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English Parts of Speech: Adjectives, Determiners, and Adverbs September 2, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Grammar, Language.

Series index: English Parts of Speech Overview



Adjectives describe nouns. Simple as that. Know Your Adjectives has grammatical information about any adjective.

Adjective Usage

Adjectives are either attributive or predicative. Attributive adjectives appear before the noun (the red car), while predicative adjectives appear after the noun and a linking verb (the car is red). Almost every adjective can be attributive and predicative, with a few exceptions (main, only, etc.).

Only Gradable Adjectives can have comparative and superlative forms (faster, fastest, older, oldest); Non-gradable Adjectives (like male, female, unique, etc.) can only occur in their basic form, called the positive form (fast, old, male, female). See Comparison of Adjectives for a short review.

English has an unofficial rule regarding the order of ajdectives; for example, the wooden, red box doesn’t sound quite right, but the red, wooden box does. To understand these subtle rules, people have organized adjectives based on their meaning (size, color, material, etc.). See Adjective Order in English for a quick look and Order of Adjectives in English for a detailed table and analysis.

Types of Adjectives

  • Adjectives of Relationchildlike, pillowy, bookish, etc. Adjectives of relation are formed by adding a suffix to a noun. Some adjectives of relation, called non-standard or irregular adjectives, come from a root word other than the common noun (bovine instead of cow-like, marine instead of sea-related). See the List of Irregular English Adjectives.
  • Eponymous AdjectivesShakespearean, Victorian, Boolean, etc. Eponymous adjectives are (usually) proper adjectives derived from a person’s name. See the List of Eponymous Adjectives in English.

Using Other Words Used As Adjectives

  • Participlescascading waterfall, broken table, etc. Participles are verbs used as adjectives, formed from a verb’s present participle (writing, wrecking) or past participle (written, wrecked).
  • Attributive Nouns or Noun Adjuncts – business partner, strawberry lemonade, etc. Attributive nouns act like attributive adjectives, but not predicative ones; you can’t say the lemonade is strawberry, for example. Don’t confuse attributive nouns with compound nouns; the attributive noun is the noun acting as an adjective (strawberry), and the compound noun is the combination of the two nouns (strawberry lemonade).
  • Compound Adjectivespinkish-purple, mind-boggling, etc. Compound adjectives, just like compound nouns, can be formed from many combinations of other parts of speech. In fact, compound adjectives are often just compound nouns (strawberry lemonade) used as attributive nouns (strawberry-lemonade color).


Traditional grammar and many dictionaries consider determiners a type of adjective, but Wikipedia’s Determiner entry points out some key differences. Here are the five main types of determiners:

  • Quantifiers – many, few, half, etc. Numbers (one, two, three) and ordinals (first, second, third) are also considered determiners.


Simply put, adverbs describe everything except nouns. They have many different uses and can appear virtually anywhere in a sentence; see this note on Adverbs As a “Catch All” Category. Also be sure to check out Know Your Adverbs, which offers grammatical information about any adverb.

Types of Adverbs

  • Adverbs of Mannerslowly, happily, carefully, etc. These also include proper adverbs, like Islamically and Shakespeareanly.
  • Adverbs of Degreevery, extremely, somewhat, etc.
  • Adverbs of Timenow, today, etc.
  • Adverbs of Frequencyoften, daily, annually, etc.
  • Adverbs of Placehere, there, etc.
  • Indefinite Adverbsanywhere, sometime, somehow, etc.
  • Adverbials – Adverbials include adverbs, adverbial phrases, and adverbial clauses — any group of words functioning as an adverb within a sentence. The three types of adverbials are:
    • Adjunctsearly this morning, once upon a time, every other Friday, etc.
    • Conjuncts or Conjunctive Adverbstherefore, however, thus, etc.
    • Disjuncts or Sentence AdverbsSeriously, I can’t. Hopefully, we’ll survive. These are also called sentence modifiers, adverbial disjuncts, and sometimes even disjunctive adverbs.

Note: every source I’ve found categorizes adverbs differently. After extensive reading, I’ve concluded that the adverb is undoubtedly the most disorganized (and annoying) part of speech in English. I’ll update this post when I have a better understanding of linguistics.

Adverb Usage

Like adjectives, not every adverb has a comparative and superlative form; most gradable adverbs are those describing manner. See this article on the Comparison of Adverbs.

Adverbs also have an unofficial rule regarding their order of use. Check out this interesting explanation of the Order of Adverbs.

