Section 4: Adjectives

An ADJECTIVE is a form-class word that typically modifies a noun (or nominal).

The more adjective characteristics a word has, the more prototypical it is:

  1. Adjective-making morpheme
  2. Comparative or Superlative (inflectional morpheme)
  3. Comparative or Superlative (more or most)
  4. Can be qualified
  5. Can fit both slots of the adjective frame sentence: The __ man seems very __.

These characteristics serve as the primary tests for identifying adjectives. Adjectives like lovablefunny, and short make sense in both slots. They also meet most of the other criteria for adjectives:

Has an adjective-making morpheme:

  • lovable
  • funny

Takes a comparative or superlative morpheme:

  • funnier, funniest
  • shorter, shortest

Can be made comparative or superlative by using more or most:

  • more lovable, most lovable

Can be qualified:

  • rather lovable
  • very funny
  • fairly short

The fewer adjective characteristics a word has, the more it becomes a peripheral case. An adjective like entire or afraid functions exclusively as an attributive or predicative adjective.

For example, a word might be considered peripheral if it does not fit both slots in the adjective frame sentence.

When adjectives fit best only in the first slot, they are attributive:

  • The entire pizza seems very entire.
When adjectives fit best only in the second slot, they are predicative:
  • The afraid man seems very afraid.

Members of all four form classes can be divided into further subclasses based on certain semantic features. These features often have grammatical consequences. The following are some of the subclasses of adjectives:

Attributive and predicative adjectives: Adjectives that only fit one of the two slots in the frame sentence are either attributive or predicative.

attributive adjectives occur before a noun, usually attributing a quality to that noun

  • The entire pizza disappeared.

predicative adjectives occur in the predicate of a sentence and without a following noun

    • Our teacher was aghast.

Predicative adjectives requiring complements: Some predicative adjectives accept or even require complements.

    • My brother is fond. The sentence seems to be missing something.
    • My brother is fond of frozen yogurt. The complement of <something> is a necessary addition to fond.

Gradable and nongradable adjectives: Gradable adjectives can be distinguished by qualifiers indicating intensity:

    • somewhat late
    • a bit late
    • very late
    • extremely late

Nongradable adjectives don’t normally occur with such qualifiers. The following qualified adjectives seem nonsensical:

    • rather vertical
    • somewhat perfect
    • very double
    • extremely triangular

Finally, an adjective complement is a phrase that completes the meaning of an adjective.

When analyzing for adjectives, we classify its FORM as adjective. We classify its FUNCTION as adjectival.

In this respect, an adjectival is an adjective or any group of words that can substitute for an adjective (word, phrase, or clause) and perform adjectival functions. In other words, they can do anything that an adjective can do.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for adjectives.

While he was wearying every one with his tears and complaints, and turning his house into a sink of debauchery, a faithful servant of the family, Grigory, took the three-year-old Mitya into his care.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the ADJECTIVE SAMPLES ANALYSES page.