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How to Use Adjectives – Video

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In this lesson, you can learn about using adjectives in English.

You’ll see basic information about English adjectives, what they do, and how you can use them. Then, you’ll see some more details about different types of adjectives and what they mean.

QUIZ: How to Use Adjectives

Now, test your knowledge of what you learned in the lesson by trying this quiz. You can get help with some questions if you press ‘Hint’. You will get your score at the end, when you can click on ‘View Questions’ to see all the correct answers.

Most of the questions follow the order of the lesson and test the vocabulary you saw. Towards the end, the questions get harder and use new vocabulary. Good luck!

1. Adjective Basics

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First, a question: what do adjectives do? Adjectives describe nouns—they add information to a noun or noun phrase. For example:

  • The sea was blue and clear.

The adjectives—‘blue’ and ‘clear’—add information to the noun—‘sea’. Adjectives can be used in many ways, but there are two common patterns. With adjective order, you can put adjectives directly before the noun they describe, like this:

  • red high-heeled shoes
  • a reliable friend
  • He gave me an expensive Italian leather wallet.

Secondly, you can use a linking verb plus an adjective after a noun, like this:

  • She felt happy.
  • It’s sunny.
  • He seems quiet today.

By the way, what are ‘linking verbs’? Linking verbs add information to a subject. Common linking verbs include ‘be’, ‘seem’, ‘become’, ‘feel’ and ‘appear’, although there are many others. You don’t need to worry about this right now. Remember the basic point: adjectives can go before a noun, or after it. This will become more important later in the lesson—keep watching to find out why! Here’s another question for you: how can you find the adjectives in a sentence? What do adjectives look like? There’s no simple answer to this question. With all parts of speech, it’s better to look at full sentences and think about context and meaning. Let’s do a quick test! Here are five sentences. Can you find the adjective or adjectives in each one?

  1. I’ve always been afraid of flying.
  2. That was one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done.
  3. The only way to solve this problem is to talk together and try to come to an agreement.
  4. Things turned out better than we expected.
  5. Police are looking for a 25-year-old man who was seen leaving the area shortly after the burglary took place.

Pause the video if you need more time to think. You’ll see the answers in a few seconds. Ready? Here are the answers.

  1. I’ve always been afraid of flying.
  2. That was one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done.
  3. The only way to solve this problem is to talk together and try to come to an agreement.
  4. Things turned out better than we expected.
  5. Police are looking for a 25-year-old man who was seen leaving the area shortly after the burglary took place.

You can see a few useful points here. Firstly, adjectives don’t look similar to each other. Adjectives can have many different endings, and they can even end with -ly, like many adverbs do.

Want more practice? Watch this Oxford Online English lesson on adverbs in English.

Secondly, adjectives also have different forms. For example, many adjectives have comparative forms, like ‘good-better’, or superlative forms, like ‘hard-hardest’.

Thirdly, some adjectives are compound, meaning they’re made from two or more other words. This is common with numbers, as in ‘a 25-year-old man’.

Now, you know some of the basics about adjectives in English and how to use them. Let’s go into more detail about different types of adjectives.

2. Gradable, Ungradable and Strong Adjectives

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Look at four sentences. Two are right, and two are wrong. Can you see which sentences are correct? Do you know why the other two sentences are incorrect?

  1. This stew is very nice.
  2. This stew is very delicious.
  3. This picture is more unique than the others.
  4. This picture is more interesting than the others.

Pause the video if you need more time to think about it.

Ready? Let’s look together. Sentences one and four are correct. Two and three are incorrect. Did you get the right answers? And, can you explain why sentences two and three are incorrect? To explain this, you need to know about an important idea: gradability. Some adjectives are gradable. That means they can have different levels. For example, ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’ are gradable. Something can be more interesting, or less interesting. There are different levels of ‘interesting’. Some adjectives are ungradable. That means that they’re binary—either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, ‘unique’ is ungradable. Either something is unique, or it isn’t. You can’t have different levels of uniqueness. It’s a yes-or-no property. Ungradable adjectives have two types. Firstly, there are words with a strong meaning, like ‘delicious’, ‘exhausted’ or ‘furious’. Secondly, there are words with an absolute meaning, like ‘unique’, ‘true’ or ‘possible’. When we talk about ungradable adjectives, we mean both of these types.

What does this mean for you? Well, there are two important rules you should know. First, you can’t make comparatives or superlatives from ungradable adjectives. You can’t say ‘more delicious’ or ‘most delicious’. You can’t say ‘truer’ or ‘most possible’. Secondly, if you want to emphasise an adjective by adding a word like ‘very’, ‘really’ or ‘absolutely’ before it, you need to use different words for gradable and ungradable adjectives. ‘Very’ is used with gradable adjectives. So, you can say ‘very beautiful’, ‘very cold’ or ‘very funny’, but you can’t say ‘very gorgeous’, ‘very freezing’ or ‘very hilarious’. You can’t say ‘very freezing’, but what can you say? With ungradable adjectives, use ‘absolutely’; you can say ‘absolutely freezing’, ‘absolutely exhausted’ or ‘absolutely unique’. What if you’re not sure? Use ‘really’, which can be used with both gradable and ungradable adjectives. So, you can say ‘really cold’ or ‘really freezing’. They’re both fine!

