Introduction to Adjectives

You are viewing the free, open access version of The Nature of Writing. For all premium membership features (including quizzes, additional lessons, course progress tracking, and more), please register or log in.


Adjectives are descriptive words that modify nouns or pronouns:

The blue ribbon
That black cat
A better me
An educational speech

In each case, the adjective tells you something about the noun. The adjective answers one of the following questions:

What kind of?

Which? Whose?

How many? How much?

The best way to ask these questions is to combine them with the noun in the sentence:

Twenty-two mice danced in the circus.

Question: how many mice?

Adjective: twenty-two.

As you can see, adjectives usually come before the noun or pronoun. The most common exception is with a linking verb:

The weather is sunny.

The days are long.

He became embittered.

In these cases, the adjective comes after the subject it describes.

Tricky adjectives

There are quite few words that at first glance don’t look like adjectives. Often the function of a word depends on how it’s used in the sentence. Let’s review these tricky forms.


In English, we have two articles: the and a(n). Because they come before a noun, they can be considered adjectives:

The soother
A tree
An ability


If a pronoun modifies a noun, then it functions like an adjective:

My friend
Any complaints
Those cousins
Which room


At times nouns can take on the role of an adjective:

Student council
Coffee machine
Almond milk
Barber shop quartet

You can categorize these as nouns too, but it’s important to understand how they function.


Present and past participles can also act like adjectives:

Torn shirt
Ranked player
Captivating show
Streaming media

These examples demonstrate the versatility of language. Participles are derived from verbs, but they can describe nouns.

Clauses and Phrases

Even clauses and phrases can function like adjectives:

The tiger that escaped yesterday

The fountain in the front garden

However, don’t worry too much for now about these larger units. They will be explained in our course on sentence structure.