When we use language to describe what is going on around us we use verbs to tell the actions and nouns to indicate the objects that we see. However, the words car, man, and building could indicate multiple objects in a scene we are discussing. We could point or use 'pointing words' or demonstratives such as this and that to indicate which one we are talking about. However, pointing to objects can be ineffective, especially if we are talking about objects that are not present. Instead we can use adjectives to indicate which car, which man, or which building we are talking about, as in the red car, the tall man, or the oriental building. Let's look first at the grammar of adjectives and then see some surprises when we take discourse and pragmatics into account.
Identifying adjectives:Discourse and Pragmatics:
- meaning: Typically, adjectives are defined a words that describe nouns. To use question words to help identify adjectives, find the nouns and then ask the question "which (say the noun)?" or "what kind of (say the noun)? as in the following examples:
- He pulled out a flattened bag. Which bag? or What kind of bag? a flattened bag
- She glanced at the icy water. Which water? or What kind of water? the icy water
- We provide an innovative network. Which network? or What kind of network? an innovative network.
- A wide variety of derivational endings can be used to make nouns and verbs into adjectives. What endings have to be supplied so the following nouns and verbs can be put into the following slot to serve as adjectives?
- We are looking for a character.
- smash (two possibilities--what is the difference?)
- amuse (two possibilities--what is the difference?
- entertain (two possibilities--what is the difference?)
- bore (two possibilities--what is the difference?)
- interest (two possibilities--what is the difference?)
- six feet tall
- The inflectional endings that go with adjectives (and many adverbs) are the -er and the -est of the comparative and the superlative, as in flatter and dirtier. However, there are some restrictions on which adjectives can add the inflectional -er and -est and which adjectives have to use the periphrastic more and most. See if you can figure out the rule from the following
- That one seems much .
- frames: We have already seen the two frames for finding adjectives in sentences in the section on endings. The first "We are looking for a man" identifies attributive adjectives, adjectives that appear before a noun. The second frame "That one seems much ____" identifies predicative adjectives, adjectives that appear after the noun, usually after a linking verb such as is, seems, turns, becomes. Notice the position of the adjectives in the following examples of attributive and predicative adjectives:
- the funny clowns
- a perfect match
- the legal heir
- The boy is asleep.
- I feel faint.
- intensified Adjectives can also be intensified. In other words they can appear after words such as very, awfully, quite, extremely.
- I am very sleepy.
- complex adjectives or multiword adjectives that include such things as prepositional phrases also appear in the predicative position immediately after the noun. Even though these do not look like adjectives, we know they are functioning as such since they answer the questions "which" and "what kind of."
- The man drenched in chocolate seems to enjoy cooking.
- The committee meeting to decide our fate convened at 8.
- The woman in the corner is hiding from us.
Usually we only use one adjective at a time. However, when we use two or more, there is a order they tend to come in according to their meaning. Descriptive studies indicate that the following seems to be the preferred order of native speakers:
det opinion size shape condition age color origin noun the wonderful little square smooth old green German mug
Of course we would probably never use that many adjectives at a time. Try the categories given above two or three adjectives at a time but reversing the order they give and see if you agree on the order.
There are two hidden surprises with adjectives that we need to look at. The first has to do with the polarity of gradable adjectives and the other with whether or not adjectives really are used to create pictures in the mind.
In an earlier unit on negatives we saw that sometimes we have hidden negatives in English. One case we did not talk about concerns adjectives. Adjectives can follow an intensifier (very, somewhat, quite) come in pairs to indicate two extremes of a quality being described, such as hot and cold. This is called polarity. What surprises English language learners and native speakers alike is that one of these pairs has negative connotations and the other positive. The positive ones are most common and generally are learned first by children. The negative one is used only for special contexts. Look at the following sets of antonyms. Which one do you think is the positive and which one the negative. A clue: the positive one is the one most likely to appear in the question "How is it?" when there is no other context. They are also the most likely adjective to be used in answers.
The adjectives in column 1 are the positive ones, in the since they indicate the increased evidence of the quality being described. Column 2 indicates lesser evidence of the quality. The positive one can be used in any question-the negative only in question concerning the lack of the quality. Notice the following, taking note of the answers:
big small, little old young old new long short good bad hard soft fast slow tall short wide narrow high low loud quiet rough smooth
Elementary school children often thing that these pairs of adjectives are synonyms rather than antonyms since the answer is the same no matter which one is used in the question:
- How tall are you? *I'm 5 feet short.
- How short are you? I'm 5 feet tall.
- Is it the right length? No, it's 5 feet short. (i.e. the quality is missing)
- How shallow is the kiddie pool? *It's 4 inches shallow.
Since they are seen as synonyms they are problems in comparisons. The -er should indicate more of the quality. However, with the adjective from the negative end of the polarity, -er means less.
- How tall are you? I'm 4 feet tall.
- How short are you? I'm 4 feet tall.
- How deep is this end of the pool. It's 2 feet deep.
- How shallow is this end of the pool. It's 2 feet deep.
- How old are you? I'm 4 years old.
- How young are you? I'm 4 years old.
As adults, this seems to be no problem at all. However, it causes a problem for children. Thus math and science teachers are told that when they create tests for elementary school aged children, they should always ask their questions using the positive adjective.
- Which pool is shallower? Which pool is deeper?
- Which is longer? Which is shorter?
Creating pictures in the mind.
Since adjectives are defined as words that describe, teachers often think that they can help their students add more description to their language if they develop their use of adjectives. Read the following two paragraphs written by a native speaker of Arabic. The first was written after an exercise on using adjectives to describe a fellow classmate. The second was free writing about the same person. Which creates a better picture?
- I am going to describe a girl who is walking before me face to face. She is five feet tall, her face is white, and her hair is long. She is not thin and she is not fat. She has a normal body.
- She is very beautiful, her hair dark and her eyes black in color. Her face looks like a moon in the middle of the sky. She walks smoothly. When she walks, you think that she is dancing. When she talks, you think she is singing. When she smiles, you think the light of the sun is coming.
Would you agree that the use of verbs in the second passage creates more of a picture in the mind than all the adjectives in the first? Note how Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi also uses verbs rather than merely adjectives to create a picture in the mind. The verbs are in italics, the adjectives underlined. Note that some of the verbs are used as adjectives and some as nouns.
- After all these years I can still picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the town drowsing in the sunshine on a summer's morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores with their splint bottomed chairs tilted back against the walls, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep...: two or three wood flats at the end of the wharf, but nobody to listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great Mississippi rolling its mile wide tide along, point above the town and point below, bounding the river glimpse and burning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and brilliant and lonely one