Finally, here are some tips to avoid common adverb errors:

Adverb Quizzes


1. LittleFish - September 2, 2006

As a fellow autodidact, I feel I should tell you about a tool that I am using to retain all of my knowledge. That tool is called “Supermemo;” it’s more like a flashcard program. The program figures out when you forget information and forces you to review stuff before you forget it. So, if you forget a learned fact three days from now, you review it on the second day. Now the next review time might be a week from now, and then it goes to perhaps a couple weeks, and so on. But it allows you to remember whatever you put into it using as little time as possible (In theory; review is better than reading over the same information again that you’ve already forgot). http://www.supermemo.com
Check it out, I just feel kind of an obligation when I see someone doing their best studying on their own. (Right now I have 10,849 flashcards in my database thing, and I’ve remembered at least 95% of it).

2. goofy - September 11, 2006

Traditional grammarians have tended to call words adverbs when they don’t know what else to do with them. English actually has many more grammatical categories than the traditional eight parts of speech.

You might find this discussion on flat adverbs interesting. It is from Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

flat adverb A flat adverb is an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective: fast in “drive fast,” slow in “go slow,” sure in “you sure fooled me, ” bright in “the moon is shining bright,” flat in “she turned me down flat,” hard and right in “he hit the ball hard but right at the shortstop.” Flat adverbs have been a problem for grammarians and schoolmasters for a couple of centuries now, and more recently usage writers have continued to wrestle with them.

Flat adverbs were more abundant and used in greater variety formerly than they are now. They were used then as ordinary adverbs and as intensifiers:

… commanding him incontinent to avoid out of his realm and to make no war – Lord Berners, translation of Froissart’s Chronicles, 1523

… Iwas horrid angry, and would not go – Samuel Pepys, diary, 29 May 1667

… the weather was so violent hot – Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 119

… the five ladies were monstrous fine – Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 6 Feb. 1712

… I will not be extreme bitter – William Wycherly, The Country Wife, 1675

You would be hard pressed to find modern examples of these particular uses.

Originally such adverbs had not been identical with adjectives; they had been marked by case endings, but over the course of Middle English the endings disappeared. The 18th-century grammarians, such as Lowth 1762, explain how these words were adverbs. They saw them as adjectives, and they considered it a grammatical mistake to use an adjective for an adverb. They preferred adverbs ending in -ly.

Two centuries of chipping away by schoolmasters and grammarians has reduced the number of flat adverbs in common use and has lowered the status of quite a few others. Many continue in standard use, but most of them compete with an -ly form. Bernstein 1971, for instance, list such pairs as bad, badly; bright, brightly; close, closely; fair, fairly; hard, hardly; loud, loudly; right, rightly; sharp, sharply; tight, tightly. Many of these pairs have become differentiated, and now the flat adverb fits in some expressions while the -ly adverb goes in others. And a few flat adverbs – fast and soon, for instance – have managed to survive as the only choice.

3. LearningNerd - September 11, 2006

Thanks for your comment, goofy! That’s really interesting — I had never heard of flat adverbs before. This is further proof that adverbs really can drive you insane! Maybe we should get rid of them altogether. After all, does it really matter how, when, where, or why anything happens? Maybe adverbs are the true root of all evil.

Hey, it’s possible.

4. goofy - September 12, 2006

I’m not fond of the description of adjectives as “words that describe nouns.” It’s too vague for me. Verbs could be said to describe nouns too. Nouns can describe nouns.

How about this: adjectives appear before the noun and after the determiner. They can be put into the comparative and superlative forms. This is done by adding “er” and “est” – for instance “red” “redder” “reddest”, or by prefixing the adjective with “more” or “most”.

so in the phrase

the old stone wall

“old” is an adjective, because we can put it into the comparative and superlative: “older”, “oldest”.

“stone” is not an adjective, because we cannot say “stoner”, “stonest”, or “more stone”, “most stone”.

The same sort of functional and distributional definitions can be applied to other grammatical categories as well. Instead of saying a noun is a person, place or thing, why not say that it can be proceed by a determiner, and can by put into the plural, usually by adding “s”. Then we have the beginning of a really useful definition.

5. Dana - September 12, 2006

I understand the limitations of calling adjectives “words that describe nouns,” but there are also limitations to the description above.

Not all adjectives can be put into comparative and superlative forms; some are absolute (dead/deader/deadest? pregnant/more pregnant/most pregnant?).

Adjectives can appear after nouns as predicate adjectives. They can also appear after nouns in other constructions (“the stone wall, old and crumbling”).

In the example above, “stone” functions as an attributive noun, which is adjectival. It can’t be ruled out as an adjective simply because it doesn’t have a comparative or superlative form.

Verbs that describe nouns are verbals that function as adjectives; otherwise, verbs can’t really be said to describe nouns.

Nouns that describe nouns are appositives, which rename other nouns and are rarely referred to as adjectives, so yes, nouns can be said to describe other nouns.

I’m not a grammarian or a linguist, and I know terminology can be a bitch, but calling adjectives “words that describe nouns” works for me.

