English Grammar

Adjectives

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Adjectives are said to modify nouns; that is, they describe or limit nouns in some way. If we call something a house, we do not in any way differentiate it from any other house. If we call a house a beautiful house, we restrict the house to the subset of houses that are beautiful; that is, we exclude from the subset houses that are not beautiful. In this sense, beautiful modifies house. And if we call the house a beautiful white house, we further modify it by the addition of the adjective white: we restrict the house to the subset of houses that are both beautiful and white.

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2. Attributive adjectives usually come right before nouns or pronouns, either following an article (a beautiful house, the beautiful house) or not preceded by an article (beautiful houses). Sometimes a noun is modified by two or more attributive adjectives (the beautiful white house; a tall, dark, and handsome stranger). Occasionally an attributive adjective follows its noun, as in time enough and something else. Attributive adjectives are distinguished from predicate adjectives, which come after linking verbs, e.g., white in the sentence The house is white

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3. When two or more attributive adjectives precede the same noun, a comma or commas are sometimes used to separate them from each other. The rule is this: A comma is needed between two attributive adjectives if they could be joined by and. For example, and could be used to join old and empty in the sentence An old, empty house stood on the corner; therefore, a comma is placed between the two adjectives. On the other hand, in the sentence Our school offers an unusual academic environment, and could not be placed logically between unusual and academic; therefore, no comma should be used. In the first sentence, the two adjectives modify house independently, whereas in the second sentence unusual modifies the noun phrase academic environment.

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4. These sentences contain predicate adjectives:

I had been sick for a week. Sick is a predicate adjective. Had been is a past-perfect form of the verb be.

She felt sad. Sad is a predicate adjective. In addition to feel, the verbs seem, become, look, remain, taste, and other similar verbs can be followed by predicate adjectives. You can test them with the adjective good: it seems good, he is becoming good, you look good, we want to remain good, the water tastes good.

Blackberries grow wild along the south edge of the woods. Wild is a predicate adjective. The verb grow is intransitive; that is, it does not take a direct object in the sense in which it is used in this sentence ("to thrive; to become larger"). Grow is a transitive verb when it means "to cause to grow" (She likes to grow green beans and tomatoes).

They left angry but arrived happy. Angry and happy are predicate adjectives; each follows an intransitive verb. Arrive is always intransitive, while leave is often transitive, as in Most customers and employees have already left the building.

Tom was made livid by the derogatory remark about his daughter. The predicate adjective livid follows a passive form of the factitive verb make.

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5. What do you think of the adjectives in the following sentence?

- Each day we hear tragic stories of the unfortunate death of innocent men, women, and children at the hands of misguided terrorists?

Of the four adjectives, are not three unnecessary, even tautological? Of course, the death of innocent men, women, and children is unfortunate; of course, stories that relate such happenings are tragic; and, of course, terrorists are misguided. The only useful adjective is innocent. Here is the same sentence devoid of redundancy:

- Each day we hear stories of the death of innocent men, women, and children at the hands of terrorists.

Thatís better, right? Here is another sentence:

- I found the tale about the good fish, the weird fisherman, and his stupid wife interesting.

It contains four weak adjectives, doesnít it? So letís replace them with stronger ones, as follows:

- I found the tale of the kindhearted fish, the simple-minded fisherman, and his greedy wife inspirational.

If you need adjectives, choose them carefully. 

The adjectives interesting and inspirational in the above sentences are neither attributive adjectives not predicate adjectives. They are called objective complements.

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6. Asked how they feel, most people respond with I feel good or, in elliptical form, Good. Grammarians have long defended this response by pointing out that feel is a linking verb and, as such, can be followed by a predicate adjective. (Yes, you can also say I feel well because, in that sentence, well is an adjective, not an adverb.) Then, just as things were going along smoothly, along came young people who began saying--in response to the question How are you?--Iím good. Just a minute, we old fogies objected, good when used after Iím has always said something about morality, i.e., I am morally good. The way to say you are in good health is Iím well, we insisted. Well, we can argue that the new Iím good is unidiomatic; and indeed it is, or was. But grammar is on the side of the young upstarts. If one can say I feel good, thereís no grammatical reason why one canít express the same thing with Iím good.

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7. When does one place a hyphen between an adverb and an attributive adjective? Take a look at these sentences:

- The newly appointed commissioner spoke out fearlessly. 

- She did not take offense at the politely worded criticism. 

- She accepted or rejected widely held beliefs on their own merit.

Should there be a hyphen between newly and appointed, between politely and worded, and between widely and held? The answer is no; adverbs ending in -ly and the adverb very are not joined by a hyphen to the adjectives they modify. On the other hand, putting a connecting hyphen between other adverbs and their attributive adjectives can facilitate reading. This is especially true when the adverb could be read mistakenly as an adjective, resulting in an unintended meaning. Here are a few examples: a well-established engineer, a fast-acting salesman, her best-known novel. In cases like these, hyphens are mandatory. And even though misunderstanding would not result from the omission of the hyphen in a phrase like a seldom-used word, why not use it anyway for consistency? You will have many careful writers on your side. 

If an attributive adjective is a noun (yes, nouns can function as adjectives) modified by an adjective or another noun, use a hyphen to connect that word with the attributive adjective, as follows: the middle-school principal, the short-term interest, a quality-control expert, a pet-protection agency. Compound modifiers are hyphenated, for example, a win-or-lose situation, a hide-and-seek approach. Additional guidelines for hyphenation are too numerous to enumerate here; nevertheless, do note the following phrases, and extrapolate: a ten-kilometer run, a sixteenth-century painting, cross-country results, an all-inclusive account, my four-year-old granddaughter, seventy-six trombones, his off-the-record comments, an up-to-the-minute report, the carefully worked-out plan.

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8. Certain adjectives (reticent, for example) are in danger of losing their primary meanings; and the adjective fewer seems to be in danger of disappearing completely. Nowadays, we hear from all sides and venues things like this:

- Less and less people are showing up each week.

- I lost less golf balls than you did.

- There were less than ten soldiers killed in Iraq today. 

- The losing team had less attempts from the free-throw line.

In each case, replace less with fewer. Less is singular; fewer is plural. Itís almost that simple. An exception is made with blocks of time and money as well as with uncountable nouns like water and flour. Less is correct in these sentences:

- I have less than ten dollars.

- Most Americans work less than fifty years.

- They have less flour than the recipe calls for.

- Do you drink less water than you should?

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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