient with incompetence

Other adjectives often followed by with include: angry, annoyed, bored, busy, comfortable, content, delighted, furious, identical, impatient, obsessed, pleased, satisfied, sick, uneasy, unhappy.

Unfortunately, there are no rules for which preposition to use in the complementation of these adjectives so they are often best learned as language chunks in the same way that verbs with dependent prepositions are acquired.  Some rules of thumb, however, given in the guide to prepositional phrases are:

This section is (mostly) included in the PDF document, linked at the end.

For a little more, see the guide to colligation (for that is what this concerns).


Predicative adjective + to-infinitive

Pleased to meet you  

Many predicative adjectives can be followed by the to-infinitive.  Examples of the form will suffice here:

The hotel was hard to find
They were thrilled to discover how much
They are certain to go
He is not likely to win again
Her excuse was difficult to believe
I am apt to forget things these days
The woman was slow to take offence
He was quick to respond

Again, a few adjectives actually require complementation by a to-infinitive.  For example:
    The machine is inclined to be noisy
    She is bound to come to your party
    They were loath to complain too much
    She is able to come
And, again, these adjectives may only be used predicatively.
The adjective able in this respect is often given the status of a modal auxiliary verb but it is simply the adjective phrase requiring a to-infinitive complement.  Understanding it that way can make it less of an issue.


Predicative adjective + nominalised clause

I'm delighted that you came  

This structure is virtually confined to adjectives describing reactions and feelings or opinions.
It is also slightly less common than the simpler adjective + to-infinitive that is considered above.
These complements are generally formed with a that-clause or a contingent clause.  The words that, if and whether can often omitted.  Examples are:

The crowd were thrilled (that) he scored
I sure (that) she will know the answer
They are certain (that) she will arrive
She was unhappy (that) he didn't agree
I am not sure (if) they will be here in time
Her boss was incensed (that) she left early
I am happy (that) you believe me
The woman was amazed (that) he walked all the way
He was content (that) the work would be done
I am uncertain (whether) I can help

Usually, this type of complementation is a clause in the indicative as above but three other clause types are possible although more formal, and rarer.

She is determined that he be here
I was unhappy that he be invited
putative should
I am very sorry that he should feel that way
We were mortified that she should be upset
-ing form non-finite clause
I am (un)happy living alone
They are content working together
They are busy getting things ready
They are uneasy walking in dark streets
We are (un)comfortable eating out in the summer
Only a few adjectives manage this trick.

Predicative adjective + wh-word (+ to-infinitive)

I'm not sure which one to open  

A closely related form involves the use of a wh-clause as the nominalised clause.  Here the wh-word cannot be omitted and the adjectives are confined to speculation and opinion, almost to (un)sure and (un) certain, in fact.  For example:

I'm not sure where the road goes
They were uncertain how many people would come
I was sure when the time had come
Her boss was unsure what was best to do
I wasn't certain which job would suit me best
She was certain which way to go

A parallel form includes the to-infinitive.  As for the use of a wh-clause above, the use is confined to expressions of certainty, most typically with (un)sure and (un) certain.  For example:

I'm not sure where to go next
They were uncertain how many to take
I was sure when to move
She was doubtful which road to take
Her boss was unsure what to do
I wasn't certain which job to take
She was certain whom to ask
He was unable to say who did the work


Complementation with attributive adjective uses

Don't approach a thirsty lion near the camp  

Complementation with attributive adjectives is less common and usually slightly more formal.
There are two main forms and both involve splitting the complementation so the structure is:

determiner adjective noun adverbial complement
a thirsty lion closely


Attributive adjective + prepositional phrase

It's a beautiful city at night  

Adjectives used attributively may take prepositional phrase complementation.  For example:

This is a good spot for a picnic
It's lovely weather for walking
He's a good person in an emergency
It's a less pleasant walk in the rain
He is the best student at mathematics
He has a similar job to mine
She is a difficult person at work
He is a more difficult person in the morning


Attributive adjective + to-infinitive

This is a hard place to get to  

Attributive adjectives may also take to-infinitive complementation.
For example:

This is a good place to stop
It's a peaceful area to live in
It's a cheaper car to run
He is the best person to ask
That's a silly reason to complain
She is a better person to work with

As the examples show, the formulation also allows comparative and superlative adjective forms to be used.  That is less common, but possible, with predicative adjective use.



The next person in the queue  

Ordinals are not really adjectives in many analyses but are classified as a form of determiners.  They do have some adjectival characteristics, however, because they are used attributively and predicatively to modify a noun.
With these pseudo adjectives, both a prepositional phrase and the to-infinitive can form the complement of attributively used modifiers.
For example:

This is the first item on the list
It's the last place to visit
It's another question to ask
He is the next man in the queue
That's the fifth time in a month
She is the first person to know



Double adjectives and compounds

Double adjectives and compound adjectives conform to the general rules for adjectives concerning inherent and non-inherent properties, stative and dynamic uses and much else.
Some compounds cannot be used predicatively, especially if they are classifiers of some kind rather than epithets.  This is noted below.
Compound adjectives are formed in many ways:

  1. object noun + participle verb -ing (present-participle form)
    in which it is the heart, coffee, car and time which form the object nouns of the verbs stop, drink, make and save.
    Because these contain a classifying noun, they are rarely used predicatively so we do not encounter:
        *The industry was car-making
        *The idea was time saving

  2. subject noun + verb -ed / -en (past-participle form)
        machine cut
    in which the subject nouns are hand, machine and factory. for the verbs make, cut and produce.
    Because the second part of these can be considered adjectival participles, both predicative and attributive use is allowed:
        The handmade luggage
        The luggage appeared handmade
  3. adverb + verb -ing (present-participle form)

    Some of these compounds, derived from multi-word verbs, are sometimes reversed so we can also have:
    Whether these can also be used predicatively is irregular.  We allow, for example:
        She was very outgoing
        I found the food offputting
    but we do not usually allow predicative use with other adjectives derived from multi-word verbs:
        *The point was jumping off
  4. adverb + verb -ed / -en (past-participle form)
    Some of these compounds, derived from multi-word verbs, are sometimes reversed so we can also have:
    As with the last sort, we allow predicative use with many of these but usually not with those formed from multi-word verbs:
        The professor was well known
        The house appeared old fashioned
        *The woman was jumped up
  5. noun + adjective
        bone idle
        duty free
        olive green
    Predicative and attributive use is allowed with most of these because the second element is an adjective.
        The beer was ice cold
        The child seems bone idle
  6. adjective (or, more rarely, determiner) + noun
    Predicative use is very rarely allowed with these because the second element is a noun.
        *Her policy was open door
        *The solution is eleventh hour
  7. adjective + adjective
    Double adjectives combine rather than modifying (or being modified).
        bittersweet / bitter-sweet
    The first part of such compounds can contain a derived adjective which cannot usually stand alone.
    These double adjectives can usually be used both attributively and predicatively:
        The day was freezing cold
        The weather was baking hot

    but not when the adjective is a classifier
        *The agreement was Franco-British.
    We saw above that the a-series of adjectives may be used attributively when they form part of an adjective + adjective pairing as in, for example:
        The half-afraid children
        The wide-awake observer
  8. adjective + past-participle (-ed / -en form)
        soft- / hard-hearted

    Again, because the second element is an adjectival participle, both predicative and attributive use is allowed.
  9. adjective + participle verb (-ing) (present-participle form)
        quick thinking
    Again, because the second element is an adjectival participle, both predicative and attributive use is allowed.
  10. determiner + noun

    The nouns in these cases are singular in BrE, no matter the nature of the determiner.
    Predicative use is rare because the second element is a noun but possible in, for example:
        The street was one way
    but the attributive use is usually preferred or required.
  11. determiner + verb -ed / -en (past-participle form)
    Again, because the second element is an adjectival participle, both predicative and attributive use is allowed.
  12. noun + noun
    These are quite rare compounds and usually classifiers.  They are sometimes bahuvrihi compounds, making the adjective from a particular characteristic of something.  For more, see the guide to compounding, linked below.
    Because both elements are nouns, predicative use is forbidden:
        *The boxer was featherweight

A trope much used by TV and radio commentators is to double an adjective for effect so we get, for example:
    It's a tricky, tricky course
    She ran a hard, hard race

and so on.  The use is, however, usually informal and avoided in writing except of the most casual type.
It does, nevertheless occur as a literary device in expressions such as the cold, cold sea and in this case it is a simple emphasising tactic.  Technically, incidentally, it is known as epizeuxis (/ˌɛpɪˈzjuːksɪs/).

Double adjectives, as opposed to compounds, are only of type 7. (adjective + adjective) and are formed of two adjectives combining their senses to make a third meaning.  It can be argued that the first adjective is actually operating adverbially in these cases because it serves to modify the second adjective (a job usually confined to adverbs).

Because English is right headed (or head final), the right-hand word usually determines meaning and word class.  In all the examples, the right-hand part is an adjective (or a participle acting as one) so they are adjectives.  So, for example, the compound adjective quick-tempered refers to the temper and slow-flowing refers to the rate of flow.
(Occasionally, but quite rarely, the right-headed rule is broken and the combination of an adjective and a noun or a noun and a noun results in a compound adjective.  For example,
    The place has old-world charm
    It's a road-safety problem


Hyphenation and comma use


To hyphenate or not is often at the whim of the writer in English and opinions will differ, but there are some rules of thumb, however the adjectives are formed.

  1. Attributive double or compound adjectives are always hyphenated or written as one word.  But when they are not considered a single concept, the two adjectives are separated by a comma.  For example:
        the wooden-hulled boat (in which wooden only applies to the hull, not the boat)
        the green-shuttered house (in which the house has green shutters)
        the green, shuttered house (in which the house is green and closed up)
        the grey-green cliff (in which the cliff is neither grey nor green but a mix of the colours)
        an open-minded person (in which the adjective is a single concept meaning something like tolerant)
        an English-speaking country (in which English is spoken)
        an English, speaking clock (in which the clock speaks and is English in origin)
        an in-house project
        an out-of-school activity
        a breath-taking idea
  2. When used predicatively, hyphenation is often optional, usually avoided and sometimes unusual.  For example:
        The house was red roofed
        The boat was wooden hulled
        She is quite open minded
        Britain is mostly English speaking
  3. Compound adjectives containing a noun and a participle verb form are always hyphenated or, when very familiar, written as one word, when attributively used.  For example:
        He's a world-renowned scientist
        That's an oceangoing liner
  4. Compound adjectives formed with a noun + an adjective or an adjective + a noun behave similarly:
        She's a nationwide favourite
        It's a world-famous event
        This is a car-free zone
        We made a last-minute decision
        It was a first-order problem
  5. Hyphenation affects meaning so, for example, there is a difference in significance between:
        It's a small-group tour
    (meaning a tour in a small group) and
        It's a small, group tour
    (meaning a small tour in a group of unknown size)
  6. Some well-established compound adjectives are almost always hyphenated in both predicative and attributive uses.  Occasionally, a compound has become so common that it can be written as a single word (but automatic spell-checkers will differ).  For example:
        The idea was breathtaking
        The children were spellbound

        the inbound ferry
        an open-door policy
        The technology is cutting-edge
        The food is ready-to-eat
        The coat was bought off-the-peg
    but even the hyphenated ones frequently appear without the hyphen or as one word.