Understanding the difference between gradable and ungradable adjectives is important if you want to use adjectives in English correctly. There’s also one more important point you should know. Let’s look!

3. Adjective Position

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You heard in part one that adjectives can go before the noun, or after the noun if you use a linking verb. So, are these sentences correct, or not?

  1. There’s an asleep cat on the wall.
  2. This problem is main.
  3. My brother is elder than me.

As always, pause the video if you want to think about it for longer. Ready? Here’s the answer. All three sentences are incorrect; none of them are possible. Do you know why? Many adjectives can be used either before or after the noun they describe. For example, you can say ‘the car is new’ or ‘the new car’. Both are possible, and it doesn’t change the meaning. However, some adjectives can only be used in one position: either before or after the noun. That’s the problem with the three sentences you saw just now. ‘Asleep’ can only be used after the noun it describes. You can say ‘The cat is asleep on the wall’, but you can’t say ‘an asleep cat’. ‘Main’ and ‘elder’ are examples of adjectives which can only go before the noun. So, you could say ‘This is the main problem’ or ‘He is my elder brother.’

Now, let’s do a test. Look at six adjectives:

  1. alone
  2. ill
  3. complete
  4. only
  5. unhappy
  6. afraid

Here’s the question: can these adjectives be used before the noun, after the noun, or in both positions? To do this, try making sentences with the six adjectives, or go to an online dictionary, such as the Cambridge dictionary or Longman, and find example sentences. When you make sentences, try saying them out loud. Use your instinct. Does it sound strange or wrong? It probably is. Pause the video and do the test. You’ll see the answers in a few seconds!

Ready? Let’s check together. ‘Alone’ can only be used after the noun it describes. For example: ‘He was alone for most of the summer.’ ‘Ill’ is also generally used after the noun it describes. For example: ‘I didn’t work yesterday because my daughter was ill.’ ‘Complete’ can be used in both positions. For example: ‘It was a complete disaster!’ Or, ‘The first stage of the work is now complete.’ ‘Only’ is used before the noun. For example: ‘The only way to do it is to do it yourself.’ ‘Unhappy’ can be used in both positions. For example: ‘They had an unhappy marriage,’ or ‘He didn’t enjoy the last year of school and was often unhappy.’ Finally, ‘afraid’ is only used after the noun. For example: ‘I was afraid of the dark when I was a child.’

So, you’re probably thinking: how do I know? How do I know whether an adjective can be used before or after a noun? It’s a good question. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. Dictionaries don’t usually include this information. However, we have good news! Most adjectives can be used in both positions. Also, for most adjectives which can’t, you already know the answer. For example, remember the sentence, ‘The problem is main’? Most of you knew that this sentence sounded wrong. Your instincts can be helpful!

Anyhow, now you know about gradability and adjective position. There’s a reason we’ve shown you these two topics, because our last idea depends on these points.

4. Changing Meaning

You know that adjectives can be gradable or ungradable, or that they can go before or after the noun, but in some cases, the same adjective can be used in different ways with different meanings. For example, look at these two sentences:

  • She handled the situation in a very professional way.
  • She’s a professional tennis player.

Both these sentences use the adjective ‘professional’, but in different ways. Can you see the difference? In the first sentence, ‘professional’ is used as a gradable adjective, and it means something like ‘effective’ or ‘competent’. In the second sentence, ‘professional’ is ungradable: it means that playing tennis is her job, and she makes money from it. Let’s do another example:

  • Jerome was present at the meeting.
  • The present situation looks more hopeful than it has for several months.

What about here? Can you explain the difference between these two uses of ‘present’? In the first sentence, ‘present’ is used after the noun, with a linking verb. It means that Jerome was there. In the second sentence, ‘present’ is used before the noun, and it means ‘relating to now’. So, in this case, the adjective has different meanings in different positions. To be clear, this isn’t flexible. You can’t choose to use ‘present’ before a noun to mean ‘there’. If you use ‘present’ before a noun, then it means ‘relating to now’.

So, what should you take away from this? What do you need to focus on? We aren’t showing you these points because you need to learn lists of all the gradable and ungradable adjectives. This lesson gives you tools to help you understand adjectives in English more deeply. The most important point is that adjectives don’t follow one simple set of rules. Like with all vocabulary, you need to use context to understand what an adjective means in a sentence. Next—and this is also a general point—one word doesn’t have one meaning. With adjectives, whether a word is gradable or not can make a difference. Where an adjective is used can make a difference. You can’t simply rely on a dictionary or a translator. Again, you need to understand the context to understand the words.

Get more practice with grammar and sentence structure in our Grammar Lesson #1.

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