Position of Adjectives


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The position of adjectives: attributive and predicative use

(A) Adjectives in groups

this book              which boy           my dog

Adjectives in this position are called attributive adjectives.

(B) Adjectives of quality, however, can come either before their nouns:

a rich man               a happy girl

or after a verb such as (a) be, become, seem:

 Tom became rich.                        Ann seems happy.

appear, feel, get/grow (=become),  keep, look (=appear), make, smell, sound, taste, turn:

  • Tom felt cold.
  • He got/grew impatient.
  • He made her happy.
  • The idea sounds interesting.

Adjectives in this position are called predicative adjectives. Verbs used in this way are called link verbs or copulas.

(C) Note on link verbs

A problem with verbs is that when they are not used as link verbs they can be modified by adverbs in the usual way. This confuses the student, who often tries to use adverbs instead of adjectives after link verbs. Some examples with adjectives and adverbs may help to show the different uses:

  • He looked calm (adjective) = He had a calm expression.
  • He looked calmly (adverb) at the angry crowd. (looked here is a deliberate action.)
  • She turned pale (adjective) = She became pale.
  • He turned. Angrily. (adverb) to the man behind him. (turned here is a deliberate action.)
  • The soup tasted horrible (adjective). (It had a horrible taste.)
  • He tasted the soup suspiciously (adverb). (tasted here is a deliberate action.)

(D) Some adjectives can be used only attributively or only predicatively, and some change their meaning when moved from one position to the other.

Bad/good, big/small, heavy/light and old, used in such expressions as had sailor, good swimmer, big eater, small farmer, heavy drinker, light sleeper: old boy/friend/soldier etc., cannot be used predicatively without changing the meaning: a small farmer is a man who has a small farm, but The farmer is small means that he is a small man physically.

Used otherwise, the above adjectives can be in either position.

(For little, old, young, see also 19 B.)

chief, main, principal, slicer, utter come before their nouns.  frightened may be in either position, but afraid and upset must  follow the verb and so must adrift, afloat, alike (see 21 G), alive, alone, ashamed, asleep.

The meaning of early and late may depend on their position:

an early/a late train means a train scheduled to run early or late in the day. The train is early/late means that it is before/after its proper time:

poor meaning ‘without enough money’ can precede the noun or follow the verb.

 poor meaning ‘unfortunate’ must precede the noun.

poor meaning ‘weak/inadequate’ precedes nouns such as student, worker etc. but when used with inanimate nouns can be in either position:

He has poor sight.                  His sight is poor.

(E)     Use of and

With attributive adjectives and is used chiefly when there are two or more adjectives of colour. It is then placed before the last of these:

A green and brown carpet                       A red,  white and blue flag

With predicative adjectives and is placed between the last two:

The day was cold,        wet and windy.  

Order of adjectives of quality

 (A)Several variations are possible but a fairly usual order is: adjectives of

(a) size (except little; but see C below)

(b) general description (excluding adjectives of personality, emotion etc.)

(c) age, and the adjective little (see B)

(d) shape

(e) colour

(f) material

(g) origin

(h) purpose (these are really gerunds used to form compound nouns: walking stick, riding boots).

  • a long sharp knife
  • a small round bath
  • new hexagonal coins
  • blue velvet curtains
  • an old plastic bucket
  • an elegant French clock

Adjectives of personality /emotion come after adjectives of physical description, including dark, fair, pale, but before colours:

  • a small suspicious official
  • a long patient queue
  • a pale anxious girl
  • a kindly black doctor
  • an inquisitive brown dog

(B) little, old and young are often used, not to give information, but as part of an adjective-noun combination. They are then placed next to their nouns:

  • Your nephew is a nice little boy.
  • That young man drives too fast.

little + old + noun is possible: a little old lady. But little + young is not.

When used to give information, old and young occupy the position (c) above:

  • a young coloured man
  • an old Welsh Harp

 Adjectives of personality/emotion can precede or follow young/old:

  • a young ambitious man
  • an ambitious young man

young in the first example carries stronger stress than young in the second, so the first order is better if we wish to emphasize the age.

little can be used similarly in position (c):

  • a handy little calculator
  • an expensive little hotel
  • a little sandy beach
  • a little grey foal

But small is usually better than little if we want to emphasize the size.

 (C) fine, lovely, nice, and sometimes beautiful, + adjectives of size (except little), shape and temperature usually express approval of the size etc. If we say a beautiful big room, a lovely warm house, nice/fine thick steaks we imply that we like big rooms, warm houses and thick steaks.

fine, lovely and nice can be used similarly with a number of other adjectives:

  • fine strong coffee
  • a lovely quiet beach
  • a nice dry day

When used predicatively, such pairs are separated by and:

  • The coffee was fine and strong.
  • The day was nice and dry.

beautiful is not much used in this sense as a predicative adjective.

(D) pretty followed by another adjective with no comma between them is an adverb of degree meaning very/quite: She’s a pretty tall girl means She is quite/very tall. But a pretty, tall girl or, more usually, a tall, pretty girl means a girl who is both tall and pretty.