  1. Commas are often optional but required when there is possible ambiguity.  For example:
        It's a large house plant
    is unlikely to be misunderstood as a plant only for use in large houses but to avoid any ambiguity, it can be written as
        It's a large, house plant
        It's a small garden plant
    in which there is ambiguity which can be eradicated by punctuating it as
        It's a small, garden plant
        It's a small-garden plant
    When no ambiguity is likely the commas are often omitted although inserting them is conventional:
        She's a wonderful(,) inspiring teacher
        It's an expensive(,) efficient machine
  2. Commas are not used if the adjectives do not both, or all, modify the noun directly and independently.  We have commas in, for example:
        He played his final, triumphant concert in London
    because we know that both final and triumphant apply equally to the noun concert.  It can be clumsily rephrased as:
        It was his final concert and it was triumphant.
    However, if we consider:
        It was his final solo concert
    we have a different situation because the adjective final now modifies solo concert, not just concert and the comma is omitted to show this.  We know it was not his final concert but it was his final solo concert.
    We can have the situation when two adjectives are used which both apply to the modified noun but the third does not.  So, for example, we might see:
        It was his final, triumphant solo concert
    and in this case, final and triumphant apply to solo concert but concert is only modified directly by the adjective solo.  The words final and triumphant are separated by commas but no comma separates triumphant and solo, therefore.
    This, as we shall see later, affects how coordinating conjunctions function with adjectives.  More below.
  3. When one of the adjectives is a classifier rather than an epithet, no comma is required so we prefer:
        It's an expensive Italian restaurant
    and not
        It's an expensive, Italian restaurant.
    When both adjectives are epithets applying equally to the noun, comma use is conventional so we prefer:
        It's a beautiful, expensive hotel
        It's a beautiful expensive hotel

For the use of coordinating conjunctions with doubled adjectives, see below.




Consider these questions and why they sound somewhat odd.  Then click here for an explanation.

In English, many adjective pairs come as a marked and unmarked forms.  Like this:

Unmarked form Marked form
Any form which has a negative prefix or suffix will usually be the marked form.  So all of these are marked: impatient, unpleasant, displeasing, hopeless.  So the usual question will be:
    How hopeful is he feeling?
    How hopeless is he feeling?

Markedness also applies to nouns and to some extent determines the adjective that it is appropriate to use with them.
So, while it is in order to have, for example:
    a female dog
    a female actor
    a female pig
    a male nurse
    a useful kitchenette
    a cute kitten
it is either less common, doubtful or simply wrong to have:
    *a female bitch
    *a male sow
    ?a female nurse
    ?a huge kitchenette
    *an old kitten
The fact that the language is sexist in this respect may be regrettable but happens to be historically determined.  Nouns marked for sex are, it is true, slowly disappearing from the language but they persist in, e.g., names for animals (lioness, hen, bull, gander etc.) and in some titles (duke, duchess, king, queen etc.).

How unsafe is it to assume that this will happen the same way in your learners' languages?

For more on markedness, see the guide linked in the list of related guides at the end.



Proleptic uses of adjectives

hammer it repeatedly
hammer it flat

Proleptic means, roughly speaking, 'anticipatory' and this use allows an adjective where English users would normally expect an adverb because, on the face of things, the word is used to modify a verb rather than a noun phrase.  Proleptic use implies that we are considering the end effect, not the current action.

In the example above, we have both uses:
    Hammer it repeatedly
is the 'normal' use of a verb post-modified by an adverbial of some sort (in this case, the adverb repeatedly) and we can also have, for example:
    Play it loudly
    Cook it until done
    Do it quickly but carefully
    Roll it evenly
and all the adverbials in black refer to the verb phrase.
However, with
    Hammer it flat
we have the verb phrase followed by the simple adjective and we can also have, for example:
    Make it wet
    Play it loud
    Pull it straight
    Roll it smooth
    Pull it tight
all of which appear to be 'wrong' because we seem to be using an adjective to modify a verb and, in English, that is not permitted.  They are, however, perfectly acceptable.
What is happening here is that we are anticipating the condition of the object itself rather than referring to the way the action should be carried out so we are modifying the noun or pronoun, not the verb, and that is the central role of adjectives, of course.
The distinction is clear with the word different(ly) in, e.g.:
    Can we make it different?
    Can we make it differently?
In the first, the adjective modifies the pronoun and suggests that the result of making would be different.  In the second, the adverb modifies the verb and suggests that the manner of making would be different.



Adjectives derived from nouns and adjectives acting as nouns

Adjectives derived from nouns are called denominal adjectives and are usually classifiers.
Adjectives acting as nouns are called nominal adjectives.


Denominal adjectives

concrete blocks

There are four issues to consider with adjectives derived from (or converted from) nouns:

  1. Some denominal adjectives, often applying to particular professions or services, can only be used attributively so we have, e.g.:
        the civil law (not *the law is civil)
        a law practice (not *the practice is law)
        an emergency service (not *the service is emergency)
        a medical school (not *the school is medical)
  2. A few, often referring to materials, such as concrete, can occur in both positions, so we can have:
        a concrete wall
        a wooden house
        a silk shirt
    and, less commonly but acceptably:
        the wall is concrete
        the house is wooden
        the shirt is silk
  3. Denominal adjectives are often defined as invariable because some can be used both attributively and predicatively (i.e., they act like 'normal' adjectives) but they cannot be used comparatively or superlatively.  This is because they have more in common with classifiers (see below) than with true adjectives or epithets.
    We can have, therefore:
        the tin roof
        the roof is tin
    but not
        *the tinnest roof
        *the roof is less tin
  4. Some adjectives can be derived from the nouns contained in a limited range of prepositional phrases  So we get, for example:
        the chair at the end → the end chair
        the flight from London → the London flight
        the office in the corner → the corner office
        the house on the end → the end house
        the train to Margate → the Margate train

    but this trick is only available:
    1. if the state is permanent and inherent rather than temporary and non-inherent so we allow the expressions above, but not, for example:
          the woman at the end of the queue → *the end woman
          the pen on the table → *the table pen

      because those are temporary positions referring to the relationship between two nouns rather than an attribute of the noun itself.
    2. if we use a limited range of central prepositional phrase heads which are only formed from at, from, in, on and to.  We allow the examples above but not, therefore:
          the chair by the door → *the door chair
          the door behind the stairs → *the stairs door
          the house next to the station → *the station house
    3. if we use the preposition of as part of a genitive construction so we can also allow:
          the policy of the company → the company policy
          the logo of the website
      → the website logo
      (However, in these cases the genitive 's structure is often preferred as in:
          the company's policy
          the website's logo.

It is often tempting to imagine that something like a crime novel is an example of a noun becoming an adjective.  In fact, both adjectives proper and nouns can pre-modify nouns without a magical change in word class.  The use of a noun to modify another is usually referred to as a noun adjunct.
Compare these:

Set 1 Set 2
the village pump a remote village
a garden path a high wall
a love song a touching song
winter storms freezing weather

Set 1 comprises nouns used as modifiers of other nouns.  Set 2 comprises adjectives modifying nouns.  How do you tell?
Think for a minute and then click here.
old young

Nominal adjectives

the old and the young  

Nominal adjectives are often described as nominalised adjectives to refer to the process of conversion from adjective to noun.  The terms are synonymous.
There are some points to consider with nominal adjectives and concord is somewhat unpredictable (or, at least, often non-intuitive):

  1. Formality:
    When adjectives act as nouns, they are often slightly formal.  Examples include
        The old need to be respected
        The young are always too impetuous
        The meek shall inherit the earth
        Only the foolish would do such a thing
        The wise would never contemplate it
        The unmarried often have more to worry about
        That's OK for the well paid but what about the underpaid?
    All of the above are plural in terms of concord with the verb because the nominalised adjectives represent a group or collective.  We cannot have, for example:
        *the young is
        *the old is
  2. Singular nouns:
    A small class of adjectives can form singular nouns.  Examples include:
        The accused stands before the court (also plural with no plural marking)
        The deceased was known to us all (also plural with no plural marking)
        He risked voting for an unknown (never (?) plural)
        She is the first to arrive and the last to leave (never plural)
    is irregular and semantically based as the examples show.
  3. Philosophies:
    A considerable group of nouns have been formed by simple conversion from adjectives and they include those referring to adherents of philosophical, religious or political principles.  For example:
        Catholic, Protestant, red, green, blue, conservative, liberal
    and so on.  Many are capitalised conventionally.
    These may all be pluralised in the normal way with concord following predictable patterns.
  4. Nationalities:
    A significant sub-class of these adjectives are the nouns for nationality derived from them.  The technical term for these is demonyms, incidentally.
        the French
        the English
        the Dutch
        the Japanese
    but many nationalities are referred to by plural nouns
        the Germans
        the Greeks
        the Americans
    The system is irregular but the majority fall into the first category.
    Whether plural in form or not, all these nouns are considered plural and concord demands a plural verb form.
  5. Modification:
    English allows adjectives to act as nouns (with the definite article usually) as we saw above and modification is possible as in, e.g.:
        the filthy rich
        the very wise
        the extremely ill
        the perfidious English
        the clinically vulnerable
    These are generally attributive in terms of word order because attempts to use them predicatively may result in, e.g.
        the rich are filthy
    which is unlikely to be true and not at all what is meant.
    Again, the nominalised adjectives represent a group or collective so all these are plural in terms of concord.
  6. Abstractions:
    Abstract concepts can also be nominalised from the parallel adjective so we see, for example:
        She went from the sublime to the ridiculous
        Think the unthinkable
        The worst is yet to come
        Hope for the best
        He came away with a silver although he was hoping for a gold
        The latest is that the government might fall
    Such concepts are generally uncountable and therefore require a singular verb form.
  7. Restrictions:
    Adjectives which are only used predicatively, such as the a-series, and adjectives which are dynamic in use do not form nouns.  We cannot derive
        *the aware
        they are aware
        *the rude
        the customers were being rude
  8. Verbless clauses:
    Adjectives can also form what is known as a verbless clause.  What happens in this case is that the full form of a subordinate clause is reduced to the adjective or adjective phrase alone so we can allow, for example:
        Unhappy, she left the meeting early
    which is the equivalent of:
        (As / Because) she was unhappy, she left the meeting early
        Old and battered, the car had to be replaced
    which is the equivalent of:
        Because the car was old and battered, it had to be replaced
        The car was old and battered and had to be replaced
        The car, which was old and battered, had to be replaced
  9. Ellipsis of the noun:
    It is common for the adjective to be left to stand for a noun phrase with the noun ellipted as in, for example:
        You take the high road and I'll take the low
    where the repetition of the noun has been avoided for stylistic reasons.
    This is particularly common with superlative forms as in:
        Give me the smallest
        She avoided buying the most expensive

    In these cases, we are not dealing with a case of nominalisation of the adjective.  This is simple ellipsis and speakers often employ the pro-form one(s) in such clauses, retaining the adjective:
        Give me the smallest one
        She avoided buying the most expensive ones
    Because we are ellipting the noun altogether, what remains can be considered plural or singular and concord follows predictable patterns so we may have both:
        The cheapest were actually nicer
        The cheapest was actually nicer
    depending on what form of the noun is ellipted.



