Adjectives and noun modifiers in English

When we want to give more information than can be provided by using a noun alone, we can add an adjective to identify a person or thing, or describe them in more detail, e.g.:

her new dress
a kind person
the phonetic alphabet
accuracy is important

Note that sometimes nouns can be placed before other nouns as a way of identifying a particular type of person or thing, e.g.:

a chocolate cake

the football player

Nouns used in this way are usually referred to as noun modifiers. Though they are functioning in a similar way to some adjectives, we classify them as nouns. Examples like this are often referred to as compound nouns, with the first noun identifying a particular type in relation to the group of people or things described by the second noun.In the following article, we will focus on true adjectives, rather than noun modifiers.


Position of adjectives

Most adjectives can appear before a noun as part of a noun phrase, placed after determiners or numbers if there are any, and immediately before the noun, e.g.:

She had a beautiful smile
He bought two brown bread rolls.

Adjectives placed before a noun in this way are generally referred to as occurring in the attributive position.

Most adjectives can also occur as complements of the verb be and other link verbs such as become, feel or seem, e.g.:

Her smile is beautiful
She didn’t seem happy

Adjectives placed after the verb in this way are generally referred to as occurring in the predicative position.

When the information contained in an adjective is not the main focus of a statement, then the adjective is usually placed before the noun in the attributive position.

However, when the main focus of a statement is to give the information contained in an adjective, the adjective is usually placed after the verb in the predicative position, compare:

He handed me a bucket of hot water. (attributive position)

I put my hand in the bucket, the water was very hot. (predicative position, emphasising hot.)

Adjective complementation

When adjectives occur in the predicative position, after be or other link verbs, they are sometimes followed by a prepositional phrase or verbal complement. Some typical examples are summarised in the table below:

typical adjectives
Adjective + of aware, proud, capable She was proud of her son.
Adjective + to kind, sensitive, similar, equal Her house is similar to mine.
Adjective + with angry, impatient, honest I felt angry with him.
Adjective + on keen, gentle, dependent He’s totally dependent on his parents.
Adjective + in interested, disappointed We’re not interested in selling our house.
Adjective + about pleased, glad, anxious She was anxious about the results.
Adjective + to-infinitive difficult, easy, ready The book was easy to read.
Adjective + that-clause worried, confident, sure I’m confident that she’ll succeed.
Adjective + wh-clause unsure, uncertain He was uncertain what to do next.
Adjective + -ing busy, silly, awkward They’re busy painting the kitchen.

Order of adjectives

Adjectives describing the main characteristics of a person or thing are often grouped together before the noun they describe, e.g.:

a beautiful young woman

a large round table

Two or three descriptive adjectives are often used together in this way, though note that placing more than three adjectives before a noun would start to sound unnatural, e.g.:

a beautiful wooden table

sounds fine, but a structure like:

a beautiful large round carved wooden table

As a general rule, the adjective which is closest to the noun is the most closely linked to the meaning of the noun, describing a feature which is the most permanent about it, compared to adjectives which express a variable characteristic, such as an opinion. For instance, if we consider:

an expensive/cheap/beautiful black leather bag

the ‘leather-ness’ of the bag is a more essential characteristic than ‘cost’ or ‘appearance’.

If more than one adjective occurs which expresses an opinion or describes a general quality, then the adjective with a more general meaning, e.g.: nice, bad usually precedes the one with a more specific meaning, e.g.: comfortable, clean, for example:

a lovely soft blanket

If two adjectives with similar meanings are used, the shorter one often comes first, e.g.:

a soft comfortable pillow

The conjunction but is sometimes placed between two adjectives which describe contrasting qualities, e.g.:

a difficult but rewarding job

The order of adjectives in predicative position, i.e.: after the verb be or link verbs such as seem or feel, is less fixed than the order before a noun. The conjunction and is generally used to link adjectives in this position, occurring before the last adjective used, e.g.:

The room was small and dirty.

He felt cold, wet and hungry.



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