Characteristics of Adjectives

Understanding the Characteristics of Adjectives

Adjectives typically describe the properties of an entity referred to by the noun.

An adjectiveOpens in new window may describe inherent properties of the entity — for example, its color (purple, blue), size (big, tiny), weight (light, heavy), age (young, old), or quality (good, awful).

The following are the characteristics of adjectives:

1.   Adjectives are stackable

One of the characteristics of adjectives is that they can occur in a string—they can occur one after another. This is known as stacking.

However, stacking adjectives successively beyond three is a rarity. Thus, it is essential to note that adjectives are usually stacked in a preferred order.

Consider the following sentence:

  • An ugly, old, yellow tin bucket stood beside the stove.

In this sentence, the adjective sequence begins

Changing this order of the different types of adjectives, (as in the sentences below), produces phrases that native English speakers are uncomfortable with to a greater or lesser degree.

Now, observe the awkwardness in the following sequence of adjectives:

  • An old, ugly, yellow tin bucket.
  • An ugly, yellow, old tin bucket.
  • An ugly, old, tin yellow bucket.


2.   Adjectives are Gradable

A number of adjectives are gradable—they can express degrees of a property.

Most gradable adjectives have comparative (–er) and superlative (–est) forms, while a number of others use the adverbs more and most to express varying degrees.

Also, some adjectives (e.g.,lively) take the –er/–est) inflections as well as more and most.

Many others (e.g., private) take only more/most, while a few (e.g., good) allow only the –er/–est endings to express gradability.

The Chart below illustrates each of these categories:

AdjectivesInflectionsMore/Most
comparativesuperlativecomparativesuperlative
livelylivelierliveliestmore livelymost liveliest
privateprivaterprivatestmore privatemost private
goodbetterbestmore goodmost good

2a.   Negative Gradability

When it comes to expressing diminishing degrees of a property, the negative gradability comes into play.

This is indicated by placing less and least before adjectives to create the comparative and superlative forms. Observe the following sentences:

  • The result was less successful than anticipated.
  • His third campaign was the least successful of all his attempts.

2b.   Gradability of Absolute Adjectives

The large majority of adjectives, such as absolute, complete, correct, essential, impossible, perfect, pregnant, ultimate, and unique, have been called absolute adjectives because their meaning is supposedly not gradable as they express a quality that cannot be increased or decreased.

Using the adjective unique, as a case study, it means “one of a kind”; hence it seems both illogical and incorrect to say, for example,

  • That painting is very/somewhat unique.

How could something that is unique be particularly or partially unique?

And yet native English speakers tend to write and say sentences like those in similar contexts, as in the following:

  • Of the top 10 pros, he has the most complete game.
  • After the first four months they found it somewhat impossible to control the outbreaks of sporadic violence.
  • It’s the most perfect copier ever invented.

2c.   Gradability of Participial Adjectives

Most adjectives are derived from presentOpens in new window or past participleOpens in new window of verbs.

For examples, the adjectives interesting and bored used in the sentences below, are formed from the present participle of the verb interest, and past participle of the verb bore, respectively.

In English, these are known as participial adjectives.

Observe the following Sentences.

  • That was really an interesting lecture.
  • He was wearing a bored expression on his face.

A number of the frequently used adjectives derived from present participlesOpens in new window of verbs include:

amazing, boring, corresponding, encouraging, exciting, existing, following, increasing, interesting, leading, missing, outstanding, promising, remaining, threatening, underlying, willing, and working.

Those which are derived from past participlesOpens in new window of verbs include:

advanced, alleged, armed, bored, complicated, confused, depressed, determined, disabled, disappointed, educated, excited, exhausted, frightened, interested, pleased, surprised, tired, unemployed, unexpected, and worried.

Participial adjectives, like most adjectives, have comparative and superlative forms only with more and most and with less and least. Naturally, they cannot add –er and –est, as shown below:

  • That was the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen.
  • That was the amazingest performance I’ve ever seen.
  • When she heard that the plane was overdue she became even more worried.
  • When she heard that the plane was overdue she became even worrieder.
  • I couldn’t be less concerned.
  • Of the many solutions to this problem, his is the least promising.
Important Hint  

There a few exceptions to this rule. For example, native speakers of English might sometimes use the comparative form tireder instead of more tired.

3.   Adjectives are modifiable

The final characteristics of adjectives is that they can be modified by adverbs.

This is shown below:

  • These shrimps are unusually [adv] large [adj]
  • They appear to be remarkably [adv] happy [adj].
    See next pages.
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