Adjective phrass: position

When an adjective is used with a noun, the usual order in English is adjective + noun:

a yellow balloon

Not: a balloon yellow

Adjectives with nouns and verbs

Adjectives can go before the noun (attributive) or after linking verbs such as be, become, seem (predicative):

What a beautiful flower! (attributive)

This bridge looks unsafe. (predicative)

Some adjectives can only be used in one position or the other.

Adjectives normally only used before a noun

Numbers and first, last

With numbers and with words like first, last, next, the usual order is first/next + number + adjective + noun:

Special offer on the last three remaining sofas.

There used to be two big fields here when I was young.

I don’t have to work for the next four days.

That’s the second large study on unemployment this year.

Some adjectives of degree

When we use words like absolute, complete, perfect to talk about degree, they can only be used before nouns. This group of adjectives includes proper, pure, real, sheer, true, utter:

That’s an absolute lie. I did not use your car when you were away.

Not: That lie is absolute.

Lily has always been a true friend to me.

Not: My friend Lily is true.

Some adjectives of time and order

Some time and order adjectives, such as former, present, future, are used before the noun only. Other examples are latter, old (an old friend = ‘a friend for many years’), early (early French literature = ‘of the initial period in the history of something’), and late (the late Mr Richards = ‘died recently’):

Her former husband had bought the house but she never liked it.

Not: Her husband was former

This is a church from the early Romanesque period

Not: This is a church from the Romanesque period. The Romanesque period was early.

When we use early after a verb (predicatively) it means something different. The train was early means that it came before we expected it.

Some adjectives that limit the following noun

Adjectives like certain, main, major, only, particular limit the noun that they go before (the only people who know, the particular road that we travelled on). Other examples are principal, sole (meaning ‘only’), very, chief:

The main reason why the cinema closed is because the building was too old and dangerous.

Not: The reason is main why the cinema

That’s the very tool I am looking for. (very means ‘exact’)

Not: That tool is very

Adjectives normally only used after a noun

We use some –ed forms after a noun:

Most of the issues mentioned in the documentary are not very important.

Not: Most of the mentioned issues

The difference in percentages is clear from the illustrations shown.

Not: … from the shown illustrations.

Adjectives normally only used after a verb

Adjectives with the prefix a

We can’t use adjectives with the prefix a– before a noun. We use them after linking verbs such as be, seem, become, feel, smell, taste. Common examples of adjectives with the prefix a- include awake, alive, asleep, aboard (on a plane, boat, bus or train), afloat, ablaze (on fire):

Katie was awake at the time.

Not: Katie was an awake person at the time.

People were asleep in the bedroom.

Not: There were asleep people in the bedroom.

The passengers were all aboard when they heard the loud bang.

Not: The aboard passengers heard the loud bang.

If we want to express a similar meaning with an adjective in front of the noun, we can use a related adjective.

Compare

before a noun

after a verb

Even fourteen days after the earthquake, rescue workers were still finding live babies in the rubble.

Even fourteen days after the earthquake, rescue workers were still finding babies who were alive in the rubble.

It is very strange to see a lone wolf. They always stay together in groups called a ‘pack’.

It is very strange to see a wolf who is alone. They always stay together in groups called a ‘pack’.

There was a blazing fire in the cinema. It took many firemen to put it out.

The cinema was ablaze for many hours and it took many firemen to put out the fire.

Some adjectives referring to states of health

Most commonly, the adjectives ill and well are used after a verb and not before a noun:

I feel ill.

Not: He went to visit his ill sister.

She’s not well.

Not: He’s not a well child.

Words and phrases that go before and after adjectives

The most typical words and phrases that go before adjectives (premodifiers) are adverb phrases expressing degree:

He was pretty surprised then.

This cake tastes a bit strange.

Photographs are really cheap nowadays.

The major exception is the degree adverb enough, which goes after the adjective (a postmodifier):

I am strong enough to face the difficulties.

Is that car big enough for all of us?

Other types of adverbs can also go before adjectives:

He had lost his usually calm attitude and become very nervous. (adverb of frequency + adjective)

He made an insensitively timed remark that upset her. (comment adverb + adjective)

Gradable adjectives and words and phrases that go before them

Most common adjectives can express different degrees of qualities, properties, states, conditions, relations, etc. These are called gradable adjectives:

a pretty big meal

a really big meal

an extremely big meal

Before gradable adjectives, we can use words which show different degrees of the feature in question. These are usually adverb phrases.

The waves are fairly high in the winter.

The waves are quite high in the winter.

an adverb of degree used before gradable adjective high.

The waves are this high in the winter.

I can’t believe the waves are that high in the winter.

This high would usually be spoken with a gesture showing a specific height.

That high refers to a statement made by someone about the height of the waves or to the moment of seeing the high waves.

The waves are over six metres high in the winter.

Six metres is a noun phrase. Certain adjectives expressing measurable features (e.g. height, thickness, age, time) may be modified by such noun phrases:

The wall is half a metre thick.

