As we saw in Chapter 1, nouns and verbs often have modifiers, words that describe the noun or the verb.

The following examples are not sentences but only parts of sentences. Here man is the noun; all the other words before and after man are modifiers that restrict the meaning of man in some way:


The man

The man in our neighborhood

The irritable, unfriendly man in our neighborhood


As we’ve seen before, many modifiers appear immediately before the noun they modify: The, irritable, unfriendly. Some appear after: in our neighborhood.

This brings us to a common term that we use throughout these chapters: phrase. A phrase is a word or group of words used as a single grammatical unit.

The three examples above are noun phrases. They contain the noun man and other words and phrases that modify man.



Each of those noun phrases could be used as a single grammatical unit—for example, as the subject of a sentence. That is, the noun by itself would be the simple subject, and the noun and its modifiers would be the complete subject.



Words like irritable and unfriendly are adjectives. Adjectives modify nouns and sometimes pronouns. They describe the noun or place limits on the word’s range of reference. In the following noun phrases, all the underlined words are adjectives:


The silvery moon The light brown hair Blue skies


In most cases, adjectives simply describe nouns: tall, short, ripe, rotten, round, perfect, clean, dirty, blank, full, empty, old, new, ancient, medieval, modern, and thousands more.



There are only three articles in English: a, an, and the. Articles are always used to modify nouns. Some grammar books treat articles as if they are a separate class of words, but in this book we’ll consider them a small, special subset of adjectives.

There is some confusion about when to use a and an. We use the article a before a word that begins with a consonant, and use an before a word that begins with a vowel, as in these phrases:


A child

A cheese omelet

An only child

An omelet


But we’re sometimes puzzled when we see a and an used in phrases like these:



A union of concerned citizens An honor to work with you


So let’s clarify the rules: Use a before a word beginning with a consonant sound (as in a union or a child):


A unicorn

An uninvited guest


Use an before a word beginning with a vowel sound (as in an honor or an only child):


A man

An honest man


The important consideration is the first sound (not the first letter) in the word following the article. This includes the first sound in abbreviations: An M.D., a U. S. territory.

Finally, a and an are called the indefinite articles. The is the only definite article in English, indicating a specific object that we can distinguish from all other objects of the same kind: the last straw.



In the noun phrases we’ve seen so far, the adjective appears before the noun. But adjectives can also appear immediately after the noun:


The old house, dark and foreboding

The noisy fairground, bright and crowded A glorious sunset, gold and lavender


Articles are helpful in recognizing other adjectives. Consider this:


The smaller child learned the simplest tasks.



When a word appears between an article and a noun, it’s an adjective or another word functioning as an adjective.



There are certain groups of words that we can easily recognize as adjectives. Color words are often adjectives: a blue moon, green apples. (Sometimes, in a different context, color words are nouns: a dark blue, a vivid red.)

These color words are adjectives:



The green apples Red sails

A blue moon

The gold and lavender sunset Red, white, and blue bunting

A yellow traffic light



There are other descriptive words:



The new house Impulsive behavior

A generous gift

A sentimental old song Exciting new developments

Soft music


There are adjectives that indicate number or quantity:



Both friends

A few corrections Many pages

One sock Two shirts

Three shoes



Words that show possession are often used as adjectives:



My mistake Your complaint

His insight

Bob and Ray’s routine Wayne’s help

Elizabeth’s reign



Some question words can be used as adjectives:


Which room?

What mess?

Whose responsibility?


We’ll say it again: A good desk or online dictionary can help you identify adjectives and other words.



Sometimes we build a noun phrase by using nouns or verbs to modify a noun:


The street noise

The traffic accident

The squeaking wheel

A frozen lake


In these cases, we say that the noun or verb is used adjectivally, and we’ll look at more cases of these in future chapters.



Some adjectives have three forms, which together make the

comparison of the adjective:






hot cold friendly famous



hotter colder friendlier

more famous more suspicious

more athletic

hottest coldest friendliest most famous

most suspicious

most athletic



In any comparison of adjectives like these, there is a positive form of the adjective that simply names a quality the noun has: hot, cold, friendly.

We use the comparative when we’re comparing two—and only two—items, and we use the superlative when we’re comparing three or more:


Susan is a fast runner.

Susan is a faster runner than Alice. In fact, she’s the fastest runner of all.


As we see in these sentences, when we’re comparing one- syllable adjectives (and some two-syllable adjectives), we create the comparative and superlative forms by adding the suffixes –er and –est. See the examples for hot, cold, and friendly in the table of comparisons above.

When we’re comparing adjectives of three or more syllables (and some two-syllable adjectives), we create the comparative and superlative forms by placing the modifiers more and most before the adjectives. See the examples for famous, suspicious, and athletic in the table above.

When the comparison of an adjective is formed using the –er and –est suffices or the more and most adverbs, we refer to it as a regular adjective.

Some two-syllable adjectives, like those below, can take either kind of comparison:


happy, happier, happiest

happy, more happy, most happy.


often, oftener, oftenest

often, more often, most often



Many careful writers seem to prefer happy, happier, happiest and often, more often, most often. When in doubt about a comparison, turn to the dictionary. And never use both kinds of comparison with the same word:


WRONG: Ed is our most hardest working employee.


Some adjectives that describe absolute qualities cannot be compared logically: We don’t usually say deader or deadest, or more pregnant or most pregnant, unless we’re kidding around. And it usually doesn’t make sense to say more full or most instant or most continuous.

But sometimes we ignore logic, especially in everyday conver- sation. Unique (meaning “one of a kind”) is a well-known example. Logically, something is either unique or it isn’t, but people will still say things like this:

That tire swing in their living room is a very unique feature. They mean that it’s an unusual feature. But in everyday con-

versation (as opposed to professional writing), it seldom matters

if you say very unique or most unique.

Every now and then a careful writer will ignore all of these arguments and compare an absolute quality, and it works. The opening words of the Preamble of the United States Constitution are one such example:


We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . .


No one we know of has ever objected.




Know the irregular adjectives.

A few adjectives have comparisons that are like clothes you see marked down in the stores: They’re irregular adjectives— they don’t follow the usual patterns. They are some of the most commonly used adjectives, so you probably know most of them already:






bad good little

much (or many)

worse better less more

worst best least most



Use superlatives correctly.

Consider this sentence:


I’ve heard Barbra and Taylor sing. Barbra is the best singer.


By the strictest rules of usage, we should write Barbra is the better singer, because we’re only comparing two singers. Using the superlative form in a comparison of two is common in casual conversation, but we should try to avoid it in careful writing unless we’re deliberately developing an informal style.


Use hyphens in certain kinds of phrases.

When we use an entire phrase as an adjective, we typically hyphenate it:



The four-year-old girl

A by-the-numbers process The broken-down car

The short-term solution


Some cases are a bit more complex. Consider this noun phrase: Nineteenth-century and twentieth-century American literature

We can remove one word and say the same thing: Nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature

Notice the hanging hyphen after nineteenth. It enables nineteenth and twentieth to share the second element century. Here’s another example:


Short- and long-term solutions.


All the uses of hyphens shown here reflect formal usage. Increasingly, the hyphen is omitted in cases like these in less formal published prose.







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Interactive Grammar Book by Sushumna Rao Tadinada; Professor Moustapha Diack; and Diola Bagayoko, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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