Post-positioned attributive adjectives

Attributive adjectives in English usually come before the noun but there are exceptions (called postpositive, post-positioned or postposed adjectives).  Even when an adjective directly follows the noun, it is still an attributive use because there is no connecting verb to link the ideas.


Post-positioned adjective or relative pronoun clause?

In many cases, an alternative analysis of post-positioned adjectives is to see them as reduced relative pronoun clauses.  In some analyses, relative pronoun clauses are referred to as adjective clauses because they serve to modify nouns.  So, for example:
    The people responsible
can be rephrased as:
    The people who were responsible.
Reduced relative clauses, as you may know, can be defining or non-defining and can look to a casual eye as if they contained post-positioned adjective phrases.  For example, the following can be rephrased with the omission of both the relative pronoun and the verb be.

  Relative clause sentence Reduced form omitting pronoun and be
1 The customers who were unhappy with the work complained The customers unhappy with the work complained
2 The customers, who were unhappy with the work, complained The customers, unhappy with the work, complained
3 The old machines which were beyond repair were discarded The old machines beyond repair were discarded
4 The old machines, which were beyond repair, were discarded The old machines, beyond repair, were discarded

In examples 1 and 3 we have defining (also called restrictive or identifying) relative clauses and examples 2 and 4 are of non-defining (also called non-restrictive or non-identifying) relative clauses).  The punctuation and the tone units which would be apparent in spoken language are parallel in both forms.
The meaning of sentences 1 and 3 is that only the customers who were unhappy complained (and other customers were satisfied) and only the machines beyond repair were discarded (while others were retained).
The meaning of sentences 2 and 4 is that all the customers complained because they were unhappy with the work and all the machines were discarded because they were beyond repair.
It is legitimate to see the formulations in the right-hand column above as examples of post-positioned adjectives but the line taken here is that they are not and they are reduced relative clauses.

Relative clauses are sometimes called adjectival clauses in the analysis of English grammar and that is a legitimate point of view because they act to modify the nouns in all cases.  In fact, all adjectives, post-positioned or not, can be replaced by relative clauses although the outcome is often rather clumsy so we can have, e.g.:
    The unhappy boy → The boy who was unhappy
    The expensive cars → The cars which were expensive

and so on.


Twelve cases of post-positioned adjectives

Normally, post-positioned adjectives can be modified in the usual way with adverbs and periphrastic forms so we can have, for example:
    The people most responsible
Where that is or is not the case is noted in this section.


Something unusual

After the pronoun set of some-, any-, every- and no- which end in -one, -thing and -body we always have postposed adjectives.  So we have
    anything useful
    somebody nice
    anyone present
etc. and not:
    *Have you useful anything?
    *Is present anyone?
Modification is allowed so we can encounter:
    anything very useful
    something more resilient

Only permanent states may be referred to in this way.  We allow, for example:
    Someone strange came to ask for you
but not:
    *Someone exhausted came to ask for you
because exhausted is not a permanent state.
The adverb else also post-modifies this series of pronouns and follows this pattern, for example:
    Is anything else broken?
    She made everyone else unhappy


Those involved in the race

The same phenomenon occurs with the demonstrative pronoun, those, e.g.
    those accountable
    *accountable those
but not with that, this or these, which can also be demonstrative pronouns:
    *that reasonable
    *this responsible
    *these accountable
Modification is sometimes limited but
    those most closely involved
    those very clearly visible

are both possible.


The man asleep in the chair

We saw above that the a-series of adjectives cannot be used attributively but post-position with attributive use is possible in some cases, so while we do not allow:
    *The asleep people were suddenly woken
we do allow:
    The people asleep were suddenly woken.
Again, this is also analysable as a reduced relative clause standing in for:
    The people who were asleep were suddenly woken.


A tree taller than that

When an adjective forms part of a post-modified adjective phrase, it is routinely post-positional so we get, e.g.:
    We needed a box that big to hold all the toys
    Can we hire a car bigger than this?
    It was a ladder long enough to reach the roof

    The passengers happy to take a later flight were compensated
    The parent anxious to help the school were invited to the meeting
Modification is allowable so we may encounter:
    a box much bigger
    a ladder almost long enough
    a car a little bigger

    The passengers most happy
    The parent least anxious

but these sorts of phrases can also be interpreted as reduced relative clauses, the full forms of which would be:
    We needed a box which was that big to hold all the toys
    Can we hire a car which is bigger than this?
    It was a ladder which was long enough to reach the roof
    The passengers who were happy to take a later flight were compensated
    The parent who were anxious to help the school were invited to the meeting
An oddity is that if we have differences of sex in the noun, we must put the adjective in the post-modifying position.


The chair elect

There are two common adjectives which usually follow the noun.  E.g.
    the chairperson elect
    the holiday proper

A longer list would include adjectives in or translated from Latin and other languages (called calques) which have, or allow, noun-adjective ordering:
agent provocateur, battle royal, femme fatale, persona non grata, pound sterling, proof positive, spaghetti bolognese, sum total, time immemorial, times past, pastures new, professor emeritus, postmaster general, poet laureate, prince regent, proof positive, sergeant major, truth pure and simple, devil incarnate and more.
Pluralisation is sometimes an issue because, logically, the plural belongs with the noun the adjective is modifying so we should have:
    agents provocateur, battles royal, chairpersons / presidents etc. elect, holidays proper, proofs positive, postmasters general, poets laureate, devils incarnate
and so on.  However, some of these terms are now so embedded in the language that they are treated as compound nouns and the second element carries the plural marker so we get, therefore:
    sum totals, postmaster generals, poet laureates, sergeant majors
Incidentally, the plural of persona non grata is either personae or personas non grata.
Often, this is a matter of personal taste and personal pedantry levels.
None of these forms is subject to modification so we do not allow:
    *the chairman very elect
    *the holiday most proper
    *the battle extremely royal

    *pastures excitingly new
Some compounds (often old-fashioned or rare ones) also show this word order.  E.g.
    court martial
    heir apparent
    attorney general
    princess royal
Some of these forms are borrowings from French in which the French word order is retained.  Others are produced by restaurants wishing to appear sophisticated such as:
    apple charlotte
    peach Melba
    pommes grecques
and so on.
Again, none is modifiable and pluralisation is often illogically on the adjective so we encounter, for example, both courts martial and court martials (although the former is the only technically correct term).


The police officer involved

A few adjectives can vary in meaning depending on whether they precede or follow the noun:

  1.     The people involved in the accident
    refers to fact that the people were in the accident, but
        It was an involved explanation for the accident
    refers to the fact that the explanation was complex.
  2.     The police officer concerned took statements from everyone
    refers to the police officer who was dealing with the accident, but
        The concerned police officer took statements from everyone
    refers to the fact that the police officer was worried in some way.
  3.     The students present were given their feedback
    refers only to the students who were there, but
        The present students were given their feedback
    refers to everyone who was currently a student.
  4.     The course proper starts on Thursday
    refers to the course accurately described
        It's a proper course
    refers to the course being well designed and fit for its purpose.
  5.     I have spent my whole life here
    means all my life, but
        The bird swallowed its prey whole
    means in one piece.

Where the adjective is gradable, modification is allowed but the adjectives present, whole and proper are not usually gradable.  Otherwise, we can encounter:
    The people closely involved in the accident
    It was an extremely involved explanation
    The police officer mostly concerned
    The very concerned police officer

It may be helpful to consider some of these as examples of reduced relative clauses
    the people [who were] involved
    the police officer [who was] concerned
    the students [who were] present
In the second case, however, ambiguity is created concerning whether the police officer was doing his/her job or whether the police officer was worried about something (or, just possibly, both).

Because these forms have certain similarities to relative clause structures, the sense of defining (i.e., restrictive) and non-defining (i.e., non-restrictive) uses is maintained.
So, for example:
    The neighbours concerned complained
implies that there were other neighbours who were not concerned, who did not complain but
    The concerned neighbours complained
implies that all the neighbours were concerned and they all complained.


Temporary and permanent conditions

In some related cases, placing the adjective before the noun refers to a temporary condition but placing it after the noun refers to a permanent state (i.e., non-inherent and inherent properties, respectively).  For example:

  1.     The available money [all of it] is adequate
        The money available now [some of it] is adequate
  2.     The visible galaxies [all of them]
        The galaxies visible tonight [some of them]
  3.     We need a responsible person to do this [a permanent characteristic of the person]
        This is the person responsible for doing this [a temporary duty or guilt]
  4.     The money stolen [a temporary attribute of this money which may be recoverable]
        The stolen money
    [a permanent attribute of the money]
  5.     The people guilty [of a specific crime]
        The guilty people
    [inherently so]

Modification is allowed so, for example, we can have:
    The money easily available
    The galaxies obviously visible
    We need a reliably responsible person
    The money recently stolen
    The obviously guilty people

In the last two examples, one can take the view that these are simply reduced relative clauses:
    The money which was stolen
    The people who were guilty

The choice of predicative or attributive use of an adjective is often reliant on semantic rather than structural considerations concerning the permanence or otherwise of the attribute.  The case usually, but not always, concerns the use of -ed / -en or -ing participial adjectives.
For example, we can allow:
    The boss was astonished
but do not allow:
    *She was an astonished boss
because one cannot be permanently astonished.
Equally, while:
    He accepted the money with a sneering smile
is acceptable,
    *He was a sneering man
is not because the first refers to a temporary condition and the second cannot refer to a permanent state.
Non-participial adjectives also sometimes show this phenomenon so while:
    It was a sarcastic comment
is fully acceptable,
    ?He was a sarcastic man
is, at least, unusual, because we do not normally consider people as being permanently sarcastic.


The woman arrested

Adjectives formed from verbs are sometimes found in post-position.  We saw this with concerned and involved above where the meaning of the adjective is altered depending on whether it precedes or follows the noun.
Other verbal adjectives also follow this pattern with no change in meaning and cannot come before the noun.  For example:
    The people arrested were taken to the police station
(Not: *The arrested people)
    The customers objecting to the increase all wrote to the manager
(Not: *The objecting customers)
These adjectives are limited in terms of modifiability so we cannot have:
    *The people very arrested
    *The customers extremely objecting
    The people recently arrested
    The people strongly objecting
are possible.

It is here more arguable that this phenomenon is a reduced relative clause as both the examples can be re-expressed conventionally as:
    The people who were arrested were taken to the police station
    The customers who were objecting to the increase all wrote to the manager


The silliest idea imaginable

Adjectives formed with -ible and -able suffixes (also often from verbs) show a strong tendency to be post-positional.  For example:
    The only money attainable
    The worst idea possible
    The silliest suggestion imaginable

etc., although the normal positioning is also common.
These adjectives are, when gradable, modifiable but modification is rare.



