You know what adjectives are (if you don’t remember, see #1), but how important are they? Are they just here to make your language prettier, or are adjectives actually essential for communicating well in English? Read below to see examples of adjectives in English and how to use them.
If you use too many adjectives, you may become guilty of purple prose. However, avoiding adjectives altogether would be a tragic mistake for your English. Here are three instances when using adjectives is essential or highly beneficial:
- to clarify between options;
- to describe something that’s absent; and
- to transport someone in their imagination to another place or time.
Of course, there are more reasons to use adjectives in English than just these three. Can you think of any? Respond in the comments!
Related: 7 Adjectives about Plants
1. What is an Adjective?
An adjective is a word that gives information about a noun.
Person: George Washington, my mother, Anna, you, the plumber
Place: London, his house, the post office, Australia, the park
Thing: my dictionary, the drum, a painting, a tuna sandwich, the wig
Idea: love, happiness, depression, envy, pride
Adjectives can give all kinds of information. Adjectives can tell us about color, size, material, value, nationality, shape, etc.
Here are a few examples of adjectives:
I love the green dress, but the blue one doesn’t suit you.
You can’t afford to spend money on silk stockings.
Ronald is the best chef I’ve ever encountered. The food he makes is innovative and delicious.
Italian cheeses are popular around the world.
2. Using Adjectives to Clarify
There are many reasons to use adjectives in English, but one of the most basic is for the sake of clarity. If there are multiple items of the same general category, an adjective can clarify which item you’re referring to.
In this example, Paul is at the market and would like to buy some shorts. The vendor is selling many pairs of shorts, so Paul uses adjectives to tell the vendor which shorts he wants. He clarifies which shorts by saying their color and location.
3. Using Adjectives to Describe
Adjectives also enable us to describe something when it is not actually present.
For example, imagine that you want a detective to help you find a person. You don’t have a photo. You would use adjectives to help the detective understand what the person looks and sounds like.
Similarly, imagine that you’ve lost your favorite doll. Your sister offers to help you look for it. You don’t have a photo, but you use adjectives to describe what the doll looks like so your sister will know what to look for:
My doll has straight, blonde hair, and she’s wearing a denim dress and a beaded necklace.
4. Using Adjectives to Transport
When I read, I like to imagine exactly what the setting is like. I want to be able to close my eyes and see the characters. I want to hear what the characters hear and smell what they smell. When they’re frightened, I want my heart to race.
One of the ways an author transports us from our real lives into the world of their story is through adjectives. Adjectives are an essential tool in storytelling.
In the example below, how would the passage be different without adjectives?
- How is the morning sun different from the midday sun? Is the light from the morning sun the same as the light from the midday sun? Does the morning sun give off the same heat as the midday sun? What feelings do you associate with the morning sun? What feelings do you associate with the sun in general? What feelings are the same? What feelings are different?
- What does it tell us about the narrator if he identifies the trees as birch? Is he more likely to be a city slicker or someone who spends time in nature? Is he someone who pays attention to details?
- It may seem obvious that a bird digging for worms is hungry, and so you may think that this adjective is uncalled for. However, if the narrator makes a point of noticing that the birds are hungry, does this tell us anything about the narrator? Is he hungry himself perhaps?
5. Examples of Adjectives from English Literature
The best way to get a feel for how we use adjectives in storytelling is to look at masters of storytelling. Here are just a few examples from literature where the authors used adjectives to transport us to the worlds of their stories.
“Dany watched the flies. They were as large as bees, gross, purplish, glistening.”
-George R.R. Martin, from the novel A Game of Thrones
“The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent.”
-Anne Sexton, from the poem “The Starry Night”
“They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.”
-Unknown author (translated by Seamus Heaney), from the epic poem Beowulf
“There was then a long and obstinate silence.”
-Edgar Allen Poe, from the short story “The Cask of Amontillado”
“I had a lovely visit with my mother that Mother’s Day—although the visiting room was deranged. I had never seen it so crowded with large family groups.”
-Piper Kerman, from the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
“Old Deacon Gookin was at domestic worship, and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the open window.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, from the short story “Young Goodman Brown”
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
-Allen Ginsberg, from the poem “Howl”