What Are Adjectives?

Traditional grammar says adjectives are “words that describe.”  They are associated with nouns or other adjectives:

These are smart students.

Students is a noun.

Proof: the students.

Smart is associated with students.

So, is smart an adjective?

Traditional grammar says that adverbs, which we will cover in another lesson, are associated with adjectives.

Extremely is a typical adverb.  As we can see, it can describe smart.

These are extremely smart students.

So, yes, smart is an adjective.    

Descriptive Words that are Not Adjectives

But now let’s apply the extremely test to other words:

A pirate ship is approaching!.

Ship is a noun.

Proof: the ship.

So, is pirate an adjective?

We can test the word pirate by putting extremely in front of it.

The extremely pirate ship.    

Pirate is not an adjective.

So, what is it?

The pirate.

Pirate is a noun.

Let’s try another word:

I love football.

Football is a noun.

Proof: the football.

Traditional grammar says that football will become an adjective when it modifies (describe) games, as in—

I love football games.

Games is a noun.

Proof: the games.

But is football now an adjective?  Can we say—

extremely football?    

Why does traditional grammar tell us that pirate, in pirate ship, is an adjective?

Because traditional grammar looks at a word’s function – what is does – instead of the word’s form – what the word is.  

The Test for Adjectives

Instead of having a definition of adjectives, we will use a test:

WHAT? + N + extremely.


A picture containing vector graphics Description automatically generatedYell:

Adjectives = WHAT? + N + extremely.


Using the Test for Adjectives

Ask yourself:

No                               Yes

  1. Is the word associated with a noun?           It is not an adjective.        Go to step 2.   
  2. Can I put extremely in front of it?              It is not an adjective.        Yes, it is an adjective.

For example:

That funny movie is showing downtown.

WHAT?  funny movie

Movie is a noun.

Proof: the movie.

Funny is associated with a noun.

Funny movie.

We can put extremely in front of funny.

Extremely funny.

Funny is an adjective.   

The book was terrible.

WHAT?  terrible book.

Book is a noun.

The book.

We can put extremely in front of terrible.

Extremely terrible.

Terrible is an adjective.  

Class Activity

Use the adjective test to determine if the following are nouns or adjectives. 



The snail.

Snail is a noun.


Extremely small

Small is an adjective. 

1. friendly

11. pencil

2. lonely

12. bed

3. kitchen table

13. ugly

4. wonderful

14. hard

5. happy    

15. Chinese cooking

6. excellent

16. ball           

7. scary

17. slow

8. light (not heavy)

18. light (object)

9. shallow

19. rapid

10. rapids

20. trashy


Individual or Small Group Activity

Complete the exercise:    Romania