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Ministry of Education.

Word Class: Adjectives

Traditionally, adjectives were called "describing words". Adjectives are words that modify nouns.

  • the cat
  • the valuable cat
  • the old tortoiseshell cat

In English, the adjective normally goes in front of the noun.

the tortoiseshell cat
definite article + adjective + noun

In some languages, the adjective comes after the noun.

Maori te ngeru ma
French le chat blanc
English the white cat

Adjectives can allow us to compare things and to show degrees of comparison. In this construction, the adjective may follow the noun. 

  • My cat is old.
  • My cat is older than yours.
  • My cat is the oldest in the street.

This is usually done by adding -er, -est.
If the adjective is fairly long, we use more and most.

  • My cat is venerable.
  • My cat is more venerable than yours.
  • My cat is the most venerable in the street.

Adjectives with one syllable usually take -er/-est; those with two syllables can usually have either. Adjectives with three syllables or more take more/most.

  • Our dog is gentler with the kitten than the children are.
  • Our dog is more gentle with the kitten than the children are. Our dog is more interesting than yours.
  • Our dog is the most interesting.

The technical names for these adjective forms are:

comparative adjective - shorter, older, more beautiful, more sensible;

superlative adjective - shortest, oldest, most beautiful, most sensible.

Tests for recognising adjectives

The comparative and superlative forms are useful tests for recognising adjectives, but they don't work for all adjectives. Another useful test is that an adjective can go in the gap below:

  • the ___ noun.
  • the greedy cat, the foolish cat, the fat cat, the hungry cat, the tired cat.

This test helps with some words that don't look like adjectives. Utter is an adjective in "the utter fool", and next is an adjective in "the next trick". This is the only test that works for strange adjectives like these. Utter and next don't seem to be describing words, and they don't have comparative and superlative forms.

Irregular forms of comparison

good better best
bad worse worst

It is common to hear young children use forms like *gooder, *baddest, *bestest, *worser. They have learned the regular way of making comparatives and superlatives and are using these with an irregular form. This is a sign of language development. The irregular forms will be learned with experience in the language.

As children develop their language, they usually produce superlatives before they can produce comparative forms.

Summary of Terms

adjective modify
comparative form superlative form

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009