Classifying Adjectives: An Introduction

Words That Identify Divisions Among Objects

classifying adjective
The meaning of a classifying adjective such as "atomic" varies depending on the usage. Magictorch/Getty Images

In English grammar, a classifying adjective is a type of attributive adjective used to divide people or things into particular groups, types or classes. Unlike qualitative adjectives, classifying adjectives don't have comparative or superlative forms.

Function and Position of Classifying Adjectives

Geoff Reilly had this to say about classifying adjectives in his "Skills in Grammar and Style" (2004):

"Sometimes attributive adjectives show that the noun they are describing is of a particular type or class. They put the noun into a particular group. They classify the noun as being of a certain type, so they are called classifying adjectives. For example: The soldier was driving a military vehicle.

The soldier could have been driving any type of vehicle but, in this case, the vehicle was of the military class or type. The noun "vehicle" is modified by the classifying adjective "military," which describes the class or type of vehicle.

"Classifying adjectives normally come in front of the noun:

  • Atomic physics
  • Cubic centimeters
  • Digital watch
  • Medical care
  • Phonetic alphabet

The noun "physics" has the classifying adjective "atomic" in front. "Atomic" describes a particular type or class of the science of physics. Similarly, "watch" has the classifying adjective "digital" in front of it. Rather than being a traditional analog watch, this particular watch belongs to the type or class that is digital."

Identifying Classifying Adjectives

Gordon Winch, in  2005's "The Foundation Grammar Dictionary" said: "A classifying adjective is a describing word that tells us the class of the noun it describes, eucalyptus trees, Holden cars. You can pick out a classifying adjective because it will not take the word 'very' in front of it.

You cannot say a very eucalyptus tree."

Word Order With Classifying Adjectives

"COBUILD English Usage" gives some good insight into the correct order of several adjectives in a sentence.

"If there is more than one  classifying adjective in front of a noun, the normal order is:

  • Age — shape — Nationality — Material
  • ...a medieval French village.
  • ...a rectangular plastic box.
  • Italian silk jacket.

Other types of classifying adjectives usually come after a nationality adjective:

  • ...the Chinese artistic tradition.
  • ...the American political system."

'Unique' as a Classifying Adjective

In "Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation" from 2013, John Seely had this to say about the usage of the word "unique":

"[Unique] is a classifying adjective. Classifying adjectives put things into groups or classes so they cannot normally be modified by having adverbs such as 'very' placed in front of them. 'Unique' means 'of which there is only one,' so it is, strictly speaking, wrong to say, for example: He was a very unique person.

"...On the other hand there are a small number of modifiers that can be used with 'unique.' The most obvious is 'almost':

  • Britain is almost unique in continuing to charge almost all its domestic customers on an unmeasured basis. [for water]

    This can be justified because it means that Britain is not the only country to do this; there are a few others. There is, however, a looser meaning frequently given (especially in informal speech and writing) to 'unique': 'outstanding or remarkable.' When it is used in this sense it is often preceded by 'very'  This use is best avoided in formal speech or writing."

    Examples of Classifying Adjectives

    • "The video lasted seven minutes, which I know because Frankie was timing it on his digital watch." -- Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver,  "Barfing in the Backseat #12: How I Survived My Family Road Trip"  (2007)
    • "I had a wooden coin that my future husband had given me." Mickey Sundgren-Lothrop, "Sons of Valor" ( 2009)
    • "A giant flashing electronic sign high up on the side of a building displayed a happy family drinking Coca-Cola under the slogan 'Can't Beat the Real Thing.'" James Bartleman,  "As Long as the Rivers Flow" (2011)
    • "On the isle of Guernsey, a small French lad named Apollos Rivoire, twelve years old, was taken by his uncle to the harbor of St. Peter Port." David Hackett Fischer, "Paul Revere's Ride"  (1994)
    • "For the Germans in the Second World War, the ferocity of the  British, American, and Canadian artillery fire was something altogether new, even for veterans of the Eastern Front." Robert Engen, "Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War"  (2009)
    • "In 1955, Arco, Idaho, became the first town in the United States to be powered by nuclear energy, and today there are more than 100 nuclear power plants in the United States." -- Howard S. Schiffman, ed., "Green Issues and Debates: An A-to-Z Guide" ((2011)
    • "About ten feet from where Homer was sitting grew a large eucalyptus tree and behind the trunk of the tree was a little boy." -- Nathanael West, "The Day of the Locust" (1939)
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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Classifying Adjectives: An Introduction." ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, January 31). Classifying Adjectives: An Introduction. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Classifying Adjectives: An Introduction." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2018).