Adjectives related to measurement always take post-position, so, for example:
    It's two feet long
    It's five metres square
    The play is an hour long
    The road is 15 feet wide
    The water was three metres deep
    The wall was only a foot high
    The child is only 5 years old but already 3 feet tall

Oddly, no adjective in English exists for weight in this way so we resort to the prepositional phrase, e.g.:
    It's four tonnes in weight
not, as it would be in many languages:
    *It's four tonnes heavy
Measurement adjectives are not modifiable so we do not allow:
    *The road is fifteen feet very wide
    *The wall is a foot slightly high


Three odd ones

Three odd adjectives – aplenty, akimbo and galore – always follow the noun attributively.  (The last, perhaps, because that's the conventional ordering in Irish, whence the word comes and where it is, incidentally, an adverbial prepositional phrase.)  None can be used predicatively:
    We have food aplenty and drink galore
    *The food is aplenty and the drink is galore
    He stood with arms akimbo
    *His arms were akimbo
None of these adjectives is modifiable with very but they can, rarely, be modified by intensifying adverbs so we may encounter:
    ?We had drink absolutely galore
but many would not accept that and no modification of akimbo or aplenty is allowed.
There is some lexicographical disagreement with these words.  Oxford dictionaries once classified all of them as adverbs rather than adjectives but have since decided that at least aplenty and galore are adjectives.  Cambridge dictionaries describe them as adjectives as does Merriam-Webster (although there's a bit of hedging there with akimbo described as either an adjective or an adverb).  The word aplenty has also (not on this site) been described as a post-positioned quantifying determiner which makes two if we include enough in that category.
It is difficult to see how any of these can usefully be described as adverbs because no substitute adverb is usually available so we do not allow:
    *He greeted me with arms openly
    *We had food plentifully
    *They had drink abundantly
We can, however, replace them with adjectives and allow:
    He greeted me with open arms
    We had copious food
    They had abundant drink

so, here, we'll stick with them being adjectives but that's not a certain categorisation because they are clearly sometimes adverbial in nature so they can be replaced with adverbial phrases as in:
    He stood with arms at his side
    We had food in large quantities
    They had drink in great amounts
so, in these senses, the words are adverbial even if they aren't really adverbs.


above and below

One pair of adjectives, below and above, also follow the noun but a simpler analysis is to refer to this as a reduced relative clause so, e.g.:
    The discussion below
    The sentence above
are abbreviated versions of
    The discussion which follows below
    The sentence which appears above
in which the words are adverbs (one of their two usual grammatical functions).
The adjective below is almost always post-positioned but, non-intuitively, above appears in both forms so we allow
    The sentence below
    The sentence above

    The above sentence
but not
    *The below sentence.
The adjectives are modifiable with some adverbs so we allow, e.g.:
    The paragraph immediately above
    The sentence some way below




Modification with too, enough and so

too heavy or not heavy enough  

These modifiers of adjectives cause trouble because they are quite irregular.  This is how they work:

  1. Predicative use only
    When these modifiers are used, the adjective they modify can only be used predicatively.
    The modifier enough follows the adjective but so and too precede it.
    We can have
        If the learners are hardworking enough, they will pass
    that's a normal predicative use
    but when used attributively, it's not possible to include enough.  You can't have
        *Hardworking enough learners will pass
    but deleting the modifier makes an acceptable sentence.
    Similarly, we can allow:
        The man was so stupid he didn't understand a simple instruction
    but not the attributive use as in
        *The so stupid man didn't understand a simple instruction
        The game was too easy
    but not
        *It was a too easy game
  2. The a-series of adjectives are not usually modified with too, enough and so.  Therefore,
        *She is asleep enough
        *The boat was so afloat
        *They are too alone
    are not acceptable, although
        She is too ashamed to speak
        He was too afraid to ask
    are fine.
    The adverb modifier too can also be used in some varieties as a synonym of very as in, e.g.:
        That was too kind of you
        She doesn't feel too well

    The modifier so is usable with some in the a-series so we can have
        She is so afraid of the dentist that she won't go
    but this is not reliable as, e.g.:
        *They are so asleep
    is not acceptable.
    The preferred (and safest) modifier with the a-series is either very much as in, e.g.:
        I am very much afraid that is not going to be possible
    or a modifier adverb unique to the word such as:
        She is sound asleep
        They are wide awake
        I was fast asleep
        The ship was hard aground

For considerations of modification of adjectives with fairly, pretty, rather and quite, refer to the guide to adverb modifiers linked in the list of related guides at the end.



Epithets and classifiers

When nouns are used adjectivally, they are normally classifiers.  Classifiers are also sometimes called noun adjuncts.  The difference between a classifier and an adjective proper (an epithet) is that classifiers:

  1. can't normally be modified with intensifiers like very or absolutely
  2. can't be modified with so, too and enough
  3. do not have comparative or superlative forms

So, we can't have, e.g.
    *a very village pump
    *an extremely brick wall
    *a so butterfly collection
    *a wooden enough house
    *the bricker house
    *the sportsest car
and so on.
There's a bit more about this in the guide to modification linked in the list at the end.

There are some issues with the distinctions between classifiers and epithets because the categories are not fully mutually exclusive and watertight.
It is also the case that a noun adjunct remains a noun, whatever its function, and reclassifying it as an adjective is simply muddying the water.


Denominal adjectives vs. classifiers

concrete blocks  

We noted above under denominal adjectives, that a word such as concrete can be used both predicatively and attributively and this indicates that it is sometimes difficult (but rarely necessary) to distinguish between a denominal adjective and a noun modifier / adjunct or classifier.
Non-intuitively, a word like concrete can be used both predicatively and attributively when it retains its core meaning, so we can have both:
    the floor is concrete
    the concrete floor
but, if we use the term metaphorically, it acts like a true epithet and we allow:
    Give me a concrete example
but not
    *The example was concrete.
Often, a simple test is to pose a How question.  We can ask, for example:
    How old is the car?
and hence old qualifies as an adjective, but we cannot ask:
    *How saloon is the car?
    *How concrete is the floor?
because saloon and concrete are classifiers, not adjectives.
For more, see the guide to classifiers, partitives and group nouns, linked in the list at the end.


Adjectives as classifiers

a junior school teacher  

Adjectives can also be classifiers but there is usually a change in the intended meaning.
For example:
    a junior officer
has the word junior acting as a simple adjective.  We can have more junior, very junior, most junior etc., but in
    a junior school
the word is a classifier, categorising the school by the age of its pupils and it makes no sense to refer to a more junior school and so on.
There is some ambiguity in written language whether a word is intended as an adjective or a classifier because:
    a junior school teacher
could be interpreted as
    a teacher at any type of school who is at the beginning of a career and therefore junior to other teachers
    a teacher who happens to work in a junior school
In the former, the word is adjectival and in the latter it is a classifier.
In spoken language, the stress will usually make things clear so we can distinguish between:
    a junior school teacher (i.e., a novice teacher with school classifying the noun teacher)
    a junior school teacher (i.e., a teacher in a junior school with junior classifying the noun school)
Equally, the words rural and suburban can perform both functions:
    a very rural setting (adjective)
    a rural issue (classifier)
    a suburban house (classifier)
    the position is too suburban (adjective)
The word urban is restricted to its use as a classifier.


Participles as classifiers

a tiling job
making a tiled floor

Many adjectives are actually verb participles in disguise and act quite normally as adjectives.  For example:
    a very boring landscape
    an extremely frightened child
    an educated teacher
    a compelling film

and in these cases we can modify them and produce comparative or superlative forms so they are adjectives.  There is more, below, on the formation, classification and meaning of participle adjectives.

Participles can also be classifiers and come in two sorts.  In, for example:
    a boring tool
    printed matter
    printing ink
    a framed picture
    typing paper

all the participles are classifiers.
Whether the participles are adjectives or classifiers, the meaning distinction between the forms comes down to one of two factors:

  1. effecting or affected
    1. -ing participles refer to role of the noun in effecting a process
          a boring speaker
          printing ink
          cutting tool
    2. -ed / -en participles refer to the noun being affected by the action
          a bored listener
          printed paper
          cut wood
  2. in progress or finished
    1. -ing participles refer to an action in progress
          manufacturing industry
          welding torch
          a tiling job
    2. -ed / -en participles refer to a finished action
          a manufactured artefact
          a welded pipe
          a tiled floor




Classifiers, as we saw, are normally ungradable.  However, some central adjectives are also rarely made gradable and the normal way to analyse the issue is to identify three basic classes of ungradable adjectives:

  1. Those whose meaning is in some way absolute.
    These include words such as ultimate, total, entire, unique, absolute, utter, perfect where it is logically impossible to conceive of a grade.  Terms like *more unique, *very perfect and so on are, therefore, often considered wrong although you will find plenty of examples of their use: more average, less unique, most complete, more extreme, more total etc.  Or even:
    most unique
    What one is prepared to accept is often a matter of formality and personal preference.
  2. Words which refer to a specific on-off quality.  These are usually adjectives or near classifiers such as metal, pregnant, unlocked, French, fatal, just (in its meaning of fair) etc.  The reason these are not gradable is that one is either pregnant or not, something is either metal or it isn't, locked or unlocked and a wound is either fatal or not (there's no intermediate stage).  Again, this is often a rule flouted in colloquial speech and terms such as She's very French to refer to an attitude rather than a nationality are common.  We can also have less full, half empty and so on but not *very empty although very full is heard.
    Other adjectives in this group refer to additives and include: additional, extra, supplementary, further, spare etc. which all have no intermediate meanings.
    In the Daily Telegraph (a British national newspaper), we find, e.g.:
        We're just very grateful that he's survived this incident because it could have turned out to be quite fatal
        (The Daily Telegraph website)

    Perhaps the speaker meant quite dangerous.
  3. Words which in themselves include the concept of very or extremely.  It is often averred (and it is often told to learners) that some 'extreme' adjectives can only be modified with words like utterly, completely, really, extremely, exceptionally, awfully, exceedingly, especially, dreadfully, extraordinarily, enormously, fantastically, vastly etc.  The commonest lists include items such as:
    Gradable form Ungradable form
    hot boiling
    cold freezing
    beautiful stunning
    surprising amazing
    good wonderful
    bad awful
    rude obnoxious
    nice delicious
    and so on.

There are others which are not normally graded such as vital, essential, crucial, key, indispensable etc. but which are often made gradable in casual speech.
In particular, the intensifier pretty is often used with extreme or ungradable adjectives so we often here:
    That's pretty marvellous
    The collection is pretty complete

and so on.
The other intensifiers which fall into this class and which have a section to themselves in the guide to intensifying adverbs, linked below, include rather, fairly and quite.

However, the rule is not fully reliable and one might hear or read, for example:
    That's very delicious
    That's even more stunning
    It's very awful
    That's incredibly nice

etc.  The last of these examples is a contested use of the adverb incredibly which has come to mean, in common, casual speech among some groups, something akin to very.
Such uses should be handled with care, however, because they are idiomatic and unpredictable so, for example, few would accept:
    ?She's very wonderful
    ?That's a bit amazing

and these uses would certainly be deprecated in formal speech and writing.

even more

If we insert even before more in comparative forms the modifier can function to make ostensibly ungradable adjectives gradable.  For example:
    My hotel room was luxurious but Susan's was even more sumptuous
    The costumes were stunning but the music was even more astonishing
    She is even more insufferable than her sister

and so on.
The inflected forms of the comparative are very doubtful with the adverb even so many will not accept, for example:
    ?even awfuller
    ?even direr
    ?even dismaller

and would prefer the formulations with even more ... .

