Adjectives are typically placed before a noun or after verbs such as be, seem and appear.

The surest way to identify adjectives is by the ways they can be used:

  • before a noun, to make the noun’s meaning more specific (i.e. to modify the noun), or
  • after the verb be, as its complement.
  • The pupils did some really good work. [adjective used before a noun, to modify it]
  • Their work was good. [adjective used after the verb be, as its complement]

Adjectives cannot be modified by other adjectives. This distinguishes them from nouns, which can be.

Adjectives are sometimes called “describing words” because they pick out single characteristics such as size or colour. This is often true, but it doesn’t help to distinguish adjectives from other word classes, because verbs, nouns and adverbs can do the same thing.

Not adjectives:

  • The lamp glowed. [verb]
  • It was such a bright red! [noun]
  • He spoke loudly. [adverb]
  • It was a French grammar book. [noun]

See also: adjective phrase, possessive adjective.


A very simple definition of adjectives that has sometimes been used is that they are ‘descriptive’ words. But this isn’t really very helpful. Lots of word classes can be ‘descriptive’: a noun like funeral is fairly descriptive, as is the verb leap. We might also say that the adverb quickly describes the verb ran in a sentence like He quickly ran.

Adjectives: Avoiding adjective overuse

Many writers of fiction use adjectives as a quick way of telling us what a character is like: how they appear, how they feel, how we should view them. Look at the following examples of how adjectives are used to provide a basic description:


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