User:-sche/Adjectives draft

Definition from Wiktionary, the free dictionary
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Main category: English adjectives

Tests of whether an English word is an adjective[edit]

Wiktionary classifies words according to their part(s) of speech. In many cases, a word's part of speech is obvious. In cases where a word's part of speech is not clear, we used these generally accepted tests to determine whether or not the word is an adjective.

Comparative and superlative forms: more _, most _; _er, _est[edit]

  • Does the word have comparative or superlative forms, formed by more/most or with -er/-est? Most adjectives have comparative and superlative forms (one thing can be "big" while another thing is "bigger"; one thing can be "awesome" while another thing is the "most awesome" thing) — but some adverbs can also have comparative and superlative forms (one chess player can move "more foolishly" than another), some determiners that double as adjectives can also have comparative and superlative forms ("fewer", "fewest"), and some adjectives (such as "aforesaid") do not have comparative nor superlative forms. A word that forms its comparative and superlative forms with -er/-est is probably an adjective, because most adverbs use more/mostbut adverbs that double as adjectives can also have -er/-est forms ("faster", "fastest").
  • Caution is required when applying this test, because "more" and "most" are also determiners ("more/most people", "more/most food"). Furthermore, even when they are adverbs, the two words (especially "more") have other, similar uses that are not specific to adjectives and adverbs: "place one more stone into the hole" is a different use of "more", and in "more boy than man", "boy" and "man" are nouns. (Note, however, that the latter phrase is "more boy than"; the complete sentence "He is more boy." is more likely to be usage of an adjective.)

Use in "more _ than", "less _ than"[edit]

  • Is the word used in the comparative phrase "more _ than"? Many adjectives are ("more evil than", "more angry than"). As mentioned in the previous section, adverbs and other words can be used in these phrases, too — in "more boy than man", "boy" is a noun, in "more slowly than ever", "slowly" is an adverb — but determiners cannot (one cannot say *"more many than", *"more much than"). (Note that "more _ than" can have other, unrelated uses, such as "score more points than your opponent".)
  • The comparative phrase "less _ than" exhibits similar properties. It is less common than "more _ than" ("he is not as evil as Bob" is more common than "he is less evil than Bob"), but it is also less likely to surround nouns: *"less man than boy" is awkward, and *"you scored less points than your opponent" is ungrammatical (the grammatical phrase is "you scored fewer points than your opponent"). Note that mass nouns can still fill the blank in "less _ than", however ("this glass holds less water than that one").

Modification by adverbs: very _, too _[edit]

  • Does the adverb very or the adverb too modify the word? Those adverbs modify most adjectives (one can say something is "very red" or "too red"; red is an adjective) — but they can also modify other adverbs ("very slowly", "too slowly"), and some determiners that double as adjectives ("very many", "too many").
  • If the word is preceded by "a very" or "one very" (or "two very", etc) and followed by a noun, it is clear that it is an adjective ("a very red car", "one very red car"). Adverbs preceded by "a very" must be followed by a verb form ("a very slowly-moving car", "two very slowly-moving cars"). Determiners preceded by "a very" must be followed by a [past participle?] followed by a noun ("a very much appreciated comment", "three very much appreciated comments").

Use after forms of "become"[edit]

  • Is the word used after forms of become? Some adjectives are ("become angry") — but so are many nouns and nominals (noun-like words and phrases): "became an adult" (arthrous countable noun), "became mayor" (anarthrous countable noun), "became rock" (uncountable noun); "the singing became dancing, the dancing became rioting" (gerund), "the many became the few" (substantivized/nominalized determiner). Furthermore, some adjectives and adjectivals (adjective-like phrases) are not used after forms of become: it is awkward to say "he became in the know", *"he became yelling", or *"it became aforesaid".

New tests[edit]

Use in "as _ as"[edit]

  • Is the word used in the comparative phrase "as _ as"? Many adjectives can be used in it ("as blue as", "as angry as"). Determiners can also be used in this phrase ("as much as", "as many as", "as few as"), but it is awkward to use nouns in it ("as man as").

