Definition and Examples of Adjectives

These descriptive parts of speech add color and detail

words healthy, wealthy and wise on street sign
The words healthy, wealthy, and wise are adjectives. James Brey/Getty Images

An adjective is a part of speech (or word class) that modifies a noun or a pronoun. In addition to their basic (or positive) forms (for example, big and beautiful), most adjectives have two other forms: comparative (bigger and more beautiful) and superlative (biggest and most beautiful). Adjectives often—but not always—serve as modifiers, providing additional information about another word or word group, such as a noun or noun phrase.

But adjectives can also themselves act as nouns in a sentence.

Learning a few basic grammatical rules and recognizing the various types of adjectives will have you correctly using these important parts of speech in no time. Below are the main types of adjectives you are likely to encounter in English, together with accompanying explanations for each.

Absolute Adjectives

An absolute adjective—such as supreme or infinite—is an adjective with a meaning that cannot be intensified or compared. It is also known as an incomparableultimate, or absolute modifierEnglish Language Centres gives this example of an absolute adjective:

  • He is dead.

In the sentence, the word dead is an absolute adjective. The person is either dead or he is not, says the firm that offers online and in-person English language courses. You cannot be deader than someone else and you cannot be the deadest among a group. According to some style guides, absolute adjectives are always in the superlative degree.

However, some absolute adjectives can be quantified by the addition of the word almostnearly, or virtually.

Attributive and Predicative Adjectives

An attributive adjective usually comes before the noun it modifies without a linking verb. For example, take this sentence from Maya Angelou's work "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings":

"In those tender mornings, the Store was full of laughing, joking, boasting, and bragging."

The word tender is an attributive adjective because it precedes and modifies the noun mornings. Attributive adjectives are direct modifiers of nominals.

By contrast, a predicative adjective usually comes after a linking verb rather than before a noun. Another term for a predicative adjective is a subject complement. The Oxford Online Living Dictionaries gives this example:

  • The cat is black.

In general, when adjectives are used after a verb such as bebecomegrowlook, or seem, they’re called predicative adjectives, says the dictionary.

Appositive Adjectives

An appositive adjective is a traditional grammatical term for an adjective (or a series of adjectives) that follows a noun and, like a nonrestrictive appositive, is set off by commas or dashes. For example:

"Arthur was a big boy, tall, strong, and broad-shouldered."
—Janet B. Pascal, "Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Baker Street"

As the example shows, appositive adjectives often appear in pairs or groups of three, called tricolons.

Comparative and Superlative Adjectives

The comparative adjective is the form of an adjective involving the comparisons of more or less as well as greater or lesser.

Comparative adjectives in English are either marked by the suffix -er (as in "the faster bike") or identified by the word more or less ("the more difficult job"). Almost all one-syllable adjectives, along with some two-syllable adjectives, add -er to the base to form the comparative. In most adjectives of two or more syllables, the comparative is identified by the word more or less.

The superlative adjective, by comparison, is the form or degree of an adjective that indicates the most or the least of something. Superlatives are either marked by the suffix -est (as in "the fastest bike") or identified by the word most or least ("the most difficult job"). Similar to comparative adjectives, almost all one-syllable adjectives, along with some two-syllable adjectives, add -est to the base to form the superlative.

 In most adjectives of two or more syllables, the superlative is identified by the word most or least. Not all adjectives have superlative forms.

After a superlative, in or of plus a noun phrase can be used to indicate what is being compared (as in "the tallest building in the world" and "the best time of my life").

Compound Adjectives

A compound adjective is made up of two or more words (such as part-time and high-speed) that act as a single idea to modify a noun (a part-time employee, a high-speed chase). Compound adjectives are also called phrasal adjectives or compound modifiers.

As a general rule, the words in a compound adjective are hyphenated when they come before a noun (a well-known actor) but not when they come after (The actor is well known). Compound adjectives formed with an adverb ending in -ly (such as rapidly changing) are usually not hyphenated.

Demonstrative Adjectives

demonstrative adjective is a determiner that comes before and points to a particular noun. Indeed, a demonstrative adjective is sometimes called a demonstrative determiner. For example:

  • Son, take this bat and hit that ball out of the park.

There are four demonstratives in English:

  • The "near" demonstratives: this and these
  • The "far" demonstratives: that and those
  • The singular demonstratives: this and that
  • The plural demonstratives: these and those

Denominal Adjectives

denominal adjective is formed from a noun, usually with the addition of a suffix—such as hopeless, earthen, cowardly, childish, and Reaganesque.

An example would be:

  • Our new neighborhood seemed romantic, somehow, and very San Franciscoish, especially to a couple of young people who hailed from Idaho.

In this sentence, the proper noun San Francisco is altered with the suffix -ish to form the denominal adjective. These kinds of adjectives can heighten the drama and descriptiveness of a sentence, as in this example:

"The president's oration was . . . Lincolnian in its cadences, and in some ways, was the final, impassioned, heart-felt rebuke to all those, including his opponent, who tried to portray him as somehow un-American."
- Andrew Sullivan, "The American President." The Daily Beast, Nov. 7, 2012

Nominal Adjectives

The term nominal adjective refers to an adjective or group of adjectives that function as a noun. "The Complete English Grammar Rules" by Farlex International notes that nominal adjectives are generally preceded by the word the and can be found as the subject or the object of a sentence or clause. For example:

  • The elderly are a great source of wisdom.

The word elderly generally acts as a true adjective—an elderly gentleman—but in the previous sentence, it functions as a collective noun and as the subject of the sentence. Nominal adjectives are also known as substantive adjectives. 

Participial Adjectives

participial adjective is an adjective that has the same form as the participle (a verb ending in -ing or -ed/-en) and usually exhibits the ordinary properties of an adjective. For example:

"What kind of a man was he to fall in love with a lying thief?"
—Janet Dailey, "The Hostage Bride"

In the sentence, the verb lie is altered by adding the ending -ing to form the participial adjective lying, which then describes the noun thief. Also, the comparative and superlative forms of participial adjectives are formed with more and most and less and least—not with the endings -er and -est.

Adjectival Observations

Not everyone is a fan of adjectives. Constance Hale, in "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose," noted that the famous humorist and author Mark Twain had some rather negative comments about this part of speech:

"When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart."​

And in his 2002 memorial eulogy to former British Cabinet Minister Barbara Castle, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recalled her remark:

"Bugger the adjectives. It's the nouns and verbs people want."

—Ned Halley, "Dictionary of Modern English Grammar"

Nouns generally are the subject of a sentence, while verbs do describe the action or state of being. But used effectively and correctly, as you see from the previous examples, adjectives can indeed enhance many sentences by adding colorful, vivid, and detailed description, increasing interest in an otherwise mundane sentence.