There is a separate guide to gradability, which also includes consideration of adverbs, linked from the list of related guides at the end.

The constraint on gradability is much reduced when we use the negative forms of as ... as or not as/so ... as structures to make comparisons.  We frequently encounter, therefore, expressions such as:
    It's not as unique as it was
    The garden is now as perfect as it was before the storm
    The verdict wasn't as just as he expected

Issues of gradability apply somewhat idiomatically to participial adjectives as we shall see.



Participle adjectives

a sunken boat  

We can distinguish two types of participle adjectives in English, both of which can almost always be used attributively and predicatively.

Adjectives formed from the present or progressive participle.  For example:
He was an interesting man
The outcome was very surprising
That's a fascinating result
They told a gripping tale
The present participle form is usually simply referred to as the -ing participle.
Adjectives formed from the past participle.  For example:
There was a broken window in the first floor
The children were delighted to see her
She seemed uninterested in the result
The terrified people ran out into the street
The past participle form is often referred to as the -ed participle but, because many are irregular also as the -en participle (by analogy to, for example chosen, broken etc.).  Here, we will call these participles the -ed / -en forms as we did above.

The general rule is that -ing adjectives refer to what a thing or a person is and -ed / -en adjectives refer to how someone feels.

We can refer to what something was (the flight was frightening) or to how someone felt (I was frightened).

The second issue with such adjectives is that they do, sometimes, reflect the progressive vs. completed nature of the verbs from which they are derived.  For example:
    The car was hit by the falling tree
clearly expresses the fact that the tree was in motion but:
    The car hit the fallen tree
expresses the fact that the tree had fallen beforehand.
As we saw when discussing the role of participles as classifiers, -ing participles refer to the action in progress, for example:
    the building works
and -ed / -en participles refer to the end product, for example:
    the built environment

This is an important area because many languages do not form adjectives in this way (or have other ways of deriving them from verbs) and much confusion and bewilderment is caused.
The usual errors are misunderstanding what is being described so, for example, saying
    She is boring
instead of
    She is bored
and so on, but there are other consequences of language differences which result in errors such as
    *They are very irritating me
    *I am welcomed by her

Partly, the cause of difficulty is that English does not distinguish morphologically or phonetically between a word acting as a verb and one acting as an adjective.  Both forms take either -ing or -ed (or are irregular, usually in the same way).
Most languages do not have this ambiguity of form and the hearer / reader can immediately recognise whether a word is adjectival or verbal in use by the morphology or pronunciation, and usually both.
Taking the example above of the falling vs. the fallen tree, other languages, while clearly deriving the adjectives from the verb will distinguish the form so that it is unequivocally adjectival.  Frequently, languages also make the adjective agree both in number and in gender with the noun they describe.  Romance languages, such as French and Spanish will have no exact equivalent at all of the falling tree, preferring to say, roughly, the tree which was falling:
    el árbol que cae vs. el arbol caido (Spanish)
    l'arbre qui tombe vs. l'arbre tombé (French)
Germanic languages do have the forms but they are clearly distinguishable from the verb:
    der fallende Baum vs. der gefallene Baum (German)
    det fallande trädet vs. det fallna trädet (Swedish)
The same phenomenon of making the adjective form distinguishable from the verb form occurs in most languages so the distinction between:
    the excited people
    the people were excited
    the exciting people

    the people were exciting
is simpler to identify.  So, for example, in Spanish, those four phrases translate as:
    la gente emocionadas
    la gente estaba emocionada
    la gente emocionante
    la gente era emocionante

and in German as:
    die aufgeregten Leute
    Die Leute waren aufgeregt
    die aufregenden Leute
    Die Leute waren aufregend

in which there are clearly four distinct forms either of the adjective distinguished from the participle or in the forms of the verbs.


Problems with participial adjectives

Here are some examples of the difficulties thrown up by the failure in English to distinguish between verbs and adjectives in the forms of words.

a drunken party The past participle of drunk is no longer drunken but the form is maintained in the adjective.
There are a few older English forms which survive as adjectives only and they include: drunken, sunken, shaven, shrunken, learned, blessed, beloved, crooked, dogged, ragged.  For example:
    He shaved his head
    The man with the shaven head
    The boat has sunk
    The sunken boat
In the last six cases, learned, blessed, beloved, crooked, dogged, ragged, the adjective retains the earlier syllabic pronunciation of -ed as /lɜːnɪd/, /blesɪd/, /bɪ.ˈlʌ.vɪd/ /krʊkɪd/, /dɒɡɪd/ and /ræɡɪd/ rather than /lɜːnd/, /blest/, /bɪ.ˈlʌvd/, /krʊkt/, /dɒɡd/ and /ræɡd/ which are how the past participles of the verbs are pronounced.
One oddity is the adjective aged which is pronounced /eɪdʒd/ when it refers to something which has matured or reached a certain age as in, e.g.:
    An aged wine is more acceptable
    Aged 14 he left school
but it retains the older pronunciation of /ˈeɪdʒɪd/ when it means elderly as in, e.g.:
    He had an aged servant
    The dog was a little aged and short sighted.
The older participle forms can only be used attributively.  We cannot have
    *The woman was drunken
    *The boat was sunken
he was offended by my father Is this a passive verb form or an adjective?  Can we say
    He was very offended by my father?
The distinction is whether the clause answers the question Who offended him? [a passive use] or whether it answers the question How did he feel? [an adjectival use].
In the first case, the word is a passive participle:
    Q: Who offended him?
A: He was offended by my father.
In the second case, the word is an adjective:
    Q: Why did he walk out?
A: Because he was very offended by my father.
the manager was relieved Meaning 1: he felt relief (relieved is an adjective and we can use very before it)
Meaning 2: the manager was replaced by someone else (relieved is the verb; it's not possible to insert very)
she is calculating Meaning 1: she is unsentimental and cold-hearted (here the word calculating is an adjective and can be modified conventionally)
Meaning 2: she is using mathematics (here the word is a verb)
the players were not downhearted If this is a participle, what's the present tense of the verb?
(Answer: it is an 18th century figurative use derived from the Old English hiertan, meaning give heart to.  The Modern English is hearten and thence we can derive heartened, a passive participle meaning encouraged.)
the escaped leopard This is a participle adjective but it can't be used predicatively:
    *The leopard is escaped
because it is intransitive so a passive verbal rather than adjectival use is disallowed.  The subject of the verb is the leopard.
she is very self-centred
the extremely self-centred man
This looks like an ordinary participle adjective until we realise that there is no corresponding verb, to self-centre.
The same applies to some others such as talented, unconcerned, flabbergasted, unexpected, renowned etc.
These are adjectives for the simple reason that we know that they can't be anything else because there is no verb.
a barking dog
a hunting dog
This also appears to be participial adjectives describing the dog but they cannot be modified at all so:
    *A very barking dog
    *A very hunting dog
are not possible.
In the second case, the participle is acting as a classifier to categorise the type of dog so, while we can have:
    The dog is barking
then we are still describing the dog in some way because:
    There is a barking dog in the area
    A dog is barking nearby
are functionally synonymous, but if we state that:
    The dog is hunting
we are not classifying the dog but using the -ing form as a simple verb.
The distinction is that a hunting dog refers to the permanent, inherent attribute of the dog but a barking dog refers to a temporary attribute.


Participle adjective or verb?

Judging whether a word is adjectival in nature or whether it is a passive or progressive use of the verb is not always easy.
It is, nevertheless, quite important because other languages deal with the issue very differently as we saw and that results in considerable inter-language error.

The first question to ask is whether there actually is a verb to which we can refer.  Is the word derived from a Modern English verb at all?  An example of this quandary is the last one in the table above.
If there isn't a verb, the word is acting adjectivally.  So, for example,
    The accusation was unfounded
is adjectival because there is no verb to unfound.
    They are talented children
is also adjectival because there is no verb to talent and
    He is a gifted pianist
is adjectival, too, although there is an unusual verb, gift, which carries a different meaning.
When words are borrowed from other languages, they may or may not carry their word-class membership with them.  English is, however, adept at making new words by conversion and affixation so we can find, for example:
    The expression is clichéd
but from which no verb to be found (to cliché does not exist).
Here, we have a formulation which simply depends on the assumption that the ending on cliché will alert the reader / hearer to its adjectival use.

Many compound adjectives work this way so we get, for example:
    This is a fruit-based drink (with no verb to fruit-base)
    It's a mineral-derived oil (with no verb to mineral-derive)
and this also works with the -ing adjectives as a test so we have, for example:
    a side-splitting performance (with no verb to side-split)
    a fact-finding mission (with no verb to fact-find)

The negative adjectives in particular are often derived from positive versions which are also verbal so, for example, we can have:
    An expert was invited
which is simply a passive-clause construction using the verb invite.
We can also use the participle as an attributive adjective and have:
    The invited expert was very useful
    The man was uninvited
cannot be a passive form because there is no verb uninvite so we know it's an adjective.  We can use the form in, e.g.:
    The uninvited people were asked to leave
but it is purely adjectival.
There are plenty of these doubled forms in which the negative participle is only adjectival although the positive adjective is participial, forming passives in the usual way, and they include:


Other negative participles with the prefix dis- suffer from the reverse because there is often not a positive version of the verb at all so the following are also only adjectival.  So, for example, while we can allow:
    She was a disillusioned woman
we cannot allow:
    *She was an illusioned woman
because there is no verb illusion.
Adjectives may be derived from verbs which carry clearly different meanings from the resulting adjective.
For example,
    a distinguished academic
contains an adjective derived from a verb but the verb has a different sense (meaning recognise as different rather than admire).
Equally, sometimes adjectives may be derived from meanings of verbs which are no longer current so, while the verbs affect, appoint, close, count, cover, figure, joint and lodge clearly exist, the adjectives in this list to which they are seemingly connected do not carry anything like the same senses.


Apart from these two sets, sometimes, there is also a verb from which the adjective is formed but it has a different meaning.  For example, the adjective in:
    a pointed remark
    a pointed stick
is clearly derived from the verb point but the meaning is considerably altered.
Transitivity plays a role, too, so
    a smoked cheese
is derived from the transitive sense of the verb, and does not imply that the cheese was smoked in the way that a cigarette is.

(An oddity in all this is the adjective principled which looks like a participle adjective derived from a verb but there is no verb to match in Modern English.  The solution lies in knowing that there was a verb principle in English in the 17th century but it has fallen out of use and is no longer recognised.)


