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Adjectives and noun modifiers in English – article

Type: Reference material

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield covering ways to approach teaching adjectives.


The book critic R. Z Sheppard once remarked that adjectives “are the potbelly of poetry”. Many English language teachers would not take such a disparaging view. Adjectives are often quite fun to teach and the rules surrounding them are, usually, quite straightforward. We start by looking at adjectives in relation to the wider phrasal structures they occur in, examining issues of position, complementation, and ordering.

When we want to give more information than can be provided by using a noun alone, we can add an adjective to identify a person or thing, or describe them in more detail, e.g.

her new dress
a kind person
the phonetic alphabet
accuracy is important

Note that sometimes nouns can be placed before other nouns as a way of identifying a particular type of person or thing, e.g.

a chocolate cake

the football player

Nouns used in this way are usually referred to as noun modifiers. Though they are functioning in a similar way to some adjectives, we classify them as nouns. Examples like this are often referred to as compound nouns, with the first noun identifying a particular type in relation to the group of people or things described by the second noun.

Position of adjectives

Most adjectives can appear before a noun as part of a noun phrase, placed after determiners or numbers if there are any, and immediately before the noun, e.g.

She had a beautiful smile.
He bought two brown bread rolls.

Adjectives placed before a noun in this way are generally referred to as occurring in the attributive position.

Most adjectives can also occur as complements of the verb be and other link verbs such as become, feel or seem, e.g.

Her smile is beautiful.
She didn’t seem happy.

Adjectives placed after the verb in this way are generally referred to as occurring in the predicative position.

When the information contained in an adjective is not the main focus of a statement, then the adjective is usually placed before the noun in the attributive position.

However, when the main focus of a statement is to give the information contained in an adjective, the adjective is usually placed after the verb in the predicative position, compare:

He handed me a bucket of hot water. (attributive position)

I put my hand in the bucket, the water was very hot. (Predicative position, emphasising hot.)

Though most adjectives can be used in both the attributive and predicative positions, there are a number of adjectives that can occur in one particular position only, as described below.

Position: attributive only

There are some adjectives which can only be used before a noun, in the attributive position. For instance, we talk about the main problem but cannot say, the problem was main.

Adjectives which occur only in the attributive position are generally those which identify something as being of a particular type. For instance, we can talk about a financial decision where financial distinguishes this from other types of decision, e.g. medical, political. This group of adjectives are often referred to as classifying adjectives, and rarely occur in the predicative position unless we specifically want to emphasise a contrast, e.g.

a chemical reaction not, *a reaction which was/is chemical

the phonetic alphabet not, * the alphabet is phonetic

It was an indoor pool. not, *the pool was indoor.

Other adjectives which generally appear in the attributive position are those which are used for emphasis, e.g.

The show was absolute/utter rubbish.

You made me look a complete fool.

The project was a total disaster.

Position: predicative only

There are some adjectives which usually occur in the predicative position, as complements of be or other link verbs. For instance, you can say He felt glad  but wouldn’t normally talk about a glad person.

Adjectives which usually occur in the predicative position include those which describe feelings, such as afraid, content, glad, ready, sure, sorry and upset, e.g.

She felt afraid. but not, *an afraid girl .
My daughter is upset but not, *my upset daughter.

They also include a group of adjectives with prefix a-, such as asleep, alive, alone, ashamed, awake,     aware, e.g.

I like being alone. but not, * I like being an alone person.

The baby’s asleep. but not, *the asleep baby.

Position: immediately after noun

Some adjectives that describe size or age can occur immediately after a noun that indicates a unit of measurement, e.g.

She was about five feet tall.

Her baby is ten months old.

The walls were six inches thick.

There is a small group of adjectives, sometimes referred to as post nominal adjectives, which can only occur immediately after a noun. Examples are:

the president elect

the devil incarnate

Many other adjectives can be used immediately after a noun when they form part of a (reduced) relative clause, e.g.

Let’s use the time available.

Is he someone capable of making difficult decisions?

I’d like to speak to all the people involved.

Position and meaning

There are some adjectives which can occur either before or after a noun, but the position they occur in has an effect on their meaning, e.g.