The clock is over 100 years old.

Sorry, we’re half an hour early!

Some degree adverbs (so, too, as) need a word or phrase to complete their meaning (a complement). The complement may be a clause or a phrase. The complement comes after the adjective head.

Compare

The waves were so high that they went onto the street!

So is the degree adverb before the adjective high. It needs the complement that they went onto the street in order to complete its meaning.

The waves are too high to go sailing.

Too is the degree adverb before the adjective high. It needs the complement to go sailing in order to complete its meaning.

The waves are as high as the wall in the winter.

To say that things are the same, we use as + adjective + as + complement.

The waves are higher than the wall in the winter.

To compare two things which are different, we add the suffix -er to the adjective before the complement.

How is used to ask questions and to make exclamations about degree. There is an important difference in word order.

Compare

How high are the waves?

A question about degree:

how + adjective + verb + noun phrase?

How high the waves are!

An exclamation about degree:

how + adjective + noun phrase + verb!

Warning:

Some adjectives cannot be made bigger, smaller, higher, lower, stronger, weaker, etc. These are called ungradable adjectives:

The tree is dead.

Not: The tree is fairly dead.

My dog is female.

Not: My dog is sort of female.

Other common ungradable adjectives include: automatic/manual; Irish/Brazilian/Thai etc.; married/unmarried/single.

Gradable opposites (antonyms)

Open-ended

The most common gradable adjectives can be grouped into pairs of opposites (antonyms) which refer to features like height: short – tall; heat: hot – cold, size; big – small, etc. These adjectives are at the upper and lower parts of an open-ended scale (a scale with no maximum or minimum):

short

tall

big

small

Warning:

We can’t use ungradable adverbs such as completely, absolutely, entirely, utterly or totally before these adjectives because they are open-ended:

My working day is very long. I start work at 8 am and I don’t finish until 8 pm.

Not: My working day is completely long.

My house is so hot.

Not: My house is absolutely hot.

This office is extremely small.

Not: This office is totally small.

Maximum and minimum

Some other gradable adjectives can express features which have a maximum and/or minimum (zero) value:

full

empty

possible

impossible

black

white

We can use degree adverbs such as absolutely, completely, entirely, totally and other similar words before these adjectives:

We haven’t had rain for two months. The garden is completely dry.

The city centre is absolutely full of tourists at this time of year.

Other degree adverbs which we can use before this type of gradable adjective include almost, barely, half, scarcely:

Brain cell regeneration is almost possible, say scientists.

Warning:

The ungradable adverb quite has different meanings depending on whether it is used with an open-ended gradable adjective (hot – cold) or an adjective which has a maximum and/or minimum (black – white).

Compare

It’s quite cold in here.

I’m quite hungry now. Are you?

quite means ‘fairly’

The situation in my old job was quite different. It was a very small new company.

You’re quite right – the plane leaves at 3 pm, not 4 pm.

quite means ‘completely’

In this context, quite is given extra spoken stress.

Different meanings of adjectives before the noun and after the verb

We can use some adjectives before the noun or after the verb but the meaning differs.

Compare

before the noun (attributive)

after the verb (predicative)

We can finish that job on Monday but this particular job needs to be done by today.

(particular means ‘this and not any other/specific’)

My boss is very particular. He checks all our work very carefully. (particular means not easy to satisfy)

His late wife came from a very rich family. (late means ‘dead/deceased’)

The trains are always late on Sundays.

(late means ‘not on time’)

There’s a certain amount of truth in that story. (certain means ‘some, but not a specific amount’)

The police are certain that the killer was known to the victim. (certain means ‘sure/definite’)

Adjectives before nouns that modify other nouns

A noun (n) is sometimes used before another noun to give more information about it. This is called a noun modifier. Adjectives (adj) come before noun modifiers:

He drives a [ADJ]red [N] sports [N]car.

That’s an expensive laser printer.

Order of adjectives in noun phrases with articles and degree modifiers

When adjectives are used before the noun (attributive function), there are also sometimes degree adverbs. Different degree adverbs require different positions for the adjective phrase.

Positions of indefinite article and degree adverbs.

indefinite article

degree adverb

adjective

noun

a/an

fairly

very

moderately

extremely

cold

day

indefinite article

adjective

degree adverb

noun

a

cold

enough

day

Special cases

Quite: quite a cold day

The normal order with quite is quite a cold day. The order a quite cold day (indefinite article + intensifier + adjective) is also possible but it is not as common.

Rather: a rather cold day

The normal order with rather is a rather cold day. The order rather a cold day (intensifier + indefinite article + adjective) is also possible but it is not as common.

As and so: a man as/so tall as him

The most common order with as and so in negative clauses in speaking is a man as/so tall as him (as/so + adjective + as + complement):

I haven’t seen a man as tall as him before.

You won’t often find a room so small as that.

The order as/so tall a man as him is also possible but it is more common in writing.

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