What are adjectives and how do they function?

This is the first of five chapters about Adjectives. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Introduce the concept of word classes in relation to adjectives

– Identify how languages may use adjectives differently

– Explore and exemplify the six common functions of adjectives in the English language

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Chapter 1

As a language learner, you’re probably already quite familiar with the concept of classifying words into different groupings based on their form and function, such as which words are nouns and which are verbs or prepositions. Knowing these word classes intimately allows a learner to have command of which suffixes, prefixes, syntactic structures and grammar are necessary to form accurate sentences in English. When writing academically, it’s particularly important that students are able to quickly recognise each class, understand and remember their various rules, and correctly apply this knowledge to a wide range of vocabulary and phrases.

This short reader on adjectives is therefore intended to explore this word class in particular detail, focussing specifically on how adjectives can be most usefully applied to both general and academic contexts. Chapter 1 first introduces the defining features of adjectives before offering some discussion as to their six functions. Chapter 2 then provides five tests for identifying adjectives, with Chapters 3 and 4 later exploring and exemplifying the seven different types of adjective and the most important rules surrounding their distribution and ordering. Finally, Chapter 5 provides a short list of the 150 adjectives and 15 adjective-based expressions that are perhaps most useful in academia.


What is an adjective?

Linguistically speaking, an adjective is a word that has the semantic role of providing further information about a noun’s quality or state of being (such as its size, quantity or material) and the syntactic role of pre- or post-modifying nouns and noun phrases within a clause. As will be explored in this reader however, it’s not enough to rely on definitions as concise as these when attempting to correctly identify adjectives. In fact, and as is highlighted by the table on the following page, there is some variety in how adjectives are used and formed by the world’s many languages:

Where English might say ‘I am hungry’ for example, other languages such as Spanish might form ‘I have hunger’ – or even ‘I hungry’, as in Chinese.

        As will be explored comprehensively in Chapter 2, when focussing on the English language’s use of adjectives, there are seven distinct types that student’s should become confident with using and recognising:

How are adjectives useful in English?

By answering questions such as ‘whose?’, ‘what kind?’ or ‘which one?’, adjectives in the English language are a particularly useful word class. To summarise their usefulness, we’ve identified an adjective’s six common functions below:


Function 1: Adjectives describe nouns

Firstly, and most importantly, whether you wish to describe an object’s number, quality, size, age, shape, colour, origin or material, there are simply hundreds (if not thousands) of adjectives that can help:

Function 2: Adjectives can provide specific opinions

Additionally, some adjectives may be used to provide specific opinions about specific types of nouns, restricting the overall number of nouns they can modify but increasing their descriptive power. When describing foods for example, the use of adjectives such as ‘delicious’ or ‘tasty’ would be quite grammatical, whereas the use of ‘pretty’ to describe a man and ‘handsome’ to describe a women would be considered most often incorrect.


Function 3: Adjectives can provide general opinions

Conversely, and less useful to the academic, are the adjectives provided in the table below that are more generally descriptive. These adjectives allow for greater flexibility with regards to the nouns they can modify. General adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘strange’ are indeed applicable to a vast number of nouns, which may perhaps help to explain why they’re so commonly used in spoken English.

Function 4: Adjectives can form comparisons

As is discussed in some detail in our short reader on comparatives and superlatives, certain adjectives such as ‘tall’ or ‘fast’ allow for comparisons to be made about two or more things in English. Such comparisons are usually made by simply adding an ‘-er’ or ‘-est’ suffix to the end of each adjective:

Function 5: Adjectives can intensify nouns

A fifth way that adjectives might be of use is when attempting to intensify a noun. Certain adjectives such as ‘absolute’ (as in ‘it was an absolute success’) are able to strengthen a noun in this way with ease. While the most common intensifying adjectives have been provided for you below, it’s worth noting that most of these are rather informal and should generally be avoided in academic contexts:

Function 6: Adjectives can mitigate nouns

Finally, and to the opposite effect, a small number of adjectives may also be used to weaken nouns through mitigation. To weaken how ‘boring’ a person is for example, perhaps to be polite, we could use the mitigating adjective ‘quite’ to create the expression ‘he is quite boring’.

Now that we’ve discussed what an adjective is in the English language and how they’re most useful for users of general or academic English, Chapter 2 next focusses on discussing the best methods for identifying adjectives in context. Continue reading if you wish to know more.

1 of 5 Chapters Completed


Once you’ve completed all five chapters about adjectives, you might also wish to download our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets to test your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Our adjectives academic reader (including all five chapters about this topic) can be accessed here at the click of a button.

Gain unlimited access to our adjectives beginner worksheet, with activities and answer keys designed to check a basic understanding of this reader’s chapters.

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Our adjectives advanced worksheet with activities and answer keys has been created to check a sophisticated understanding of this chapter’s readers. 

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