Subclasses of Adjectives

Relative Adjectives

Relative adjectives express such properties of a substance as are determined by the direct relation of the substance to some other substance. E.g.: wood — a wooden hut; mathematics — mathematical precision; history — a historical event; table — tabular presentation; colour — coloured postcards; surgery — surgical treatment; the Middle Ages — mediaeval rites.

The nature of this “relationship” in adjectives is best revealed by definitional correlations. Cf.: a wooden hut — a hut made of wood; a historical event — an event referring to a certain period of history; surgical treatment — treatment consisting in the implementation of surgery; etc. [10]

In English these adjectives are often constructed by adding a suffix to the noun or noun root. A variety of suffixes may be used in this way: -al or -ial (e.g. behavioural), -ous (famous), -y or -ly (manly), -ic (angelic), -an or -ian (Amazonian), -ary (planetary), -ile (infantile), -ine (elephantine), -ive (instinctive), -ish (boyish), -like (birdlike).

Of these, the suffixes -y (IPA: /i/), -ish and -like are “living” suffixes and may be used to form new words. For example, something that tastes of apples may be described as appley or (less commonly) appleish; something resembling honey may be described as honeylike (or honey-like). Many of these formations are colloquialisms or ad hoc coinages not usually included in dictionaries, but will nevertheless be readily understood.

Relative adjectives do not form adverbs by –ly. Many adjectives considered under the heading of relative can still form degrees of comparison when the property of substance can be graded quantitatively: cf. a mediaeval approach – rather mediaeval approach – a far more mediaeval approach [10].

Qualitative Adjectives

Qualitative adjectives, as different from relative ones, denote various qualities of substances which admit of a quantitative estimation, i.e. of establishing their correlative quantitative measure. The measure of a quality can be estimated as high or low, adequate or inadequate, sufficient or insufficient, optimal or excessive. Cf.: an awkward situation — a very awkward situation; a difficult task — too difficult a task; an enthusiastic reception — rather an enthusiastic reception; a hearty welcome — not a very hearty welcome; etc.

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In this connection, the ability of an adjective to form degrees of comparison is usually taken as a formal sign of its qualitative character, in opposition to a relative adjective which is understood as incapable of forming degrees of comparison by definition. Cf.: a pretty girl — a prettier girl; a quick look — a quicker look; a hearty welcome — the heartiest of welcomes; a bombastic speech — the most bombastic speech.

Mow ever, in actual speech the described principle of distinction is not at all strictly observed, which is noted in the very grammar treatises putting it forward. Two typical cases of contradiction should be pointed out here.

In the first place, substances can possess such qualities as are incompatible with the idea of degrees of comparison. Accordingly, adjectives denoting these qualities, while belonging to the qualitative subclass, are in the ordinary use incapable of forming degrees of comparison. Here refer adjectives like extinct, immobile, deaf, final, fixed, etc. [9-10].

Substantive Adjectives

It is common knowledge that adjectives can, under certain circumstances, be substantivized, i.e. become nouns. The phenomenon is also frequent enough in English. The questions which arise in this connection are: (a) what criteria should be applied to find out if an adjective is substantivized or not? (b) is a substantivized adjective a noun, or is it not? [9].

As to the first question, we should recollect the characteristic features of nouns in Modern English and then see if a substantivized adjective has acquired them or not. These features are, (1) ability to form a plural, (2) ability to have a form in -‘s if a living being is denoted, (3) ability to be modified by an adjective, (4) performing the function of subject or object in a sentence. If, from this point of view, we approach, for example, the word native, we shall find that it possesses all those peculiarities, e. g. the natives of Australia, a young native, etc.

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The same may be said about the word relative (meaning a person standing in some degree of relationship to another): my relatives, a close relative, etc. A considerable number of other examples might be given. There is therefore every reason to assert that native and relative are nouns when so used, and indeed we need not call them substantivized adjectives. Thus the second of the above questions would also be answered [9-10].

Things are, however, not always as clear as that.

A familiar example of a different kind is the word rich. It certainly is substantivized, as will be seen, for example, in the title of a novel by C. P. Snow, “The Conscience of the Rich”. It is obvious, however, that this word differs from the words native and relative in some important points: (1) it does not form a plural, (2) it cannot be used in the singular and with the indefinite article, (3) it has no possessive form. Since it does not possess all the characteristics of nouns but merely some of them, it will be right to say that it is only partly substantivized. The word rich in such contexts, as those given above, stands somewhere between an adjective and a noun.

The same may be said of the poor, the English, the Chinese, also the wounded, the accused (which were originally participles), and a number of other words. We might even think of establishing a separate part of speech, intermediate between nouns and adjectives, and state its characteristic features as we have done for parts of speech in general. However, there would appear to be no need to do so. We shall therefore confine ourselves to the statement that these words are partly substantivized and occupy an intermediate position [9-10].

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Sometimes the result of substantivisation is an abstract noun, as in the following examples: The desire for a more inward light had found expression at last, the unseen had impacted on the seen. (FORSTER) Her mind was focused on the invisible. (Idem) Nouns of this type certainly have no plural form. [10]

Order of Adjectives

When you list several adjectives in a row, there’s a specific order they need to be written or spoken. Native speakers of English tend to put them in the correct order naturally, but if you’re learning English, you’ll have to memorize the order. It goes like this [10]:

  • Determiner – This means an article (a, an, the), a number or amount, a possessive adjective (my, his, her, its, your, our, their), or a demonstrative (this, that, these, those).
  • Observation/Opinion – beautiful, expensive, gorgeous, broken, delicious, ugly
  • Size – Huge, tiny, 4-foot-tall
  • Shape – Square, circular, oblong
  • Age – 10-year-old, new, antique
  • Color – Black, red, blue-green
  • Origin – Roman, English, Mongolian
  • Material – Silk, silver, plastic, wooden
  • Qualifier – A noun or verb acting as adjective

This is the correct order for adjectives that come directly before a noun, and they are separated by commas: “my beautiful, big, circular, antique, brown, English, wooden coffee table was broken in the move”.

If the adjectives come after the verb “be” as the complement, then the qualifier will stick with the noun at the beginning of the sentence. The adjectives in the complement are separated by commas with the final two being separated by “and.” For example, my coffee table is beautiful, big, circular, antique, brown, English and wooden [9].