  • the concerned parents (= the parents who are worried)
  • the parents concerned (= the parents who are involved/mentioned)
  • the present situation (= the situation which exists now)
  • the people present (= the people who are here/there).
  • a responsible person (= a person who is sensible/reliable)
  • the person responsible (= the person who is to blame or has responsibility for something)

Adjective complementation

When adjectives occur in the predicative position, after be or other link verbs, they are sometimes followed by a prepositional phrase or verbal complement. Some typical examples are summarised in the table below:

typical adjectives
Adjective + ofaware, proud, capableShe was proud of her son.
Adjective + tokind, sensitive, similar, equalHer house is similar to mine.
Adjective + withangry, impatient, honestI felt angry with him.
Adjective + onkeen, gentle, dependentHe’s totally dependent on his parents.
Adjective + ininterested, disappointedWe’re not interested in selling our house.
Adjective + aboutpleased, glad, anxiousShe was anxious about the results.
Adjective + to-infinitivedifficult, easy, readyThe book was easy to read.
Adjective + that-clauseworried, confident, sureI’m confident that she’ll succeed.
Adjective + wh-clauseunsure, uncertainHe was uncertain what to do next.
Adjective + -ingbusy, silly, awkwardThey’re busy painting the kitchen.

Order of adjectives

Adjectives describing the main characteristics of a person or thing are often grouped together before the noun they describe, e.g.

a beautiful young woman

a large round table

Two or three descriptive adjectives are often used together in this way, though note that placing more than three adjectives before a noun would start to sound unnatural, e.g.

a beautiful wooden table

Sounds fine, but a structure like:

a beautiful large round carved wooden table

... though grammatical, would not normally occur in everyday speech or writing. Descriptive adjectives used in this way belong to seven main types. This table summarises the types and the usual order in which they appear if more than one adjective is placed before a noun.

For example, if you wanted to use an adjective referring to size and an adjective referring to shape, you would put the size adjective first, e.g.

a large round table

Similarly, an age adjective would normally be placed before an origin adjective, e.g.

a young Italian woman

An opinion adjective would occur before a shape or colour adjective, and a shape or colour adjective would occur before a material adjective, e.g.

a beautiful green silk dress

If two colour adjectives are used, then and is placed between them, e.g.

She was wearing a long black and gold scarf.

If three colour adjectives occur, a comma is placed after the first and the last two are linked with and, e.g.

The table was covered by a large red, white and blue flag.

As a general rule, the adjective which is closest to the noun is the most closely linked to the meaning of the noun, describing a feature which is the most permanent about it, compared to adjectives which express a variable characteristic, such as an opinion. For instance, if we consider:

an expensive/cheap/beautiful black leather bag

... the ‘leather-ness’ of the bag is a more essential characteristic than cost or appearance.

If more than one adjective occurs which expresses an opinion or describes a general quality, then the adjective with a more general meaning, e.g. nice, bad usually precedes the one with a more specific meaning, e.g. comfortable, clean, for example:

a lovely soft blanket

If two adjectives with similar meanings are used, the shorter one often comes first, e.g.

a soft comfortable pillow

The conjunction but is sometimes placed between two adjectives which describe contrasting qualities, e.g.

a difficult but rewarding job

The order of adjectives in predicative position, i.e. after the verb be or link verbs such as seem or feel, is less fixed than the order before a noun. The conjunction and is generally used to link adjectives in this position, occurring before the last adjective used, e.g.

The room was small and dirty.

He felt cold, wet and hungry.

Adjectives expressing opinion are often placed last, e.g.

Annabel was young, tall and beautiful.

If we want to imply a contrast between adjectives, the conjunction but is sometimes used, e.g.

The flat was small but comfortable.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I have a question: I remember when I suddenly started hearing "available" in the attributive position: "With available four-wheel drive" in advertisements. Prior to that time, I had only heard/used that adjective in the predicative position: "This job is available."
    Is the attributive position new? Had I simply not noticed it prior to ads? Because my students use it attributively as though that is normal, and it still sounds odd to my ears:
    "Thank you for applying for the available manager position...."

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  • These tips are helpful.

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