Testing to know which is which

  1. For -ing forms, there are three usual tests:
    1. Try modification with very or another intensifying adverbial.  So we have, e.g.:
          The film is extremely frightening (adjectival use)
          The film is very exciting (adjectival use)
          *The film is extremely frightening me (unacceptable because it's the verbal use)
          *The film is very exciting me (unacceptable because it's the verbal use)
      The drawback with this test is that some -ing forms resist modification with any intensifier, however, because they are functionally ungradable so while we can have:
          A very reassuring set of figures
          A very surprising fact
          An extremely cutting remark
      and so on, we cannot allow:
          *A very howling wind
          *A very smiling face
          *A very walking tour
          *A very smoking gun
          *A very roaring fire
      because all of these adjectival uses are either classifiers (which cannot be graded) or on-off states (which also cannot be graded).
    2. Locate a direct object.  So we can have, e.g.:
          That's an exceptionally irritating noise (adjectival use)
          *That noise is exceptionally irritating me (unacceptable because it's the verbal use)
      If an object is present, the usual interpretation is that the form is a verb so, for example:
          The TV programme is frightening the children
      is verbal, but
          The TV programme is frightening
      is perceived as adjectival.
    3. See if it is possible to change to the simple aspect of the verb tense.  So, e.g.:
          That's very rewarding work (adjectival use)
          *The work rewards (not usually acceptable so not a verbal use)
  2. For -ed / -en forms, the tests are more difficult to apply.
    1. Occasionally, it is obvious that we are dealing with an adjective rather than a verb simply because there is no verb available (although the adjective looks like an -ed participle).  For example:
          She was unimpressed by his behaviour
          They were uninterested in my problems
      must both be adjectival because we cannot have:
          *His behaviour unimpressed her
          *My problems uninterested them

      Unfortunately, these are quite rare examples.
    2. We can apply the modifier test so we can see that, e.g.:
          *The house was very destroyed
      is not possible so it must be the verbal use of the word.
      However, modifiers can be applied to verbs as well so,
          The house was completely destroyed by the earthquake
          She was very embarrassed by his language
      are both possible although the use is clearly verbal (shown by the use of the agentive by-phrase) and the test breaks down.
    3. A more reliable test is to try inserting a that-clause or other clausal complement and then the distinction is clear:
          He was disappointed that the money did not arrive (adjectival use)
          *He was disappointed by the money did not arrive (not possible with a verbal use)
          I was persuaded by his argument (verbal use)
          I was persuaded that he was right (adjectival use)
          She was absolutely delighted to hear that she has passed (adjectival use)
          She was absolutely delighted by the result (verbal use)
      The that-clause is confined to adjectival uses and the by- phrase to verbal uses.
    4. A further test is to replace the copular verb be with another copular verb.  Only the verbs be and get naturally form passive (i.e., verbal) uses so in, e.g.
          Mary was depressed
          Mary got depressed
      we can make the active form
          The news depressed Mary
      but in
          Mary seemed depressed
          She became frightened
          They appeared interested
      no such active form is available so the uses of depressed, frightened and interested are adjectival.
    5. Another test is to try modifying the word with too, very or another emphasising adverbial.  This is possible if the word is adjectival, unlikely or downright impossible when the word is verbal.  For example:
          He is too disappointed to discuss it
          They are very tired
          Her response was completely unexpected
      are all adjectival so the modification is acceptable.
          *The road has been very repaired
          *The house is too painted for my taste

          *That was completely expected
      are verbal uses so the modification is unacceptable.
    6. Finally, check for transitivity.  If the verb is intransitive, we can immediately exclude the possibility of a passive use so, e.g.:
          The risen dead
          The bread is risen

      can only be adjectival because rise is stubbornly intransitive.

Compounding with participles

We saw above, in the section on double and compound adjectives that there are three ways to make compound adjectives with participles:

  1. object noun + participle verb (-ing form)
    in which it is the heart, coffee and the car which form the object nouns of the verbs stop, drink and make.
  2. subject noun + verb (-ed / -en past-participle form)
        machine cut

    in which the subjects of the verbs make, cut and produce are the nouns hand, machine and factory.
  3. adjective + verb (-ed / -en past-participle form)
        soft- / hard-hearted

When any of these kinds of compounding occurs the item moves immediately out of the verbal zone and into the adjectival one.
For example, in
    It is breaking
we are unlikely to perceive of breaking as an adjective but in:
    It is heart-breaking
it clearly can only be an adjective.
And in, e.g.:
    He was bitten
we would automatically assume that bitten is the participle forming part of the passive construction but in:
    He was hard-bitten
we know it is an adjective.
Other examples of this type of compounding are: good-looking, well-behaved, giant-sized, open-minded, green-eyed, red-rimmed etc.



Adjective order

When there is more than one adjective modifying a noun, there is a conventional ordering.  Much tosh is devoted to this area, not least in coursebooks (possibly because it's easier to write exercises for the area than to demonstrate its communicative value).

Insert these adjectives into the gap in this sentence between the and lorry:
Greek, huge, old, shabby, green, Volvo

The _________________________________________ lorry was parked outside.
Click here when you have done that.

You will, for example, come across admonitions to make the order:

Put adjectives in this order: Opinion then Size then Age then Shape then Colour then Origin then Material then Purpose.

We can end up with something like:
    The idiotic, tiny, old, square, red, English, brick, rented cottage.
Some websites include determiners in the list of adjectives and do not distinguish between adjectives proper and classifiers and that just adds to the confusion.  Here is an example from the web:

Adjectives in English follow this order:

  1. Quantity or number
  2. Quality or opinion
  3. Size
  4. Age
  5. Shape
  6. Color
  7. Proper adjective
  8. Purpose or qualifier

There are seven serious problems with this kind of pseudo-analysis:

Problem #1:
It simply doesn't work.  It is just what's conventional and speakers and writers will vary the order for effect or according to simple personal preference.
Would you say
    a green, circular blob
    a circular, green blob?
The first of these clearly breaks the pseudo-rule (5 and 6) above.
An allied issue here is the speaker's intention in terms of emphasis.  We can, for example, have both:
    It was a small typical artisan's cottage
    It was a typical small artisan's cottage
and in the first case, the speaker is implying that although the cottage was typical of those used by artisans, the fact that it was small is additional information.  In the second case, the implication is that in order to be typical, an artisan's cottage must be small.
Does it actually matter?
Problem #2:
It ignores the difference between classifiers and epithets.  Something like a writing desk is not a description of a desk, it is a classifier of a desk and not a proper adjective (whatever that is) at all.  This is what is implied by the vague purpose or qualifier mentioned above.  (What exactly is meant by the term qualifier is also less than clear.)
These classifiers are, as we saw above, usually denominal adjectives formed from nouns and, of course, they come nearest to the noun for semantic not syntactical reasons.
Problem #3:
It ignores the difference between invariable and variable adjectives.  An adjective like spicy describes food and is a variable adjective (something can be more or less spicy) but an adjective like Indian is generally invariable.  Food is either Indian or it is not.  So, in English we have
    I like spicy Spanish sausages
    *I like Spanish spicy sausages
However, there are times when the ordering can be disturbed to mark a special meaning so we allow, e.g.:
    I prefer Spanish spicy sausages to Italian spicy sausages
Problem #4:
The grammar is wrong: determiners like quantity or number are not adjectives and they do not behave like adjectives.
Problem #5:
It is quite rare to have more than two or three attributive adjectives.  When more description is needed, style dictates a combination so we avoid things like
    The interesting, huge, old, blue pot.
preferring something like
    The huge, blue pot was interesting and it was obviously old.
    The interesting old pot had a blue glaze and was huge.
Problem #6
It ignores the position of participial adjectives altogether.
Because these adjectives refer to either an on-going state of affairs (-ing participles) or a finished property of the noun (-ed / -en participles) , they are variably positioned so we get, e.g.:
    An old crumbling brick wall
    A beautiful, wooden carved mask
Problem #7:
Nobody is going to remember the rules for eight types of modifiers, of course, so we need a general rule for guidance in the area rather than trying to teach our students to recall the order of the eight attributes (even if the rules worked).

Here's one:

Put adjectives before nouns according to the cline between subjective and variable to objective and fixed characteristics.

In other words, we recognise that there are two parallel principles at work:

  1. Objective vs. subjective judgements
  2. Gradability vs. non-gradability (relativity)

The system can be pictured as:


Like this:

that idiotic tiny old square/red English brick gate house
put determiners here; they are not adjectives, in any case subjective judgements usually precede other adjectives a gradable relative term:
a tiny house
is still huge compared to a virus
another gradable relative term but not quite so variable as size these two can be reversed and are only slightly variable but the concepts are objective judgements invariable and objective this is a noun classifier, not an epithet a denominal, ungradable classifier
(see below)
put the noun here

In that scheme, we have the very unusual incidence of five adjectives and two classifiers occurring in one phrase.  That sort of thing is vanishingly rare, of course, so for most learners, it is enough to order at most three adjectives using the dual principle we set out here and putting any classifier nearest to the noun.  That means, for example:
    He drives a little, green sports car
    The child is an unpleasant, noisy bully
    She went for a walk along the long, empty sandy beach

and so on.

It is worth noting here that it has been averred that participial adjectives, such as astonishing, broken, falling, unloved etc., follow gradable concepts such as old, silly, blue, small and so on.  This is true but it is not the nature of the formation of the adjective which is important, it is the fact that most participial adjectives are ungradable so it comes as no surprise that they tend to come nearer to the noun than gradable concepts.  Some participial adjectives are, of course, gradable, and when they occur in a string, they come where one would expect, before ungradable concepts so we get, e.g.:
    a trivial, surprising, unrecognised fact
    *a trivial, unrecognised, surprising fact

We saw above when considering nouns modifying other nouns that nouns normally function as classifiers rather than adjectives proper.  Classifiers nearly always come immediately before the noun they modify and if they don't, the speaker / writer is marking a special meaning.
The type of classifier also needs to be considered.
We saw above that nouns may be converted to adjectives grammatically (denominal adjectives) and this matters in terms of ordering.
As a rule, the denominal adjective will come closest to the noun following any other classifier or adjective so we get, e.g.:
    She carried an expensive gold cigarette case
in which expensive is a simple variable and subjective adjective, gold is an invariable, objective noun classifier and cigarette is a denominal adjective converted from the noun.
Classifiers and denominal adjectives are not, as a rule, separated by commas.

In this scheme, learners only have to think about whether one adjective is more subjective or more variable (gradable) than another so, e.g.:
    Put open-minded before tall before French + woman
Put fascinating before short before science-fiction + story.
That can be taught in a single lesson at B1 / B2 level so you can skip the unit in the coursebook and move on to more important matters such as attributive and predicative adjective use or any of the other areas covered in this guide.  If you would like an on-line lesson doing just that, click here.