Other tests (from elsewhere)[edit]

  • Does the word fill the blank in "is a(n) _ [noun]"? If not, it is not likely to be an adjective (but if so, it is not necessarily an adjective, is it?). (This is similar to our existing test of "does the word precede nouns...")
  • Does the word "enough" precede it? "Enough" cannot precede an adjective (or can it?): the phrase *"the car is enough red/old" must be "the car is red/old enough".
  • Can the word be used in the phrase "[be/is/are/was/were] _ in every [way/respect]"? The only single words that can fill the blank are adjectives (aren't they?). What about "[be/is/are/was/were] _ in nature"?
  • Can the word be used in the phrase "pretty much _"? (This is called "scalarity coercion".) Be careful not to count instances like:
    Ashley: "Is that right?"
    Robert: "Pretty much, Ashley."
    • Does "mostly" work in this way as well?

Tests, tested: results[edit]

  • (makes me think it's an adj) 1990, Oral histories of African Americans, page 204:
    That whole section in there was pretty much red-light district. You would get in a line, and it was either going to be one of three. It was either a line to the movies, or a line to go the liquor store, or a line to go to the house of prostitution.
  • (already seems to me to be an adj) 2007, Bliss Broyard, One drop: my father's hidden life — a story of race and family secrets:
    And in Tremé or the Seventh Ward, it was pretty much business as usual.
  • (already seems to me to be an adj) 2010, Tadhg Kennelly, Unfinished Business, page 212:
    My shoulder was hanging in there, and it was pretty much business as usual for the first month or so. We won three in a row, including a thrashing of our arch-rivals West Coast.
  • (makes me think it might be an adj) 1991, Drew Barrymore, Todd Gold, Little Girl Lost, page 45:
    We were spending a lot of time together, which should've been nice, but it was pretty much business, and not very rewarding for her.
  • (still seems like a noun to me) 2011, P. L. Nelson, The Incessant Voice of War: The Black Rose Conspiracies, page 290:
    "But – and I've only met her a few times, understand – she's just never seemed . . . well, she's never seemed very much interested in anything but business.” “Yeah, she's pretty much business all the way."
  • 2006, John Ward, Elizabeth Daniel, Benefits management: delivering value from IS & IT investments, page 378:
    As organizations outsource increasingly complex and open-ended activities, such as entire business processes, these will become business as usual and hence should be represented as business changes on a dependency network.

Tests I have not changed or looked at yet, from the current page[edit]

Other tests (things I have not looked at yet)[edit]

  1. Does it precede nouns, modifying them? (That is, is it found in attributive position?)
    • Most bare adjectives, bare nouns, and proper nouns do: "big dog" (adjective), "math test" (noun), "U.S. exports" (proper noun). Some bare adjectives follow their nouns (these are called postpositive adjectives), however, as in "attorney general".
    • Adjective phrases that end with the adjective usually do, while adjective phrases that start with the adjective usually do not, unless they can be split to surround the noun: "amazingly, unbelievably big dog" (adjective phrase), "bigger dog than I expected" (adjective phrase surrounding the noun), "dog worth $1000" (adjective phrase following the noun; *"worth dog $1000" is ungrammatical).
    • As with the "very/too" and "more/most" tests, most other adjectivals do this rarely and awkwardly, and usually are joined with hyphens when they do: "a twenty-four-year-old, willing-to-work-hard, down-on-his-luck gentleman".
    • Determiners such as "many", "most", "few", "all", and so on may seem to do this. Linguists distinguish between determiners, which specify, and adjectives, which modify (though terminology varies somewhat), but in specific cases it is not always obvious which one is involved.
  1. Is it used alone, with an implied noun?
    • Nouns and proper nouns are, obviously.
    • Almost all determiners are, frequently: "these", "all".
    • Adjectives and participles are, sometimes: "Give me your tired, your poor, / [] / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / [] " (from "The New Colossus").
    • Other adjectivals usually are not.

Ideally, every adjective sense should have citations demonstrating some of the above properties.

If a word meets these tests, it is likely to be an adjective, but it may not be; and conversely, if a word does not meet these tests, it is unlikely to be an adjective, but it may be. Also, it bears noting that some of these tests are correlated: a prepositional phrase that is modified by "very" is more likely to appear in attributive position.

Common cases[edit]

Common cases include words that are present and past participles, nouns, and certain adverbs which are sometimes used in ways that make them like adjectives. There are also words that are classified as determiners that superficially may seem like adjectives. They should be looked up because there are relatively few of them and that class does not readily admit new members.

