Bringing your words to life is the most effective way to engage your readers with your work. In order to achieve this, powerful description is key.
As you probably remember from English lessons at school, adjectives are the primary tools through which we add description to our work. If used skillfully, these words can transform dull, uninspiring prose into an evocative piece of writing that creates a strong emotional response in your reader.
Even if you were far from the star of your English class, you probably wouldn’t have much difficulty recognizing terms such “big” and “small” as adjectives. But, be honest, did you know that there is more than one type of adjective? Could you, for instance, tell your quantitative adjectives from your possessive adjectives?
If the answer is no, you’re definitely not alone. Getting to grips with the correct use of adjectives is a difficult task, and even some of the most accomplished writers would admit to struggling in this area. To help you gain a clear sense of how adjectives can enhance your writing, we’ve rounded up the nine types of adjectives all writers need to know.
What is an adjective?
Adjectives are the describing words of the English language. They ascribe certain qualities to people, places, and things. When you’re reading about grammar, you're likely to see this process being described as the adjective modifying the noun.
As a rule of thumb, adjectives tend to take the following suffixes, which are the ending sections of words.
- ful: boastful, beautiful
- ic/ical: diabolical, toxic
- able/ible: reliable, incredible
- ine: asinine, canine
- ile: facile, futile
- ive: reproductive, superlative
- al: trivial, superficial
- an: Korean, Herculean
- ar: stellar, clear
- ent: different, patient
- ous: tedious, malicious
- some: cumbersome, tiresome
- ant: blatant, militant
If you’re uncertain whether or not a word is an adjective, you can often get an idea from its placement within a sentence. In most cases, an adjective will come before the noun being described or modified — for instance, “an angry dog.” When an adjective appears before the noun it modifies, it is known as an attributive adjective and often follows a definite article (such as “the”) or an indefinite article (such as “a” or “an”).
However, when an adjective follows a linking verb such as “was,” “smells,” or “tastes,” it will appear after the noun. Consider the following sentence: “Her mother was furious.” In this case, the word “mother” is the noun, “was” is the linking verb and “furious” is the adjective. When an adjective takes this form, it is known as a predicate adjective.
In certain circumstances, an adjective may appear directly after the noun it describes—for example, you could write “something sinister.” In this case, the adjective is known as a postpositive adjective.
1. Descriptive adjectives
Descriptive adjectives are words that describe nouns and pronouns and, not surprisingly, most adjectives fall into this category. Also known as qualitative adjectives, their function is to attribute certain characteristics to the thing that is being described. For example:
- I have a lovely neighbor
- I feel miserable
2. Quantitative adjectives
As the name suggests, these words describe the quantity of the object being described: i.e. they provide details as to how much or how many there is of something.
Quantitative adjectives are not only numbers. They can also be words that modify a noun or pronoun—these terms indicate more or less of something. For example:
- I ate seven pieces of cake at the birthday party
- I need to work more hours this month if I want to pay my rent
- I cleaned the whole bathroom
3. Demonstrative adjectives
Also known as determiners, demonstrative adjectives help identify a particular noun or pronoun within a sentence and can confer a special importance on the object (or objects) being described.
Take the following sentence: “That woman is cheating on her husband.” In this sentence, the demonstrative adjective (that) can make it clear that you are referring to a particular woman and not, for example, the woman standing next to her.
- This dress makes me feel frumpy (refers to a singular noun that is close in distance)
- That dog is always playing in our rubbish bin (refers to a singular noun that is far away in distance)
- These sunglasses were a present from my husband (refers to a plural noun that is close in distance)
- Those curtains would look great in my bedroom (used in reference to a plural noun that is far away in distance)
4. Proper adjectives
While most of us are familiar with proper nouns, the concept of proper adjectives is less well known. However, it’s actually relatively straightforward. These words are simply the adjectival form of a proper noun. For example:
- I was wearing a Victorian wedding dress
- Japanese food has a real kick to it
- I gave up on my diet and had a McDonalds burger
5. Possessive adjectives
These terms denote the person to whom an object belongs. For example:
- My parents
- Her guitar
- Their dog
- Your laundry
- Our television
- His trousers
If you’re using the adjectives listed above (with the exception of “his”), you can only do so before a noun. For example, you would say “her fiancé”, but cannot simply say “her” without specifying which noun is being described.
