Grammar Basics: Adjectives

June 13, 2006

The types of questions on college entrance examinations that test knowledge of adjectives include items that require the ability to:

  1. identify adjectives that incorrectly modify verbs or other adjectives and replace them with adverbs
  2. differentiate between adjectives and other parts of speech in parallelism errors
  3. identify and correct dangling participles, which are adjective forms of verbs that do not clearly and correctly modify any word in a sentence
  4. identify and correct errors in the use of comparative, superlative, and absolute adjectives

An adjective is a word or group of words used to describe a noun.

The red apple was in a glass bowl.

The adjectives in this sentence are "red" and "glass." "Red" modifies the noun "apple" and "glass" modifies the noun "bowl."

A prepositional phrase can act as an adjective.

The apple was in a bowl on the table.

The prepositional phrase "on the table" acts as an adjective to describe the noun "bowl."

A linking verb links a subject with a predicate. When a subject is linked to an adjective, the modifier is called a predicate adjective.

The apple tastes sweet.

The verb "tastes" links the subject, "apple," with the predicate adjective, "sweet."

Adjectives used for comparison are either comparative or superlative.

  • A comparative adjective is used to compare two people or things. Comparative adjectives generally end in "-er" or are themselves modified by "more" or "less."

An apple is sweeter than a lemon.

I think that apples are more delicious than bananas.

  • A superlative adjective is used to compare more than two people or things. Superlative adjectives generally end in "-est" or are themselves modified by "most" or "least."

Apples, bananas, and peaches are all sweet, but peaches are sweetest.

Apples, bananas, and peaches are all tasty, but I think peaches are the most delicious.

Do not confuse comparative and superlative adjectives. Comparative adjectives can only be used to compare two people or things, and superlative adjectives can only be used to compare more than two people or things.

Apples and peaches are delicious, but I like peaches best.

"Best" is a superlative adjective that means "surpassing all others." Since this sentence contains a comparison of only two things, use the comparative "better."

Apples and peaches are delicious, but I like peaches better.

Do not use a comparative adjective when comparing more than two people or things, as in the following sentence:

After eating an apple, a banana, and a peach, I decided that I liked the peach better.

"Better" is a comparative adjective incorrectly used in this sentence to compare three things. Use the superlative "best" in this context.

After eating an apple, a banana, and a peach, I decided that I liked the peach best.

An absolute adjective describes a quality that has no degree. Absolute adjectives should not be used in comparisons and should only be modified by adverbs such as "nearly" or "almost." These are examples of absolute adjectives:

  • dead (Someone or something that is no longer living is dead; a person cannot be more dead than someone else, and a plant cannot be very dead. However, a plant that has not been watered in a long time can be described as "almost dead.")
  • square (Something is either square or it is not square. A drawing of a box made without a ruler can be described as "nearly square.")
  • perfect ("Perfect" is not relative. A grade can be almost perfect, but your perfect score cannot be more perfect than my perfect score.)

"Unique" is a word that means "unlike any other." Someone or something can either be incomparable (unique) or like someone or something else (not unique). People and things cannot be "very unique" or "more unique" than others. Colloquial speech has developed an alternate meaning of "unique" – "unusual," which is not absolute and can therefore be modified in a comparative manner. However, this usage is not acceptable in standard written English and formal speech. If you encounter "unique" on a standardized test, make sure that it has not been comparatively modified. Do not use a comparatively modified form of "unique" in your writing.

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3 Responses to “Grammar Basics: Adjectives”

  1. Mike Thiede Says:

    I would like to know what word to use in this sentence and why.

    “Your answers are different (from/than) mine.”
    My prof says to use the word “from” but does not know why.
    I really want to know why.
    Can you help me?
    My alternative email is thiedeme22@uww.edu
    Thank you.

    Mike Thiede

  2. Larry Says:

    In this case, you should use “than,” because if you rearrange the sentence, you would say “You have different answers THAN me.” And by the way, it’s not “alternative” email. The proper way is “alternate” email.

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