An adjective is a word that describes a noun, giving extra information about it. For example:

  • a sweet taste
  • a red apple
  • a technical problem
  • an Italian woman

Attributive and predicative

Most adjectives can be used in two positions. When they are used before the noun they describe, they are called attributive:

  • a black cat
  • a gloomy outlook
  • a slow journey
  • a large suitcase

When they are used after a verb such as be,become,grow, look, orseem, they’re called predicative:

  • The cat was black.
  • The future looks gloomy.
  • The journey seemed slow.
  • They were growing tired.

There are some adjectives that can only be used in one position or the other. For example, these two sentences are grammatically correct:

√ She was alone that evening. [‘alone’ = predicative ]

√ It was a mere scratch. [‘mere’ = attributive]

These sentences, on the other hand, are not correct:

X I saw an alone woman. [‘alone’ cannot be used in the attributive position]

X The scratch was mere. [‘mere’ cannot be used in the predicative position]

Comparing adjectives

Most adjectives have three different forms, the absolute (also known as the positive), the comparative, and the superlative:

absolute comparative superlative
sad sadder saddest
happy happier happiest
unusual more unusual most unusual

The comparative form is used for comparing two people or things, while the superlative is used for comparing one person or thing with every other member of their group:

He is taller than me. [comparative]

He was the tallest boy in the class. [superlative]

The book was more interesting than the film. [comparative]

It’s the most interesting book I’ve ever read. [superlative]

As you can see, some adjectives change their spelling when forming their comparative and superlative forms. For more information about this, see Spelling rules and tips.

You’ll find that most dictionaries will show you the spellings of adjectives that change their form. For example, if you look up 'happy' in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, you’ll see that the comparative and superlative forms are given in brackets directly after the part of speech:

happyadjective (happier, happiest)

Always look up an adjective if you are unsure about how to spell its comparative or superlative form.

Grading adjectives

Most adjectives are gradable. This means that their meaning can be modified by placing one or more adverbs in front of them. For example:

  • an expensive car
  • a very expensive car
  • a fairly expensive car
  • an extremely expensive car

The adverbs very, fairly, and extremely are telling us where this particular car belongs on the scale of ‘expensiveness’. By using them, we can make a significant difference to the meaning of an adjective.

Qualitative and classifying adjectives

Not all adjectives have a comparative and superlative form nor can they all be graded. This is because there are two types of adjective, known as qualitative and classifying.

Qualitative adjectives describe the qualities of a person or thing – whether they are large or small, happy or sad, etc. This type of adjective can be graded. For example:

  • a fairly tall man
  • a very boring film
  • a really long holiday
  • an extremely expensive car

Classifying adjectives place people and things into categories or classes. Do you read a daily newspaper or a weekly one? Does your house have an electric oven or a gas oven? Here are some more examples of classifying adjectives:

  • the western hemisphere
  • an annual event
  • the external walls
  • a nuclear weapon

Classifying adjectives don't generally have comparative and superlative forms. It would sound strange to describe one event as ‘more annual’ than another, for example, or one weapon as ‘the most nuclear’. In general, classifying adjectives cannot be graded either. An event cannot be ‘very annual’ nor an oven ‘fairly electric’.

See the OxfordWords blog for more about gradable and non-gradable adjectives.


Back to word classes (or parts of speech).

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Grammar and usage