Should you want to leave out the noun, you can use one of the possessive pronouns listed below.
You could, for example, have the following exchange:
“Whose naughty children are those? The parents ought to be ashamed.”
“Oh, they’re mine.”
6. Interrogative adjectives
The function of these adjectives (of which there are just three examples) is to ask a question.
- Which jacket matches this shirt?
- What subject do you prefer at school?
- Whose turn is it to make dinner?
Be aware that the term “whose” belongs to both the interrogative and the possessive adjective types.
7. Distributive adjectives
The purpose of these adjectives is to describe certain individuals or objects within a group of many. For example:
- Neither sister had a talent for ballet
- Every child in the class had completed their homework
- Each of these allegations is untrue
Be aware that distributive adjectives are normally used with a singular form of the noun.
8. Compound adjectives
One of the least complex adjective types on our list, a compound adjective is simply two or more words that together form an adjective. These are often, although not always, joined by a hyphen. It is common for compound adjectives to begin with a number and end with a noun.
- Rachel had written Ross an 18-page letter
- Chelsea worked on a part-time basis as a cleaner
- His wife’s apologies had started to sound all too familiar
One important point to bear in mind: if the first word within a compound adjective ends with the letters “ly,” it will not take a hyphen. As such, the description “the scantily clad actor” is correct, while you could not write “the scantily-clad actor.”
9. Indefinite adjectives
Writers often use these terms to describe non-specific items, people, or objectives. Indefinite adjectives can be particularly useful if you don’t possess all the information regarding the noun being described. For example:
- There were a few cows in the field
- Several of the windows were open
- Many of the students were late for school
Degrees of adjectives
In the same way that there are different types of adjectives, there are also different degrees of adjectives, which are often, although not always, used for the purposes of comparison between various numbers of nouns.
- Positive: as the most common adjectival degree, this is probably the form of the adjective you think of first. For example, “the car is red.” The term positive simply means that these adjectives do not draw a comparison between two (or more) nouns.
- Comparative: these words draw a comparison between two or more people or objects. For example, “the younger sister”
- Superlative: used to describe three or more nouns, a superlative adjective describes the noun with the most extreme quality and typically appears after the definite article (“the”). You might, for instance, write “Nell is the brightest child in the class.”
Getting your adjectives in order
When you’re using multiple adjectives to describe the same noun, it’s important to be aware that there are specific rules regarding the order in which these adjectives must appear.
Although most native speakers tend to order their sentences correctly without the need to be taught, the order in which adjectives for a single noun should be listed goes as follows:
Size comes before color, which is why “the big yellow car” sounds better than “the yellow big car.”
And, okay, it would be extremely unlikely to find all these types of adjectives in one sentence—if you have one, chances are you need to be more succinct. However, you should remember this rule if your work includes more than one adjective in a single sentence.
A word of caution
One point to bear in mind: no matter how much value adjectives can bring to your writing, you should be wary of overusing them. Should you fall into this trap, your prose could appear cumbersome and overly complex, or, in a worst-case scenario, ridiculous. For example, the sentence “she is an intelligent person” works perfectly well, and there is typically no need to write “she is both cerebral and erudite” in order to show off your extensive vocabulary.
That said, don’t be put off experimenting with adjectives the next time you use them in your writing. Picture the object you want to describe and the precise word that would help your reader recreate a similar picture in their mind. If the first word that comes to mind doesn’t fit, try another.
To learn more about how Eleven’s team of expert writers can help you communicate more effectively with your readers, check out our copywriting services.
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Katy Ward has been an editor and writer for more than a decade. Having written for both national newspapers and independent media outlets from her home in the north of England, she specialises in finance, tech, mental health, and the arts. As well as penning short stories in her spare time, she can be found on Twitter at @KatyWardHull