English for Everybody - Advanced course
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Summary. Adjectives describe nouns. They are always singular (even if the noun is plural). You can use several adjectives before a noun, or you can use the adjective on its own in a phrase. Verbs and nouns can be used as adjectives.

In this section we deal with:

Types of adjective.

There are a number of different types of adjectives, including some words that we do not usually think of as adjectives at all.


A, an and the tell you more about the noun they describe, so they are adjectives. However, for the purpose of this course, we treat articles as separate from adjectives, and they are described in a unit of their own. So although articles are technically adjectives, we will not treat them as adjectives here.


This is the family of which articles are a part. They tell you which, or how much, depending if they are demonstrative or quantifiers.
For example:
Which words do you mean? These words. (demonstrative)
There are several types of other adjectives - lots of them! (quantifiers)


These give the more abstract type of adjective, and tell you something of the noun's character, or the opinion of the person who is describing the noun.
For example:
A horrible old man
An interesting idea
A typical example

Adjectives of type

These are the most common kind of adjective. They give most of the information about a noun, and are usually about its physical qualities. They describe things like shape, size, colour and age.
For example:
Imagine a sports car. Now think of the adjectives you need to describe the car.
Colour - red, naturally
Size - small car, big engine.
Speed - very fast
Cost - ridiculously expensive
Age - brand new
Notice all of these can be seen, or inferred, by looking at the car.

Adjectives with 'a'

In old English the letter 'a' before a verb showed it was a condition of that verb. (e.g. I saw three ships a-sailing by). Some of these 'a-words' have become words of their own. (ablaze, aware, asleep, ashore and many more.) They are different in that they usually come after the verb 'to be'.
For example:
The ship is afloat
You are amazed
The boys are alike

Derived Adjectives

Sometimes adjectives are made from nouns:
For example:
friendly from friend / smelly from smell
Or from verbs
For example:
Sticky from to stick / Shiny from to shine.
(You can see that these adjectives often are made by putting -y and -ly on the end.)

Noun Adjectives

But nouns can also be made into adjectives without any change. This is usually to tell us which noun the more general noun relates to. (e.g. 'food' is general. 'Cat food' is more specific)
Other examples:
Trade union / computer program / internet course.

Adjectives of origin

These are of place or material. For example:
Danish pastry./ A wooden spoon.
But notice that sometimes adjectives of origin are noun adjectives. (Sorry about that, you will just have to learn which is which. The only rule is that noun adjectives are less likely to be metaphorical.)
For example:
A golden opportunity./ A gold statuette.
Leaden skies / Lead pipes.

Compound Adjectives

Some adjectives are small sentences by themselves. These "compound adjectives" are often joined by hyphens ( - ). They are groups of words that are not all adjectives, but they make a meaning that is just one adjective.
For example:
post-modern art. / a twenty-year-old wine
Compound adjectives do not always have hyphens :
For example:
A New Year's Day party.


Numbers are usually adjectives, because the information they give is how many of the noun. They can be cardinal (like one, two, three), or ordinal (like first, second, third).
For example:
A thousand pounds.
The second example.
Sometimes numbers can look like nouns because of ellipsis (ellipsis is when you do not say all of the words in a sentence because the other person knows what the words will be).
For example:
Jane has one boyfriend, but Mary has two (boyfriends)
one and two are both adjectives.

Other kinds of adjective

For example:
The six o'clock train. / A September morning./ He is a frequent visitor. /An early start.

Adjectives of feeling. Sometimes you find these where you might expect an adverb
For example:
You sound happy. / I feel sick. / He seems angry.

Adjectives which are nouns

Just as nouns can be adjectives, so adjectives can sometimes be nouns.
For example:
The young of the kangaroo live in their mothers' pouches
He gave money to the poor
The land of the brave and the home of the free.

The Grammar of Adjectives

Adjectives in English are not inflected (the endings do not change). In fact, English adjectives do not change at all, whether they are describing one or many of a noun, or whether they are describing females, males or things.
For example:
A tall man. / A tall woman. / A tall tree
Tall trees. / Tall boys. / Tall girls.
Notice that the adjective - here I am using the adjective tall - does not change in any of the examples.
The 'exception which proves the rule' is numbers. Though these are technically adjectives we sometimes use them as plurals.
For example:
Some people believe that bad things come in threes
Everything is at sixes and sevens (Idiom meaning everything is confused)

The order of adjectives

Adjectives are used in a this order.
Demonstrative/ Number/ Characteristic/ Type (Type is divided into size, shape, age and colour)/ Origin/ Noun adjective/ Noun/ subsequent adjective clause.
Watch how you can build up this adjective set.
That car.
That sports car.
That Italian sports car.
That small, aerodynamic, new red Italian sports car.
That sexy, small, aerodynamic, new red Italian sports car.
Those two sexy, small, aerodynamic, new red Italian sports cars.
Those two sexy, small, aerodynamic, new red Italian sports cars, which are so expensive.
When we need to use a verb instead of a noun adjective, we use a participle.
For example:
Washing machine
Parking ticket

When we use more than one adjective of a kind, we use commas to separate them.
For example:
A cold, windy autumn day.
Here there are two adjectives of the same kind (cold and windy) and one of a different kind (autumn), because autumn is about time, not weather, we do not use a comma between windy and autumn.

Subsequent adjective clause
English speakers do not usually put more than two adjectives before a noun, and only rarely use two of the same class. Instead firther adjectives can be added in a clause afterward.
For example:
The big, scary house was dark and empty. / She had two black dogs which were noisy, messy and friendly.

The verb "to be"

Adjectives are often used with the verb "to be". In fact "to be" is the only verb which introduces an adjective. (It is also used to introduce nouns and participles)
For example:
Fred is angry
Adjectives without "to be" usually come before the noun. If we use "to be" then the adjectives come immediately after the verb "to be".
For example:
The old man was happy.
If we use more than one adjective after a noun, we can put and between the adjectives:
For example:
The house was old and dark and empty.
If you put lots of adjectives, you must put and before the last one.
For example:
The house was old, dark and empty.

Capitalizing Adjectives
The rule is that you only capitalize words that are capitalized when they are nouns. So you would capitalize adjectives of origin: for example French wine, because France is capitalized. So we talk about Augustan poetry, and Parma ham. There is some confusion when the word has entered the language so completely that it is no longer regarded as a proper noun; so you will see gothic novels, and Gothic architecture. The present tendency in English is to avoid capitalization unless it is totally necessary, so when in doubt, don't.

Other ways to describe nouns ...

If your language does not have articles, then these are sometimes difficult to understand. Even if your language does have articles, English articles can be confusing - for example, why do newspapers have a definite article (e.g. The Times) when magazines (e.g. Playboy) don't?
It is for this reason, and many others, that even though they are technically adjectives, we will have a separate lesson on articles.

You will be amazed to see how fascinating participles can be. Using them as adjectives is just one trick - you can also use them with adjectives adverbs and nouns to make whole new adjective combinations. (The well-read student sat back in his leather-covered chair, nodding agreement.)

Comparatives are adjectives. But like articles they are sufficiently complex (that is an example!) to need their own lesson.

We hope the above English grammar lesson has been interesting, informative, and not too long. Next, we will do some exercises.

Let's go!