Other languages

Some languages, e.g., Polish and Russian, place adjectives proper before the noun (as does English, usually) but place classifiers after the noun.  So, in Polish, for :
    a new sports car
we have:
    nowy samochód sportowy

In Italian and Spanish, too, classifiers appear after the noun but adjectives may appear before it.
So, for example:
    a news sports car
translates as
    una nuova auto sportiva
In Italian, an objective quality or ungradable adjective usually follows the noun but subjective judgement or relative quality may precede the noun.  So, for example:
    a long blue train
translates as
    un lungo treno blu

In French, most adjectives follow the noun but some common ones usually precede it.  They include:
beau, bon, court, grand, gros, haut, jeune, joli, long, mauvais, meilleur, nouveau, petit, premier and vieux.
In some cases, an adjective will have a different meaning when it precedes or follows the noun.
In this language, adjective ordering when two are present is simple if one naturally precedes and one follows the noun but when more than one adjective is used after a noun, they are conventionally coordinated with et (and) so instead of:
    an intelligent amusing man
we get
    un homme amusant et intelligent

Spanish is different again (although it is similar to Italian in placing classifiers after the noun) and places adjectives either before or after the noun depending on whether they serve to differentiate or not.  So, for example,
    the white house
will be translated as
    la casa blanca
because the adjective serves to distinguish the house from others in the neighbourhood but
    the green grass
will usually translate as
    la verde hierba
because we do not usually distinguish green from other colours of grass.
As in French, however, some adjectives vary in meaning depending on where they are placed so, in English
    a new car
could mean a car which is not old but could also apply to a car which is a replacement (and may still be quite old).  Spanish allows a differentiation that English cannot produce so
    un coche nuevo
is a brand-new car but
    un nuevo coche
is a replacement car.

German operates very similarly to English in placing objective and ungradable ideas nearest to the noun so for
    an ugly, new, blue car
the translation would be
    ein hässliches neues blaues Auto
However, German, being a more agglutinative language than English, has a strong tendency to form a compound with any classifier so
    a new blue sports car
translates as
    ein neuer blauer Sportwagen

Japanese, while handling adjectives very differently from English, does not have a preferred ordering but the general rule is that the adjective comes before the noun and you alter the ordering of more than one adjective depending on the emphasis you wish to give.

Chinese languages also place adjectives before nouns but there is an added complication concerning the number of characters which make up the word and the languages also have classifying terms, which English does not possess, which always come closest to the noun.  For a little more, see the guide to classifiers, partitives and group nouns, linked at the end.


and and but

Coordinating multiple adjectives

An error frequently made by learners is to misuse coordinators between adjectives, producing unnatural or plain wrong syntax such as:
    *It was a pretty and little village
    ?It was cheap and good
The cause of these errors is that the learner is unaware of the rules in English, probably because they have never had them pointed out, merely having been corrected.
It may also be the case that the learner's first language always or routinely coordinated adjectives with a word meaning and.

We need to understand when adjectives are simply concurrent and when they are coordinated.  An example will help to show the difference.
    It was her last decent job
the adjective last does not modify job directly, it modifies decent job so the adjectives cannot be coordinated and we cannot rephrase this as:
    *The job was her last and decent
In other words, the sentence means that she had other decent jobs but this was the last of them.  She also went on to have other jobs that were not decent.
However, in:
    It was her last and best job
we can rephrase the sentence predicatively as:
    The job was her last and best
because both the adjectives directly modify job.  The sentence means that it was her last job and it was her best job.
The adjectives last and best are coordinated because both apply equally to the noun.

The situation also varies depending on four main factors:

  1. Whether the adjectives are used predicatively or attributively
  2. Whether the adjectives refer to the same kind of characteristic
  3. Whether we are considering base or comparative and superlative forms (or a mixture)
  4. Whether the adjectives are epithets or classifiers

The rules

  1. Additive coordinators: and, as well as and and also:
    1. Attributive use
      1. We can put and between adjectives (but often don't and prefer a comma, see above) only if the adjectives describe the same sort of property.  This means, in effect that the adjectives have to occupy the same column in the ordering table above.  So, we allow, for example:
            An attractive and photogenic village / An attractive, photogenic village
            A large and cumbersome package / A large, cumbersome package
            An interesting and also original idea / An interesting, original idea

        If the adjectives are not descriptive of the same kind of attribute, we can have separation with a comma so we allow:
            A wide, polluted river
            An interesting, small village
            A silly, new idea

        but not:
            *A wide and polluted river
            *An interesting and small village
            *A silly and new idea
        because the adjectives are not descriptive of the same characteristics of the nouns.
        Equally, for example, we do not normally allow:
            ?My old, trusted friend
        because old is non-inherent in use (applying to the friendship not the friend) and trusted is inherent in use.  We would, therefore, prefer:
            My old and trusted friend
      2. It is possible to use what is known as asyndetic coordination in which no conjunction is needed but could be supplied so we encounter, for example:
            Tired, angry, he walked out
        rather than the less formal and more common:
            Tired and angry, he walked out
            The tired, angry man walked out

            He walked out, feeling tired and angry
    2. Predicative use
      1. Predicative use allows the coordinator and more frequently so we may have:
            A beautiful old rowing boat
        and not allow
            *A beautiful and old rowing boat
        but tolerate
            The rowing boat was old and also beautiful
        in which the normal adjective ordering is reversed for effect (see below).
      2. When two or more adjectives are used predicatively they imply two unconnected attributes of the noun.  They are joined with a conjunction so we get, for example:
            He was delighted and touched
            They were happy as well as rich
            She was rich and generous
    3. Classifier use
      Classifiers are never connected to adjectives proper with conjunctions of any kind.  We do not, therefore, find:
          *An expensive and wedding dress
          *An old and Italian book
      Moreover, adjectives are not usually separated from classifiers by commas (or, in speech, by pausing and separation into tone units) so we do not allow:
          *An old, Chinese vase.
      because it is Chinese vase that is being described.
      We saw above that classifiers, too, are not separated by commas or tone units so we do not allow:
          *A new, silver, make-up case
      but would prefer:
          A new silver make-up case
  2. Contrastive coordinators: but, yet, although
    With the use of contrastive coordinators such as but, the situation becomes slightly more complex and there are also sub-rules to consider:
    1. If the adjectives are contrasting, we can use a coordinators such as but between them so we allow:
          A small but varied selection
          A large yet manageable package

          An inexpensive although effective procedure
          The exhausted yet contented climbers rested at the top
    2. If we choose to use two contrasting adjectives, the comma or tone unit separation is not usually acceptable:
          *A tiny, populous town
          *An enormous, light book
    3. Even when there is ostensibly no contrast, the speaker / writer can insert one to mark the phrase.  So, we might have:
          An elegantly dressed, old English man
          A spacious, airy classroom
          Some happy, scruffy children

      in which the adjectives are ordered conventionally and separated with commas in the normal way, because there is no obvious contrast.  These can be marked for contrast, however, as:
          An old but elegantly dressed English man
          A spacious yet airy classroom
          Some happy although scruffy children
    4. A confusing aspect of coordinated adjectives, especially when the coordinator is but, is that the normal ordering is often reversed.  We can have for example:
          A handsome, old car
      in which, as expected, the subjective attitude adjective (handsome) comes before the more objective one (old).
      However, if we choose to contrast the adjectives with but, the order is usually:
          An old but handsome car
          *A handsome but old car
  3. The insertion of adverbials to distinguish one or other of the adjectives is common in coordinated phrases with both additive and contrastive functions and this overrides the first principle that the adjectives must describe the same property.  So, we may have, for example:
        An interesting, cheap holiday
    but not
        *An interesting and cheap holiday
    in the normal way but may choose to insert the coordinator when one adjective is particularly marked, as in:
        An interesting and surprisingly cheap holiday
        An expensive yet wonderfully restorative break
        A cheap but very central hotel
    and that is acceptable.
  4. When we mix comparative, superlative and base forms of adjectives, they are usually coordinated rather than being separated by commas so, for example:
        The cold, wet weather
    is acceptable in the normal way but
        The cold and wetter weather
    would normally be preferred over:
        *The cold, wetter weather
    Even when we do not mix forms, the coordination is usually preferred for two comparative or two superlative forms so, for example:
        The best and least expensive choice
    is preferred to
        The best, least expensive choice
        The larger and more useful box
    is preferred to
        The larger, more useful box.
  5. Classifiers
    1. When classifiers are used, as we have already seen, additive coordination is not acceptable and comma use is also unconventional so we do not allow, e.g.:
          *An expensive and Italian restaurant
          *An expensive, Italian restaurant

      preferring, instead:
          An expensive Italian restaurant
    2. Contrastive coordination is also forbidden because semantically, a classifier cannot be contrasted with an epithet so, for example:
          *A French although cheap restaurant
          *A beautiful but terraced house
          *A narrow but sea view

      are not allowed.
    3. Again, the insertion of adverbials modifying the epithet overrides this rule, too, although some consider the use of additive coordinators clumsy, so we allow, e.g.:
          A rural but strikingly noisy location
          ?A metal and exceedingly strong link
  6. The forms can be combined.  We may have a complex adjectival phrase such as:
        It was an interesting and surprisingly cheap holiday but greatly entertaining
    in which we have used both coordinators in a predicative adjectival phrase.
    We would not normally allow the attributive use of complex adjectival phrases so:
        ?An interesting and surprisingly cheap but greatly entertaining holiday
    would not usually be acceptable stylistically.



Comparative and superlative forms

The base form of the adjective is called the positive to distinguish it from the 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

It is often said that:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Superlative forms require the insertion of the definite article, the.
        the coldest
        the most beautiful

  4. The superlative forms should not be used when comparing two nouns.  So, we are admonished:
        He is the better of the two
    is correct, but
        She is the oldest of his two children
    is wrong.
    We shall see.

As far as it goes the first two rules often work but they soon break down, unfortunately, and getting learners to rely on them can constitute a source of teacher-induced error.
In reality, life is more complicated.


It is possible to use periphrastic forms with all adjectives

even more wet  

Especially when use predicatively, all adjectives can use the periphrastic form regardless of the syllable count.
For example:
    Donald Trump is wealthy but Bill Gates is more wealthy
    She couldn't have been more delighted or more happy

Attributive short adjectives can also be take the periphrastic form, especially if they are being contrasted with a longer adjective which must take that form.  For example:
    The scheme is appropriate for more well-heeled people but hard for more poor people

Even monosyllabic adjectives can take the periphrastic forms, especially when they are used in conjunction with longer adjectives so we hear, for example:
    The views were fabulous in the evening but more great in the morning.
    They were poverty stricken but their neighbour was even more poor.
    She was soaked before but is even more wet now.
When the modifier even is used, this becomes quite common (or even more common).

When adjectives are used with the correlative conjunction the ... the it is, in fact, normal to use them with the periphrastic form so we encounter, e.g.:
    The more young the child is the more dangerous will be the environment
    The more small the screw is the more hard it will be to find on the carpet
as well the inflected forms.

All that said, however, it is true that the following short adjectives do not normally appear in periphrastic constructions:
bad, big, black, clean, far, fast, good, great, hard, high, low, old, quick, slow, small, thick, thin, tight, wide, young
and of these, bad, far, fast and good are invariably inflected.