6. goofy - September 13, 2006

Oh I know my definition isn’t perfect, but it’s a start at a better definition. :)

My problem is simply that “words that describe nouns” doesn’t explain how the adjective functions grammatically.

7. goofy - September 13, 2006

My dictionary lists “deader” and “deadest”.

As for “more pregnant”, I have found examples, and it seems to mean “further advanced in the pregancy”

I’m feeling more pregnant all the time.

i’m getting a bit more discouraged as i get more pregnant

However this isn’t to say that there are adjectives that cannot be put into the comparative and superlative. But these two clearly can.

8. Dana - September 13, 2006

Okay, bad choices. People might use “deader” and “deadest” figuratively. Good call.

I realize there’s a difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach to language, but the appearance of “more pregnant” on a blog in a colloquial sense doesn’t make the phrase correct or logical. I doubt an OB/GYN would compare two of her patients with this phrase. Perhaps better argument would cite the word’s figurative sense, in which one pause might be more pregnant than another.

In any event, I wasn’t trying to debate the absolute nature of an adjective (go crazy with “unique”) as much as I was trying to point out that the qualification that an adjective must have a comparative and superlative form is clearly misguided.

9. goofy - September 13, 2006

But are there any adjectives that cannot be put into the comparative and superlative? That’s seems to be part of being an adjective.

10. LearningNerd - September 13, 2006

I’m not sure about this, but I think some languages treat qualities as verbs; for example, they might have a specific verb for “being red.” I mention this because it shows that the concepts of qualities and states of being overlap. Is pregnant a quality or a state of being? Is it both?

Either way, the fact is that English treats both qualities and states of being in more or less the same way. You can say “the red chair” or “the chair is red”, just like you can say “the pregnant woman” or “the woman is pregnant”. The gradable-ness of each adjective may be debated, but every adjective functions the same way in its basic form.

I agree that the definition “adjectives are words that describe nouns” isn’t a complete description, but it is one major characteristic. Have you ever seen an adjective modify a verb, adverb, preposition, or any other part of speech? Yes, nouns can also modify nouns, but unlike adjectives, they can also stand on their own; adjectives that stand on their own always refer to an implied noun, like “the rich (people).” So, you might define an adjective as a word whose primary function is to describe a noun, or as a word that can’t stand on its own without modifying a noun.

But since I’m simply summarizing traditional grammar in these posts, I’m going to let the simple, inadequate definitions stand for now; traditional grammar itself is often criticized for being simple and inadequate, anyway. When I get around to posting about the details of linguistics and what they call “modern grammar”, I’ll definitely address this issue again.

11. goofy - September 13, 2006

But what does “describe nouns” or “modify nouns” even mean? It’s too vague for me.

The car is moving.

Here the verb “move” describes the noun.

12. LearningNerd - September 14, 2006

If you consider an action to be a description of a noun, then I guess you could say that. “The car moves” or “The car is moving” does say something about the car. Adjectives and verbs do sort of overlap, like with participles: in “the moving car”, the word moving functions as an adjective (describing the car, maybe distinguishing it from a parked car), and it also expresses an action being performed by the car.

But “the car is moving” and “the moving car” function very differently within a sentence. A noun and a verb like is moving form a complete sentence; a noun and a word functioning as an adjective can’t form a complete sentence. If you offered “the moving car” to the reader as a complete sentence, the reader would be left wondering, “OK, so what about the moving car? What’s happening to it? What’s it doing?” In our language, an idea isn’t grammatically complete unless something happens.

Anyway, thanks for being persistent with your view, goofy; you forced me to look closer at this! The parts of speech look simple and easily distinguishable at first glance, but when you really dig into it, you find that the abstract concepts of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on do overlap quite a bit. We have words like argument (n.), argue (v.), arguable/argumentative (adj.), arguably/argumentatively (adv.) — the list goes on. So yes, I agree with your original point: it’s best to define each part of speech based on its grammatical characteristics.

13. goofy - September 14, 2006

Yeah, my point was just that in “the car moves” or “the car is moving”, the verb is describing what the noun is doing.

But when you say “an idea isn’t grammatically complete unless something happens”, again that’s too vague from a linguistic point of view. :) You’d be better off saying “A sentence contains a subject and a predicate.”

Anyway, I enjoy your posts and look forward to more of them!

14. Indira Shrestha - October 14, 2006

Dear sir/madam,
I wanted to find out a suitable adverbs of frequency insted of the phrase. For example:- Sometimes, Never, Now and then, most often, at short interval, only just, very close,

15. Vicson Ajus - March 3, 2007

with adequate examples, explain some of the problems of the traditional definition of English part of speech?

urgent please

16. ahmad - March 30, 2007

im ahmad dwykat im from palestine i want to learn speak eglish i know alot of vocabulry but i dont know haw to use this vocabulary i hop you will help me

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