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In grammar, an adjective is a word whose main syntactic role is to modify a noun or pronoun (called the adjective's subject, giving more information about what the noun or pronoun refers to. Collectively, adjectives form one of the traditional eight parts of speech, though linguists today distinguish adjectives from words such as determiners that used to be considered adjectives but that are now recognized to be different.

Not all languages have adjectives, but most, including English, do. (English adjectives include big, old, and tired, among many others.) Those that don't typically use words of another part of speech, often verbs, to serve the same semantic function; for example, such a language might have a verb that means "to be big", and would use a construction analogous to "big-being house" to express what English expresses as "big house". Even in languages that do have adjectives, one language's adjective might not be another's; for example, where English has "to be hungry" (hungry being an adjective), French has "avoir faim" (literally "to have hunger"), and where Hebrew has the adjective "צריך" (roughly "in need of"), English uses the verb "to need".

In most languages with adjectives, they form an open class of words; that is, it is relatively common for new adjectives to be formed via such processes as derivation.

Adjectives and adverbs

Many languages distinguish between adjectives, which modify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs, which modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Not all languages have exactly this distinction, however, and in many languages (including English) there are many words that can function as both. For example, English fast is an adjective in "a fast car", but an adverb in "he drove fast".


Main article: Determiner (class)

Linguists today distinguish determiners from adjectives, considering them to be two separate parts of speech (or lexical categories), but traditionally, determiners were considered to be adjectives in some of their uses. (In English dictionaries, which typically still do not treat determiners as their own part of speech, determiners are often recognizable by being listed both as adjectives and as pronouns.) Determiners are words that express the reference of a noun in the context, generally indicating definiteness (as in a vs. the), quantity (as in one vs. some vs. many), or another such property.

Attributive, predicative, absolute, and substantive adjectives

A given occurrence of an adjective can generally be classified into one of four kinds of uses:

  • Attributive adjectives are part of the noun phrase headed by the noun they modify; for example, happy is an attributive adjective in "happy kids". In some languages, attributive adjectives precede their nouns; in others, they follow their nouns; and in yet others, it depends on the adjective, or on the exact relationship of the adjective to the noun. In English, attributive adjectives usually precede their nouns.
  • Predicative adjectives are linked via a copula or other linking mechanism to the noun or pronoun they modify; for example, happy is a predicate adjective in "they are happy" and in "that made me happy".
  • Absolute adjectives do not belong to a larger construction (aside from a larger adjective phrase), and typically modify either the subject of a sentence or whatever noun or pronoun they are closest to; for example, happy is an absolute adjective in "The boy, happy with his lollipop, did not look where he was going."
  • Substantive adjectives act almost as nouns; they remain behind when a noun is elided. For example, happy is a substantive adjective in "The truly happy bring happiness to others."

Adjective phrases

Main article: Adjective phrase

An adjective acts as the head of an adjective phrase (or adjectival phrase). In the simplest case, an adjective phrase consists solely of the adjective; more complex adjective phrases may contain one or more adverbs modifying the adjective ("very strong"), or one or more complements ("worth several dollars", "full of toys", "eager to please). In English, attributive adjective phrases that include complements typically follow their subjects ("an evildoer devoid of redeeming qualities").

Other noun modifiers

In many languages, including English, it is possible for nouns to modify other nouns. Unlike adjectives, nouns acting as modifiers (called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts) are not predicative; a red car is red, but a car park is not "car". In English, the modifier often indicates origin ("Virginia reel"), purpose ("work clothes"), or semantic patient ("man eater"). However, it can generally indicate almost any semantic relationship. It is also common for adjectives to be derived from nouns, as in English boyish, birdlike, behavioral, famous, manly, angelic, and so on.

Many languages have special verbal forms called participles that can act as noun modifiers. In some languages, including English, there is a strong tendency for participles to evolve into adjectives. English examples of this include relieved (the past participle of the verb relief, used as an adjective in sentences such as "I am so relieved to see you") and going (the present participle of the verb go, used as an adjective in sentences such as "Ten dollars per hour is the going rate").

Other constructs that often modify nouns include prepositional phrases (as in English "a rebel without a cause"), relative clauses (as in English "the man who wasn't there"), other adjective clauses (as in English "the bookstore where he worked"), and infinitive phrases (as in English "pizza to die for").

Relatedly, many nouns take complements such as content clauses (as in English "the idea that I would do that"); these are not commonly considered modifiers, however.

Adjective order

In many languages, attributive adjectives usually occur in a specific order; for example, in English, adjectives pertaining to size generally precede adjectives pertaining to age ("little old", not "old little"), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color ("old green", not "green old"). This order may be more rigid in some languages than others; in some it may only be a default (unmarked) word order, with other orders being permissible so as to shift the emphasis.

Comparison of adjectives

Main article: Comparison

In many languages, adjectives can be compared. In English, for example, we can say that a car is big, that it is bigger than another, or that it is the biggest car of all. Not all adjectives lend themselves to comparison, however; for example, the English adjective even, in the sense of "being a multiple of two", is not considered comparable, in that it does not make sense to describe one integer as "more even" than another.

Among languages that allow adjectives to be compared in this way, different approaches are used. Indeed, even within English, two different approaches are used: the suffixes -er and -est, and the words more and most. (In English, the general tendency is for shorter adjectives and adjectives from Anglo-Saxon to use -er and -est, and for longer adjectives and adjectives from French, Latin, Greek, and other languages to use more and most.) By either approach, English adjectives therefore have positive forms (big), comparative forms (bigger), and superlative forms (biggest); many languages do not distinguish comparative from superlative forms, however.


Main article: Restrictiveness

Attributive adjectives, and other noun modifiers, may be used either restrictively (helping to identify the noun's referent, hence "restricting" its reference), or non-restrictively (helping to describe an already-identified noun). In some languages, such as Spanish, restrictiveness is consistently marked; for example, Spanish la tarea difícil means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task that is difficult" (restrictive), while la difícil tarea means "the difficult task" in the sense of "the task, which is difficult" (non-restrictive). In English, restrictiveness is not marked on adjectives, but is marked on relative clauses (the difference between "the man who recognized me was there" and "the man, who recognized me, was there" being one of restrictiveness).

Aquisition of adjectives in language development

See also


  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1977). Where have all the adjectives gone? Studies in Language, 1, 19-80.
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1994). Adjectives. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 29-35). Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-035943-4. (Republished as Dixon 1999).
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (1999). Adjectives. In K. Brown & T. Miller (Eds.), Concise encyclopedia of grammatical categories (pp. 1-8). Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN 0-08-043164-X.
  • Warren, Beatrice. (1984). Classifying adjectives. Gothenburg studies in English (No. 56). Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis. ISBN 91-7346-133-4.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. (1986). What's in a noun? (or: How do nouns differ in meaning from adjectives?). Studies in Language, 10, 353-389.

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