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What is an Adjective Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

What is an Adjective

...often when I write I am trying to make words do the work of line and colour. I have the painter's sensitivity to light. Much (and perhaps the best) of my writing is verbal painting.

ELIZABETH BOWEN (1899–1973)

IRISH NOVELIST

Some adjectives add color and imagery to our writing and speech, while others are very mechanical and uncomplicated. Learn how and when to use all kinds of adjectives.

Adjectives are modifiers that describe or provide more specific information about nouns and pronouns. If a teacher asked a group of students to picture an elephant in their minds, one student might have a mental image of a big gray elephant; another might be imagining the cute, fluffy, stuffed one sitting on her shelf at home. This is because the word elephant is too broad and nondescript. If common adjectives, everyday descriptors such as big, gigantic, white, pink polka-dotted, or hairy had been added, the students' mental images would have been more aligned to that of the teacher.

All adjectives answer three specific questions about the nouns or pronouns they are modifying: what kind? (horizontal, strong, critical), which one(s)? (the, this, that, these, those), and how many? (eight, few, countless, several). While adjectives often come before the nouns they're modifying, they can come afterward, too:

Fred, exhausted and frustrated, took a minute to gather his thoughts before forging ahead.

Articles

The three words a, an, and the are special adjectives that we call articles. The is a definite article, which implies something specific—pick the card; not just any card. A and an are indefinite articles, which are nonspecific—pick a card; any card.

Deciding which indefinite article to place in front of a word depends upon the initial sound of the word, not the first letter of the word. The article an should be placed before words that begin with a vowel sound. A is placed before words that begin with consonant sounds. For instance, the word honest begins with the consonant h, but since it begins with a short o vowel sound (the h is silent), it takes the article an. The word house, on the other hand, takes the article a: It also begins with an h, but the consonant sound (h) is pronounced. Don't let the initial letter of the word fool you! Be careful of words like one, unicorn, and honest.

Proper Adjectives

We distinguish proper nouns, like Nathan, Mount Everest, and Colorado, from common nouns, like guy, mountain, and state, by capitalizing them. Proper adjectives are proper nouns acting like adjectives because they are modifying a noun or pronoun. Xerox copier, New York skyline, and Japanese food begin with proper adjectives, each answering the question what kind? or which one? about the noun following it.

What kind of copier? Xerox
Which skyline? New York
What kind of food? Japanese
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