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Concourse 2

Adjectives: the essentials


Adjectives are one of the main classes of words in any language.  How they work and how they are used, however, vary.

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and apply these technical concepts (and there's a test at the end):

  • attributive
  • predicative
  • copular verb
  • gradable and ungradable adjectives
  • extreme adjectives
  • classifier vs. epithet
  • comparative
  • superlative
  • inflexion / inflected forms
  • periphrastic forms



An adjective is usually defined something like

a word grammatically attached to a noun to modify or describe it

Easy question:
Spot the adjectives in these examples:

  1. The tall trees bent in the fierce winds.
  2. He finally came along half an hour late for the first meeting.
  3. The green-jacketed, first-form students looked nervous.
  4. The audience was fascinated by the short lecture.
  5. The policeman involved in the nasty incident was quite upset.
  6. The small, green sports car was thoroughly washed and polished till it shone as bright as a new pin.

Click here when you have answers.


Tests for adjectives

There are two simple tests for adjectives:

  1. We can make comparatives either by adding -er or -est or by putting more / most before them
  2. We can modify them with the adverb very

Try these tests with the adjectives we have encountered so far.  What do you notice?
Click here when you have done that.

There are a number of other tests for adjectives.  For more, see the more advanced guide to this area, linked below.

comparing adjectives

Comparing adjectives

Adjectives can be made comparative or superlative.
Comparative structures are, for example:
    Mary is taller than John
    Mary is
more intelligent than me
Superlative structures single out one as the highest form of the adjective, e.g.:
    She is the fittest person for the job
    That is the most ridiculous idea of them all
The rules for how we make the forms apply to both.

English has two ways to compare adjectives:

  1. We can add -er or -est to the end of the adjective (dropping an 'e' or changing 'y' to 'i' where we need to).  This is called inflexion.
  2. We can add more or most before the adjective.  This is called a periphrastic form.

Try modifying the adjectives here and work out what the rules are.  Click on the table when you have the answer.  The following focuses on the comparative form but the superlatives follow the same rules.


There are some irregular ones (as in most languages) including, e.g., far-further/farther, good-better-best, bad-worse-worst etc. and there's a bit more to it than that but this is the simplest explanation.
There is a more complete (and more technical) guide to comparison in the in-service section, linked below.


Ordering adjectives

Many books for students delight in giving complex and elaborate rules for why we say, for example:

But actually the general rule is quite simple.  Any ideas?  Click when you have some.

There is, of course, a test on this.

Related guides
word class maps this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site
guide to adjectives for a more advanced and detailed guide to this area
comparison for a more technical guide to how things are compared in English
gradability for a guide to a key adjectival characteristic
copular verbs for a guide to how verbs link the subject to the attribute, its complement