Before exploring some of the fun facts about adjectives, let’s define them. Adjectives describe nouns, and we use them to add information and engage the reader. We use them to inform and engage the reader. Compare these two sentences:
This article is about adjectives.
This exciting, educational, and informative article is filled with fun, fascinating, and interesting facts about adjectives.
Let’s explore some of these fun, fascinating, and interesting facts.
Not All Adjectives Describe
Hard to believe, but some adjectives do not describe. Think of these adjectives as essential words. Descriptive adjectives add meaning, but take them out and the essential meaning is not lost. What remains is clear but not descriptive.
The same cannot be said for essential adjectives.
The articles (a, an, the) are essential adjectives and they change what a sentence means. “Hand me a book” is not the same as “Hand me the book.” And unfortunately for English language learners, “Hand me book,” is incorrect.
Indefinite articles—any, many, few, several—are another adjective class. Specific numbers, such as twelve or twenty-seven, are numerical adjectives.
We use interrogative adjectives (which, what, whose) to ask questions, and possessive adjectives (my, yours, his, their) indicate who owns or has something.
Adjectives Are Busy Bees
Adjectives convey a lot of information. We use them to state opinions, provide factual information, give opinions, add details, or give context to a situation. Use them to change the meaning of a sentence.
Adjectives can make comparisons (comparative) or indicate when something is superior (the sunniest day of the year).
Finally, adjectives can express negativity if used in the correct context. Add a negative adjective, and here’s what happens:
- My favorite candy bar is a Baby Ruth.
- My least favorite candy bar is a Baby Ruth.
Adjectives Stay in Line
The order of adjectives in sentences isn’t random. Native English speakers are unaware that adjectives follow a specific order. Through listening at an early age, they intuitively learned the order.
- Determiner–a, an, the, that, some, four
- Condition or physical quality
That is why “an old and gray car” (age + color) sounds correct while “a gray and old car” (color + age) seems off.
Compare ” wireless, cheap radio” (type + opinion) to “a cheap, wireless radio.” (opinion + type).
An American, old, large flag fell to the ground.
A large and old American flag.
A French, flowery, ugly doily lay on the floor.
A silk and flowery French doily lay on the floor.
There is some flexibility to the order of adjectives, but pity the English language learner who must add this to the list of things they have to learn to become fluent speakers.
Adjective Clauses Don’t Need Adjectives
An adjective clause starts with a relative pronoun (who, which, that) or relative adverb (when, where, why). It also contains a subject and a verb. But it cannot stand alone as a sentence:
When I went to the bank,
Is a dependent clause.
An adjective clause can also be inserted in the middle of a sentence, usually between subject and verb:
The lamp that Jill bought yesterday does not work.
So there you have it—an adjective clause without an adjective.
An Adjective can be a Flat Adverb
Adverbs typically end in “-ly”, but there are some exceptions, and those are called flat adverbs.
Take the word fast.
- The fast runner.
- He ran fast.
Quick, slow, wrong, and different are other adjectives that can be flat adverbs.
And don’t listen to the grammarians who insist that one must drive slowly. Point them to this Macmillan Dictionary Blog article about the topic and the overly prescriptive 18th century grammarians who disliked flat adverbs because–well, Latin grammar.
Advice to Take With a Grain of Salt
You will sometimes read advice that claims that a writer should not use too many adjectives. “When in doubt, take it out.” William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, states that adjectives and adverbs clutter writing.
However, Mark Liberman did a computational analysis of adjective usage and posted it on The Language Log. In a comparison between various authors, he finds that the difference between writers is not significant. Three sections of William Zinsser’s book have 12.8% adjectives. An analysis of a Mark Twain letter has 14.1% adjectives. Ironically, Liberman analyzed a letter that contains the Twain quote, “When you see an adjective, kill it.”
A writer needs to use adjectives, and stilted prose is rarely due to an overuse of adjectives. Organization, overuse of passive voice, poorly structured sentences, and flowery vocabulary contribute to poor writing, not an excess of adjectives.