Wiktionary:English adjectives

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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.

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

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

Does it get modified by the adverbs very or too?

  • Most adjectives and adverbs regularly do, as do some determiners that double as adjectives: "very/too trustworthy" (adjective), "very/too continuously" (adverb), "very/too fast" (adjective and adverb), "very/too many" (adjective and determiner).
  • Other adjectival and adverbial words and phrases (prepositional phrases, nouns and proper nouns, participles, etc.) sometimes do this, but that's usually rare and a bit awkward; it indicates that the word or phrase is being stretched into use as an adjective or adverb, and if it becomes common, that's good evidence that the word or phrase has actually become an adjective or adverb, at least for some speakers.

Comparative and superlative forms: more ___, most ___; ___er, ___est[edit]

Does it form a comparative and superlative, either with more/most or with -er/-est?

  • As above, most adjectives and adverbs do this regularly, as do some determiners that double as adjectives: "more/most awesome" (adjective), "more/most redundantly" (adverb), "bigger/biggest" (adjective), "easier/easiest" (adjective and adverb), "fewer/fewest" (adjective and determiner). The "-er/-est" forms are good evidence that the word is an adjective; adverbs usually use "more/most" unless they double as adjectives ("faster", "easier", "higher", etc.).
  • As above, other adjectival and adverbial words and phrases sometimes do this, but that's usually rare and a bit awkward.
  • Some caution is required in applying this test, since "more" and "most" are also determiners (as in "more/most people", "more/most food"); and even as adverbs, they (especially "more") have other, similar uses that are not specific to adjectives and adverbs: in "more boy than man", for example, "boy" and "man" are nouns.

Use after forms of "become"[edit]

Does it get used after forms of become?

  • Most adjective and noun phrases (i.e., phrases headed by adjectives or nouns) do this regularly: "became angry" (adjective), "became an adult" (arthrous countable noun), "became mayor" (anarthrous countable noun), "became rock" (uncountable noun).
  • Other nominals (noun-like words and phrases) do this sometimes as well: "the singing became dancing, the dancing became rioting" (gerund).
  • Most other adjectivals avoid "become" (?"she became in the know", ?"they became yelling").
  • Some other predicative verbs are like "become", being used often with adjective phrases but not so much with other adjectivals; however, some predicative verbs take a range of adjectivals. It depends very much on the verb.

Use in attributive position[edit]

Does it precede nouns, modifying them?

  • 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, 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.

Use with an implied noun[edit]

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.

Requirement for a predicand[edit]

"Adjectives cannot head clause-initial phrases unless they are related to a predicand, whereas prepositions can"[1]. (To this, we must add the qualifier typically, since Wiktionary currently rejects the CGEL's analysis of intransitive prepositions.) Consider these examples with absent in adjunct function:

  1. Absent from the household, Tinkerbell, Paris's famous Chihuahua, was missed. (Adj)
  2. ?Absent from the household, Paris sat in her room missing Tinkerbell. (Adj)
  3. *Absent from the household, there was no dog. (Adj)
  4. Absent the upper classes, many people would be much happier. (Prep)
  5. Absent the upper classes, there would be fewer wars and less crime. (Prep)

In 1, Tinkerbell, the subject of the sentence is the predicand, and is thus said to be absent. In 2, the subject and natural predicand is Paris, though we can figure out that the intended predicand was likely Tinkerbell. In 3, the subject of the sentence is the dummy pronoun there, which cannot be a predicand. This causes the sentence to be ungrammatical. In 4, and 5, however, absent is a preposition, not an adjective, and no predicand is needed. Thus, when no predicand is available, as in 5, the sentence remains grammatical. Note that 4 does not assert that "many people are absent the upper classes," so that even when there is a likely subject, it doesn't function as a predicand when the adjunct is prepositional. This is not to say that prepositional phrases cannot have a predicand, as the following example illustrates (the predicand is underlined).

  • A world absent the upper classes would have fewer wars and less crime.

Base for formation of adverbs with -ly[edit]

If a word can form an adverb by the addition of the suffix -ly, it is at least suggestive that the word is an adjective. This can be a useful screening test for deverbal words ending in ed or ing. This is not definitive. As a test it generates both false positives and false negatives. Consider swimming and swimmingly. Swimming does not meet most tests for being an adjective. Conversely, many adjectives ending in ing have adjective senses that are somewhat distinguishable from the senses of the corresponding verb and participle, but do not readily form adverbs with -ly. Consider a sitting judge and *sittingly.

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 OneLook.com 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.

Etymologies[edit]

{{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; {{suffix}} is often used for these, but its use is somewhat controversial. 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.

Synonyms[edit]

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

References[edit]

  1. ^ CGEL, p 531