Tales from the Man who would be King

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English – Part 5: Adjectives

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 4, we looked at pronouns. This time, we'll look at adjectives. An adjective (abbrev. adj.) is a word that describes a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun.

An attributive adjective precedes the noun or noun phrase; for example, White in "White House". [Interestingly, in the romance languages, adjectives follow the nouns; for example, "casa blanca" (white house in Spanish, but literally house, white), "monte verde" (mountain, green in Spanish), and "Baton Rouge" (stick, red in French.]

A predicative adjective takes the place of a predicate. For example, a predicate version of "He is a happy man." is "He is happy."

An adjective becomes nominal when its noun is implied, as in "I preferred the old version, but he preferred the new [version]"

Some adjectives can go before or after a noun, as in "proper house" and "house proper", which have different meanings.

Compound Adjectives

When an adjective is made up of multiple words, it is a compound adjective. Ordinarily, these words are hyphenated, as in "easy-going man", "sky-high prices", "10-year-old boy", and "hard-to-get toy". Of course, like all good rules, there are exceptions: hyphenate a two-word compound except when the first word ends in -ly, as in "hotly debated topic", "hastily drawn conclusion", and "mostly unfounded claim". Of course, when used in another context, such as a predicate, the same words do not have that hyphen. For example, in "He is easy going."

Possessive Adjectives

As their name suggests, possessive adjectives indicate possession. These adjectives are:


Possessive Adjectives




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person

his, hers, its


However, don't confuse these with their possessive-pronoun counterparts mine, yours, his/hers/its, ours, and theirs.

The word whose is a possessive adjective.

For example:

  • "My car is blue."
  • "Which are your containers?" "Her bins have her name on them."
  • I believe this is their chair."
  • "Whose turn is it?"
  • "She's a person whose imagination knows no bounds."

The archaic version is thy, as in the Biblical quote, "Thy will be done", from the Lord's Prayer.

See also "generic you" and "determiners" below.

The Generic "you"

If one speaks with a plum in one's mouth, or one attended a proper boarding school, one might use the words one, oneself, and one's when referring to an unspecified person. For example, while in everyday speech we might say, "You must do your best", the more formal version would be "One must do one's best". As one can clearly see, one's is a possessive adjective.


Question: "When is an adjective not an adjective?" Answer: "When it is a determiner." Just when I was convinced there were only eight parts of speech in English, I found that someone (probably a lonely bloke called Ronald who as a child never had a pet) sitting in his ivory, linguistic tower, decided that, "No, some words simply can no longer be consider adjectives! Let's invent a new category and call it determiner, but only on Wednesdays, after 3 pm!"

In a previous installment, I raised the question as to what part of speech is an article (the, a, and and)? All of my dictionaries say these words are articles whereas for all other words, they actually tell me the part of speech. (Just like them to avoid the issue completely!)

To set the record straight, here's a direct quote from Wikipedia: "A determiner is a word, phrase or affix that occurs together with a noun or noun phrase and serves to express the reference of that noun or noun phrase in the context. That is, a determiner may indicate whether the noun is referring to a definite or indefinite element of a class, to a closer or more distant element, to an element belonging to a specified person or thing, to a particular number or quantity, etc. Common kinds of determiners include definite and indefinite articles (like the English the and a or an), demonstratives (this and that), possessive determiners (my and their), and quantifiers (many, few and several)."

As suggested above, another group of words that fall into this category is cardinal numbers. For example, "those 10 books", "the three little pigs", and "the seven wonders of the world". On the other hand, the ordinal numbers—first, second, third, and so on—are adjectives.

Adjective Order

It is quite common to apply multiple adjectives to the same noun. For example, "a little old lady" and "the big red shiny ball". In such cases, is there a suggested or required order for them? The hyperlink for this section leads to a detailed explanation, but here's the gist of what Wikipedia says in this regard. ' … the adjective order in English is Determiners, Observation, Size and shape, Age, Color, Origin, Material, Qualifier … adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age ("little old", not "old little"), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color ("old white", not "white old"). So, we would say "One (quantity) nice (opinion) little (size) round (shape) old (age) white (color) brick (material) house."' To borrow from Winston Churchill, the complexity of that previous sentence "is something up with which I will not put".

Comparison to Adverbs

We'll cover adverbs in a future installment, but a few comments regarding them are useful here. While an adjective qualifies a noun (or pronoun), an adverb qualifies a verb. For example, in the adjectival example, "the slow boat", the noun boat is slow. In the adverbial example, "the boat goes slowly", the verb go is modified. There are many such pairs of words, with the adverbial member ending in -ly. Occasionally, the exact same word can be an adjective or an adverb, depending on the usage. For example, "the tall man" vs. "the man stood tall".

The "fewer" vs. "less" Debate

For a long time now, these two words have been used as synonyms. However, there are those who argue that there is an important difference between the two. The issue has to do with whether the noun being modified is countable. For example, "There is less ice", but "There are fewer ice cubes". The noun ice is not countable while ice cubes is.

What about "The interest rate is less than 1%." Should that be less be fewer? No. While one could count whole percentage points, interest rates are often quoted with one, two, or even three decimal places, the values of which are not, in any whole-number sense, countable.

By the way, fewer is classified as a determiner while less is an adjective.

For more details, click here.


I do have one pet peeve regarding the use of adjectives: despite its extensive use by speakers of American English and claims by various (apparently inferior) dictionaries, fun is not an adjective. We did not have a fun time at the beach. Rather, we had a good/great time. Now, don't let me catch you misusing this again!