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Adjectives - general problems

Adjectives in English may not seem like they should cause any problems. You do not need to change their endings according to the gender and case of the noun they qualify, as in German. Nor do you have to know whether they should be placed in front of or after the noun, as in French *. In fact, however, there are a number of difficulties that English adjectives can cause, even to the more advanced learners of the language. Let's have a look at some of these.

In general, adjectives can be both attributive and predicative. This means simply that we can say both the big house .. and the house is big; or the interesting book and the book is interesting. There are some exceptions however. Many adjectives beginning with the letter a cannot be used attributively. So, for instance, we can say the girl is asleep but not the asleep girl; or the animal is alive but not the alive animal. Similarly, we can say that a child is ill but to refer to an ill child does not seem right (although a sick child is acceptable English). The word poor is interesting, too. In its meaning of not rich, it can be used both ways: the people are poor or the poor people. But when it has the meaning of unfortunate or unhappy, it can only be used attributively. In other words, we can say the poor child, but not the child is poor.

Some adjectives, the so-called classifying adjectives, behave in the opposite way. For example you can speak about a woollen jacket, but we do not say my jacket is woollen. Similarly we refer to outdoor sports, but the sentence this sport is outdoor is impossible. A piece of writing may contain countless mistakes, but we cannot tell a child that her mistakes are countless.

Another problem for non-native speakers is knowing the correct order of adjectives when there are more than one qualifying a noun. For example, is it a big, old house or an old, big house? Do we speak of the three first days of the vacation or the first three days? Is someone who is annoying us a little obnoxious boy or an obnoxious little boy? Native speakers do not have to worry themselves with questions like this. They intuitively chose the correct order, although very few have any idea of the "rules" they are following when they do so.

A related problem, and one not intuitive to native-speakers, is the punctuation of strings of adjectives used attributively or predicatively. Can we write: She's a silly little girl .. or must it be She's a silly, little girl ..? If a nice big blue belt is acceptable (in British English at least), why is a wonderful enormous aquamarine belt not? He has a large, beautiful, powerful car .., is correct, but what about His car is large, beautiful, powerful .. ?

A further difficulty with adjectives is knowing the comparative and superlative form of those of two-syllables. Do they follow the one-syllable rule of adding "-er"? Or do they require more/most as three-syllable adjectives do? For example, is John a commoner name than Wilberforce or a more common one? Is this restaurant crowdeder than that one or more crowded? Is Mary politer than Susan or more polite? There are no rules that are of much use to answer these questions. The learner must rely on a good dictionary in order to employ the words correctly.


To test your knowledge of the use of adjectives in English, see if you can answer these questions:

1. Can the following adjectives be used both attributively and predicatively?

2. He's an old friend of mine. What does this sentence mean?

3. Put these adjectives into the correct order to qualify the given noun:

4. A silly little girl and a silly, little girl are both possible. Is there a difference in meaning between them?

5. Do we form the comparative of the following two-letter adjectives with -er or more?


1. Attributive, predicative or both?

2. He's an old friend of mine means that I have known him for a long time. To express the idea of his advanced age you would need to say something like: he's a friend of mine. He's (very) old.

3. These are the usual orders of attributive adjectives.

The examples from the text above are as follows:

4. Yes, there is a difference in meaning. A silly, little girl is a girl who is silly and who is little. The writer wants to give equal weight to both adjectives. A silly little girl, on the other hand, is a girl who is silly. The writer wants to emphasize her silliness, not her littleness. In fact, she may not even be particularly little in size - the littleness is in the immaturity of her behaviour.

5. -er or more

The other examples from the text

* A reader of this page reminded me of the small number of postnominal English adjectives as in the following examples: whiskey galore, malice aforethought, notary public.

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