Adjectives in English

(Use of adjectives in English grammar)

Table of contents – adjectives

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Use of adjectives
  2. Position in a sentence
  3. Adjectives ending in ‘-ing’ and ‘-ed’
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are adjectives and how are they used?

Adjectives are words that describe a noun or a pronoun in more detail, thereby providing more information about the characteristics of a person, an animal or a thing. Regardless of the word they modify, they always keep the same form and are, therefore, unchangeable.

They usually precede their antecedent. Compare some possible uses in sentences:

  • Adjectives describe the word they refer to (antecedent) more detailed, which means they modify it:
    • Such a word can be a noun …:
      • “She has a young cat.”
        • In this statement, the adjective ‘young’ attributes further information to the nouncat’.
    • … or a pronoun:
      • “Peter bought a car. It’s a new one.”
        • Likewise, ‘new’ refers to the pronoun here, or, more precisely, the prop-word ‘one’ and describes it in more detail.
  • Moreover, adjectives are not inflected (declined) in English, which makes it easier for learners of English as a foreign language:
    • “An old man is sitting on a wooden bench. He has a beautiful view of the valley.”
      • The noun ‘man’ is in the singular; ‘old’ is used.
    • “Two old men are sitting on a wooden bench …”
      • The noun ‘men’ is in the plural; however, ‘old’ retains its form and is not changed or adapted to the word it refers to.

Where do adjectives stand in a sentence?

In English sentences, adjectives are usually placed before their antecedent (the word they modify). Nevertheless, they may also appear elsewhere in the sentence. Such a position happens especially after verbs such as ‘be, seem, get, become’ and ‘appear’, and after verbs that describe the senses such as ‘feel, taste, look, sound’ and ‘smell’:

  • In most cases, adjectives come before the word they modify (noun or pronoun):
    • “Mike has got a well-paid job.”
      • In this statement, the noun ‘job’ goes directly after the adjective ‘well-paid’.
  • If the verbs ‘be, seem, get, become’ or ‘appear’ are used, the adjective follows them:
    • “I am careful.”
      • The adjective ‘careful’ follows the form of ‘to be’ (am) directly.
    • “His mother seems very nice.”
    • “The meeting is getting more and more interesting.”
      • This sentence shows that several additional words can be located between the verb and the adjective.
  • The adjective also follows verbs that express the perception of the senses (sense verbs) such as ‘feel, taste, look, sound, smell’:
    • “Do you feel tired?”
    • “That cake tastes delicious!”
    • “She looks good in her new outfit.”
      • Careful: After ‘look’, no adverb is possible, which means ‘… looks well would be wrong.
    • “That doesn’t sound very exciting.”
  • Attention: Occasionally, adjectives are utilised in conjunction with articles. In these cases, however, they are no longer adjectives but nouns. Such use often occurs with nationalities and with groups of people:
    • “The British like tea.”
      • In this statement, ‘the British’ stands for the whole group of Britons.
    • “This area is where the rich live.”
      • the rich’ denotes a whole community here and serves as a noun.

Particularities of adjectives ending in ‘-ing’ and ‘-ed’

In English, it is sometimes possible to form adjectives from verbs, resulting in participles. To create such participles, the ending (suffix) ‘-ing’ (present participle) or ‘-ed’ (past participle) is added to the respective verb stem. The resulting adjectives can then be used in different ways.

  • Basically, adjectives ending in ‘-ing’ describe the characteristic of someone or something. In contrast, adjectives ending in ‘-ed’ describe the effect on someone. The following examples of adjective pairs illustrate the difference (for more details, read the distinction between ‘interesting’ and ‘interested’):
    • Difference between ‘boring’ and ‘bored’:
      • “The lecture was boring.”
        • The ing-adjective qualifies the noun ‘lecture’ here by giving more details about it.
      • “She was very bored (by the lecture).”
        • In this statement, the ed-adjective refers to the person ‘she’ and describes her current state or feeling, which the lecture caused.
    • Difference between ‘interesting’ and ‘interested’:
      • “What he said was very interesting.”
      • “I was very interested in what he said.”
    • Difference between ‘exciting’ and ‘excited’:
      • “Skydiving must be very exciting.”
      • “He is very excited because he is going to skydive.”
    • Difference between ‘surprising’ and ‘surprised’:
      • “It was not a surprising statement.”
      • “I wasn’t surprised by the statement.”

Further explanations related to ‘Adjectives’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Use of adjectives in English grammar’ and could therefore be helpful too:

  • Comparative and superlative adjectives
  • Comparison with ‘as … as’ of adjectives
  • Use of verbs in English grammar
  • Exercise 1: adjectives with the suffixes ‘-ing’ and ‘-ed’
  • Exercise 1: adverbs and adjectives
  • Exercise 1: comparison (-er/-est) of adjectives