Issues with two-syllable (disyllabic) adjectives

With disyllabic adjectives, simply tacking on the inflexions will often work but there are numerous exceptions.
Here are some rules:


Issues with three- (and more) syllable adjectives

The rule that adjectives of three or more syllables always take the periphrastic form is also not absolute.
Adjectives formed with the prefix -un and the suffix -y, can take the inflected form although they are trisyllabic, so we get
    unhappy > unhappiest
    unholy > unholiest
    unlucky > unluckier
    unruly > unrulier
    untidy > untidier

With these, the inflected form is often preferred, in fact.
This does not occur with other endings so we have
    unchanging > more / most unchanging
    unpleasant > more / most unpleasant

where the rule is as above for disyllabic adjectives formed with suffixes.
Compound adjectives, despite often being at least trisyllabic, also break the rule and the first word takes the inflexion so we get, e.g.:
    low-paid > lower paid > lowest paid
    long-lasting > longer-lasting > longest-lasting


Other issues: less, least, too, most, more than and very

There are a number of somewhat peripheral issues with adjective comparison with which, depending on level, we may not trouble learners too much.

less and least
The words less and least are similar in form to the periphrastic uses of more and most but they reduce the degree of an adjective rather than increasing it.
No inflected form in English exists for this concept so we use these modifiers with all gradable terms, regardless of their length and form.
As with the uses of more and most the word less is reserved for two items in formal speech although, informally, least is often used in, e.g.:
    She is the least intelligent of the two
where a purist would probably prefer
    She is the less intelligent of the two
which would also be the form of choice in careful speech or formal writing.
Other examples are:
    She was less happy with the second meal
    They were the least contented of all the customers

The adverbs less and least are not usually used with adjectives which themselves describe a lower state so we do not often encounter the items on the left in these examples, preferring those on the right:
?less small
?less low
?least cheap
?least bad
?less unwell
?least short
?less young
most expensive
too and most
These have a simple function in many cases:
  • most forms the superlative of adjectives according to the rules set out above.  We get, for example:
        That is the most interesting of all of them
    In this sense, the word is always used in tandem with the definite article because the reference is specific and definite.
  • too usually suggests more than is required and also modifies adjectives.  We get, for example:
        This is too heavy
    meaning, heavier than it should be
However, these words also have an amplifying meaning, like this:
  • most is often, in rather formal language used to mean very or extremely.  We get, for example:
        That is most interesting
    meaning extremely interesting
    With adjectives, this use is confined to non-inherent forms so, while we allow:
        She is most happy
    (i.e., very happy), we do not allow:
        *She is most tall
  • too is also used to enhance the meaning of an adjective and suggests that its use is somehow inadequate to express the sense intended.  Again, the use is considered rather formal.  We get, for example:
        This is just too delicious
        You really are too kind
    meaning, more than delicious and more than just kind.
    The modifier too is often paired with just in this sense.
    The modifier also occurs in negative clauses to mean very as in:
        It doesn't look too good
    to mean
        It looks bad.
more than
This expression sometimes serves a simple functions to compare adjectives as in:
    She is more interested in science than art
However, there is another use of more than which is not used this way.  This use implies either:
  • that the adjective is inadequate to describe the notion (see the equivalent use of too above).  For example:
        She is more than busy these days
    meaning that busy does not adequately describe how she is.
        I was more than happy with the work
        I was delighted with the work
  • that the second compared adjective is inaccurate and should be better phrased with the first as in, e.g.:
        She is more tired than angry
    meaning tired is a better description than angry.
        He is more lazy than stubborn
    meaning lazy is the better description.
In neither of these meanings can we allow the inflected form of the adjective, regardless of its base form so:
    *He is lazier than stubborn
is not allowed.

Other oddballs

  1. There's a group of common adjectives which form comparative and superlative forms from different roots:
    good-better-best, bad-worse-worst, far-further/farther-furthest/farthest.
    All three are very rare if possible at all in a periphrastic construction.
  2. The word well is sometimes used adjectivally (to mean not ill) rather than adverbially and follows the same pattern (well > better) but for this there is no superlative form at all.  It is arguable that the comparative of the adjective ill is worse.  We would prefer, therefore:
        Is she any worse today, doctor?
        *Is she any iller today, doctor?
    although sick > sicker > sickest is quite common.
    Generally, as an adjective, the use of well is predicative as in, e.g.:
        I don't feel well
    but a rarer attributive use is possible as in, e.g.:
        She's not a well woman
    The adjective unwell has no comparative or superlative form at all although it is clearly a gradable concept and worse is used as the comparative:
        I am still feeling unwell although I was feeling worse yesterday.
  3. The form of older commonly used in family relationships, elder-eldest, can only be used attributively (although it can be nominalised as the elder/eldest).
    We can have, therefore,
        He is the elder brother
    but not
        *His brother is elder
    Additionally, older than is preferred to *elder than.
    The derived adjective, elderly, has no such constraints.
    When elder is used to describe the fact that someone is more experienced because they have been in a position longer, it is not a comparative form so, for example:
        an elder villager
    simply refers to a more experienced person who carries some authority in a village.
    The use of elders as a plural noun is, while not common, sometimes encountered in, e.g.:
        We should be more respectful of our elders

The suffix -most

This does not, as some suppose, derive from the same root in Old English as the suffix -est.  It is used to mean nearest to (so is superlative in nature only) and occurs in, e.g.:
    The uttermost limits of the earth
    The topmost sail on the ship
    The outermost planets of the solar system
    The westernmost states of the USA

This suffix is also used for adjectives often considered ungradable so we allow:

and so on, where

are not acceptable


Determiners with superlatives

my oldest friend  

A source of teacher-induced error is assuming that all superlative forms must be preceded by the definite article.
That is often true but the real rule is that they must usually be preceded by a determiner, not necessarily that determiner.
We can have, therefore:
    He is the best in the class
    He is my oldest friend
    That was their most enjoyable holiday

    The few cheapest hotels

We can also omit the determiner and have:
    Which one is best?
    Of all of them, she was keenest to go.

In these cases, inserting the definite article is not wrong but may sound somewhat formal.

With the periphrastic form, however, a determiner is almost always required because of the possible ambiguity with the meaning of most (= very, in some senses).  So, generally:
    Who is the most intelligent?
is preferred to
    Who is most intelligent?
because that could mean
    Who is the most intelligent?
    Who is very intelligent?



Comparative and superlative forms of adjectives may be pre-modified in English but there are restrictions.

Comparative forms
Comparative forms of adjectives may themselves be pre-modified, to amplify, emphasise or tone down the sense so we find, for example:
    He came much earlier than I expected
    The work was a lot less expensive than I feared
    She was vastly more pleased with her mother's present
    She appeared far more relaxed later
    I want something a damn sight better than that
    He seemed a little better in the morning
    The pain got somewhat more acute overnight
    It was a bit better than we hoped

    It was nowhere near as difficult as I expected
    She was nothing like as helpful as her colleague
No comparatives may be modified with very so we do not encounter, e.g.:
    *She felt very better in the morning
    *It was very more economical
Superlative forms
Superlative forms are less accommodating and there are severe restrictions on the type of intensifier which may be used.  We can allow, for example:
    She was the very best person for the job
    John was
much the best person to ask
    The car was nowhere near the most economical I have owned
    She was
nearly the best student in her class
    They were
almost fastest in the race
    It was
near enough the most economical solution
    He was
really the best candidate
    The house was
truly the most luxurious I have seen
and it is clear that only a two of these (very and almost) can precede the adjective directly with the others preceding the determining article.
Oddly, the intensifying adverb very cannot be used with a periphrastic construction before or after the article so we do not allow, e.g.:
    *It was the very most useful of the lot
    *The car was very the most economical of them
but other adverbs can be used this way so we allow:
    It was almost the most useful of the lot
    He was nearly the most discourteous man in the company
The majority of pre-modifying adverbs and adverbials are not allowed with superlative forms so we cannot have, e.g.:
    *utterly the noisiest
    *purely the most expensive
    *awfully the worst
    *somewhat the most intelligent
    *enormously the cheapest
    *vastly the most pleased
    *exceedingly the most useful

and so on.
quite, rather, fairly, pretty
These adverbial intensifiers are troublesome in this regard because:
  • pretty and fairly cannot modify comparative or superlative forms at all so while we allow the use with positive forms as in, e.g.:
        She was pretty lucky
        That was fairly hard

    we do not allow:
        *She was prettier luckier
        *That was fairly harder
        *She was pretty the luckiest
        *That was fairly the hardest
  • quite can only modify positive and superlative forms so we allow, e.g.:
        She was quite clever
        That was quite the best idea
    etc., we do not allow:
        *She was quite cleverer
        *That was quite a better idea
  • rather, on the other hand, can only modify positive and comparative forms so we allow, e.g.:
        The garden was rather overgrown
        The train was rather more crowded than we expected
        That was a rather better thought
    etc., we do not allow:
        *She was rather the most intelligent
        *That was the rather best thought

Two vs. more than two items to compare

which is best?  

The rule suggested above is often given that two items cannot be compared using the superlative so, following that, we should believe that:
    I can bring red or white wine.  Which is best?
is wrong and it should be:
    I can bring red or white wine.  Which is better?
It is the case that the second of these is correct, albeit slightly formal to some people's ears.
It is also not arguable that the superlative form will conventionally be used for three or more items so:
    I can bring red, white or rosé.  Which is best?
is correct and often preferred to:
    I can bring red, white or rosé.  Which is better?
but most people would be happy in all but the most formal speech to accept any of these sentences.

However, this all misses the point:
The comparative is exclusive and refers to separate items but the superlative is inclusive and refers to items within the same group.  So for example:
    This wine is better than the others
refers to the fact that I am separating the wine into two groups (a group of one only and the rest) and the one I want is not part of the main group.  However,
    This wine is the best of them all
refers to the group as a whole and the wine I want is included in that group.
So, providing only that the items are seen as inclusive, forming a group, the superlative is natural when singling out one item no matter how large the group and
    This is the best of the two I've tried
is perfectly acceptable because there is only one group of two in question.
The comparative may be used for more than two items providing that the item referred to is seen as exclusive and not part of the group and
    I bought these three wines because they were better than the other six I tried
is also perfectly acceptable because we are making two exclusive groups.
Here's a way of explaining that to a learner (whose first language may well work differently in this respect):


Related guides
the word-class map for links to guides to the other major word classes
copular verbs and complements for more on what are called linking verbs in some sources
collocation to see how adjectives form predictable semantic patterns
colligation to see how adjectives form predictable grammatical patterns
comparison for more on how we compare things in English
intensifying adjectives for more on a special class of adjectives
adverbs the guide to an allied word class
adverbial intensifiers and modifiers for some consideration of how adjectives are amplified, emphasised or toned down
gradability for more on a key adjectival phenomenon
markedness for more on how adjectives and other language items are marked
lexicogrammar for a little more on how meaning subverts and controls syntax
ambiguity for a guide which considers ambiguity in adjective use and much more
participles for more on how these non-finite forms are used
passive for more on quasi-passives with participial adjectives
modification for an overview of how noun modification works
word formation for more on prefixation and suffixation and other elements
compounding for more on how compounds are made and the concept of headedness
classifiers, partitives and group nouns for more on how these special types of modifiers are distinguished from adjectives
lists this is a link to a PDF document of some of the more important lists in this guide

There is, of course, a test on some of this.

Celce-Murcia, M and Larsen-Freeman, D, 1999, The Grammar Book, Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle
Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Crystal, D, 1987, The Encyclopaedia of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press