Words ending in -ing[edit]

Such words are usually present participles or words descended from them. Sometime present participles do become true adjectives. For example, consider "a reddening sky". "Reddening" is modifying a noun in attributive position (test 4), so one might think it an adjective. "Reddening" appears 159 times in COCA, a 400 million word corpus of US English usage. In none of those uses does it appear after "too" or "very" (test 1), "more" or "most" (test 2), or forms of "become" (test 3). Not looking much like an adjective.

To confirm this one could try the same tests at Google Books, Google News, Google Scholar, and Usenet. These searches take more time to do properly but can find older and more unusual uses not found in other corpora. For example, a search for "too-reddening" at Google Books provides eight apparent uses. Of these, one is not accessible and seven have "too" separate from "reddening" by a comma. A search for "very-reddening" finds three uses. A search for use after forms of become finds two possible uses. But one is inaccessible and the other seems to involve the use of reddening not as an adjective, but as a gerund (nominal) complement of "dependent" ("reddening dependent" = "dependent upon reddening"). The search for comparative forms following "more" and "most" generates 316 uses. The first page shows at least one probable qualifying use and 9 uses of "reddening" as a noun. The other 316 are left as an exercise for the reader. Also the possibilities of usage at News, Scholar, or Usenet.

None of the references works at show it being defined as an adjective, including Wiktionary. What about the OED?

The ambiguity that remains is typical of the cases that need to be investigated at Wiktionary.

Words ending in -ed[edit]

Such words are usually past participles or words descended from them. The descendants are often adjectives. Consider "The fined company appealed, lost, and paid the fine." The same tests apply. Nothing to help the word meet the three other tests can be found at COCA. The other sources are left as an exercise for the reader.

An interesting case is one where the -ed word can define a static state. In such a case it might we argued that the -ed form is then being used as an adjective rather than as a component of a passive. "Fined" is not readily considered a static state. But "opened" often is. "The window was opened (also "open") to let in the breeze." "The sky was reddened." could be interpreted that way, though "The sky was reddened by the setting sun." could not.

Words ending in -ly[edit]

Most words ending in -ly are adverbs. But consider "the comely girl". It seems an adverb. But one can readily find "the very comely girl", "most comely", "comeliest", "comelier". Even forms of "become comely" at Google books.

Words that are also nouns[edit]

Consider "angel dust". Is "angel" an adjective? A native speaker might not even bother testing. But what about "work team"? Is "work" an adjective? It is easy to find "it became work", so 2 tests are met. One will not find authentic examples of "too work" and "very work". The instances of "more work" or even "more work than" will be cases where "work" can be shown to be a noun.

Contrast these with "plastic" as in "plastic pipe". "plastic#Noun" is also a noun. One can readily find "too plastic", "very plastic", and "more plastic than", and "become plastic". But the meaning of "plastic" as an adjective in this differs from the "plastic pipe" meaning.


{{suffix}} is often useful for adjectives actually formed in English since about 1500. But many adjectives were formed earlier in Middle English or Old English or came to English from other languages, especially French (Modern, Middle, Old, or Anglo-Norman), Dutch, and German. A little investigation should reveal the etymology. If no dictionary shows an etymology, the word can be assumed to have been formed in Modern English.

Adjectives that are identical in form to nouns or participles of verbs can be assumed to be derived from them. This does not need to be shown, but there may be exceptional cases.

Defining adjectives[edit]

Adjective definitions fall into two types: synonyms or phrasal definitions.


For obsolete, archaic, rare, dialect, and slang words it is sometimes sufficient to define by a single contemporary synonym.

Phrasal definitions[edit]

For other adjectives, it is better to define with a phrase. Often an adjective is defined relative to a related word that is another part of speech, almost always a noun or verb.

Certain words are commonly used to begin the definitions of adjectives:

  • able to !
  • apt to !
  • associated with ?
  • being ?
  • belonging to
  • capable of !
  • characterized by
  • consisting of !
  • denoting
  • describing
  • designating
  • exhibiting
  • expressing
  • for
  • full of
  • having
  • having the quality of
  • having to do with ?
  • inclined to
  • indicating
  • involving
  • like
  • likely to
  • made of
  • marked by
  • of
  • of the nature of ?
  • pertaining to ?
  • producing !
  • relating to
  • showing
  • tending to
  • used for
  • used with
  • used in
  • used to