Adjectives form an open class

Like lexical verbs, nouns and adverbs, adjectives constitute an open class of words, i.e. the number of adjectives can increase as people either invent new ones or reclaim old ones that have fallen into disuse. Some relatively recently added adjectives in English include:

  • Ripper: excellent, fantastic (originally an Australian colloquialism).
  • Matchy-matchy: excessively color-coordinated.
  • Obamalicious: intelligent pragmatism and a sense of justice that inspires success.
  • Bargainous: costing less than usual or than might be expected; cheap or relatively cheap.

Descriptors

Adjectives are typically characterized as descriptors. This is because they most commonly qualify nouns (or pronouns) by providing additional and specific information that describes, identifies or quantifies the noun. They may be used in a variety of ways but the two most common are: (1) before a noun, and (2) the use of the copula.

Before a noun

Adjectives frequently occur immediately before a noun (or pronoun) in English, as in the following example.

adjective

noun

the

small

house

In this utterance, we can see that the adjective small qualifies the noun that it precedes. In other words, it provides a more specific description of the following noun. We now know what sort of house is being referred to, i.e. it is a small house. The adjective, therefore, qualifies the noun house. It provides additional descriptive information that explains more fully the sort of house that is being referred to. We are able to infer that the house is not a big house because the additional information provided by the adjective indicates that it is a small house. Consider the next example.

adjective

noun

Helen’s

happy

brother

Again, we see that the adjective precedes the noun. Once more, it serves to qualify this noun. In particular, it tells us something about Helen’s brother’s emotional state. We now realize that Helen’s brother is happy. In summary, adjectives provide additional descriptive information by qualifying nouns. The nouns may be qualified in a variety of ways. For example, an adjective may tell us something about the shape of an object (round, square, flat), its size (big, small, tiny), its color (red, yellow, blue), its emotional state (happy, sad, anxious), its physical condition (cold, hot, wet), its position (left, right, central), and so on. Here are a few more examples.

adjective

noun

your

square        

box

[shape]

the

small

house

[size]

Eric’s

red

shirt

[color]

the

upset

child

[emotional state]

the

soggy

pitch

[condition]

my

left

foot

[position]

Use of the copula

As well as occurring immediately before a noun, adjectives may also be joined to a noun by what is known as a copula. This is the use of verbs like be or become to join, or couple, the noun to the adjective. Consider the following example.

noun

copula

adjective
Kathryn is lovely

In this utterance, the adjective appears at the end but serves to provide additional descriptive information about the preceding noun Kathryn. The noun and the adjective are coupled together through the use of the copula is, derived from the verb be. We now, therefore, understand something more about the type of person Kathryn is, i.e. that she is lovely. Other examples of adjectives combined to nouns by the copula are as follows.

noun

copula

adjective
his girlfriend became upset
the supporters are ecstatic
Sam’s mother is overjoyed

Dynamic and stative adjectives

Adjectives (like verbs) may be further classified as either dynamic or stative

Dynamic adjectives

Dynamic adjectives signify attributes or characteristics that can usually be controlled by the person/animal/etc possessing them. So, for example, I can actively choose to be careful, rude, or quiet (but probably not choose to be white, tall or rotund). Since such dynamic attributes can be directed as necessary, they can be used in imperative structures, e.g.

Be careful!

Don’t be rude!

Be quiet!

In addition, according to the rules of English syntax, dynamic adjectives can be inserted into a be + –ing structure, e.g.

She is being careful.

The doctor was being rude.

Are they being quiet?

Stative adjectives

Stative adjectives denote relatively permanent states, e.g. white, tall, rotund. Because these states are fairly fixed, they typically cannot be controlled. Hence, they cannot usually be used in imperative structures, e.g.

* Be white!

* Don’t be tall!

* Be rotund!

Additionally, unlike dynamic adjectives, they cannot be used in be + –ing structures, e.g.

* She is being white.

* The doctor was being tall.

* Are they being rotund?

Whereas the majority of lexical verbs are dynamic, the majority of adjectives are stative.

Gradable and non-gradable adjectives

Gradable adjectives

We have seen that adjectives qualify nouns, i.e. they describe qualities of nouns. Some of these qualities can vary in intensity, e.g.

slightly cold coldvery coldextremely cold

somewhat bright – quite brightbrightreally bright – exceptionally bright

fairly fast fast – very fastextraordinarily fast

We see, therefore, that some adjectives (such as cold, bright and fast) can be graded, i.e. they are gradable.

As we see in the examples immediately above, gradable adjectives can be modified by so-called grading adverbs (also commonly called ‘intensifying adverbs‘) that indicate the intensity of what the adjective is referring to, e.g.

grading adverb gradable adjective
slightly cold
somewhat bright
very fast

The majority of adjectives are gradable and, therefore, most can be modified by grading adverbs.

comparative and superlative

Gradable adjectives can also assume a comparative or superlative form.

When we compare two things we can use comparative adjectives to signify a difference between them, e.g.

Graeme’s refrigerator is cold but Craig’s is colder.

That bulb is bright but this one’s brighter.

The car is fast but the train is faster.

Here, the terms colder, brighter and faster are said to be the comparative form of the adjectives: they are comparative adjectives.

When we describe the extreme quality of one thing in a group of more than two we use the superlative form, e.g.

Graeme’s refrigerator is cold, Craig’s is colder but Margaret’s is the coldest.

That bulb is bright, this one’s brighter but the one over there is the brightest.

The car is fast, the train is faster but the plane is the fastest.

Coldest, brightest and fastest are, therefore, all examples of superlative adjectives.

Non-gradable adjectives

In contrast, some qualities cannot usually vary in intensity, e.g.

* slightly dead dead – very deadextremely dead

* somewhat pregnant – quite pregnantpregnant – really pregnantexceptionally pregnant

* fairly impossible impossible – very impossibleextraordinarily impossible

Consequently, some adjectives (such as dead, pregnant and impossible) cannot be graded, i.e. they are non-gradable.

Inherent and non-inherent adjectives

Sometimes a distinction is made between adjectives that describe an inherent property of a noun and those that do not.

Inherent adjectives

Inherent adjectives describe some inherent or intrinsic quality of a noun, e.g.

a new bike

a wooden bench

a paper plate

There is a direct characterization of the noun: the bike itself is new; the bench is made of wood – hence it is actually wooden; the plate is manufactured from paper – it is actually a plate made of paper.

Non-inherent adjectives

In contrast, non-inherent adjectives do not directly characterize a noun, e.g.

a new friend

a wooden actor

a paper tiger

There is nothing about the friend that makes him or her intrinsically new, the actor is not actually made of wood, and the tiger is not actually made of paper. The non-inherent adjectives in this instance are being used metaphorically.