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Lesson 4.1: Adjective Morphology and Syntax


Just as the meaning-based definitions for nouns and verbs can be problematic, so too can a definition of adjective that labels it simply as a “describing word”; nouns can also describe (linguistics book), as can verbs (She is diving.), so, again, it is the morphological and syntactic information that is more reliable and less subjective when identifying adjectives.


Most adjectives take comparative and superlative morphology: -er/-est or the words more and most. (For more on what it is that determines which a word can take, see this document.)


So now we already have a handy test for adjectives.


Test 1 for Adjectives: Does the word have a comparative and superlative form?


small, smaller, smallest

curious, more curious, most curious

ugly, uglier, ugliest

difficult, more difficult, most difficult


There's a lesson on TeachLing on the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. (I should note that many adverbs also have comparative and superlative forms: I run faster than you. See lesson 4.3.)


Now, some adjectives cannot be compared since they are not gradable, so it might be weird to say


This chair is more wooden than that one.

He is more married than she is.


since you’re either wooden or you’re not, married or not, and so on. Sometimes, however, we use these forms in certain situations and they do make sense. If someone said that one chair is more wooden than another, what might that mean?


Gradability is also relevant for a second test for adjectives, their ability to be used with a degree word, like very.


Test 2 for Adjectives: Can the word by preceded by a degree word?


Degree words (also sometimes called intensifiers) are a part of speech (sometimes misclassified as adverbs, though they have different syntactic and morphological behavior) that, well, express degree, so words like very, so, too, more, less, quite, almost, kind of, rather, pretty, sort of, or extremely.


Again, as with the comparative and superlative forms for adjectives, there are some adjectives that resist a word like very since they are already opposite ends on a scale – complete/incomplete, married/not married, wooden/non wooden, pregnant/not pregnant. Does very work with these adjectives? We do use it that way, so you might want to have your students explain what something like "very complete" might mean and when it might be used (rather than just saying "don't say that" or "we can't say that").


Test 3 for Adjectives: Can the word follow a linking verb?


Adjectives occur in two basic positions: before a noun (the furry cat) and following a linking verb (the cat is furry). Linking verbs do just that – “link”  to the subject noun phrase by renaming it. Linking verbs include sense verbs like taste, smell, feel, as well as verbs of “existence” like be, remain, seem, appear, grow, or become.


Jojo is tall.

The cat remains skittish.

The toast tastes burned.


So there you go. Three easy tests to use to verify whether a word is an adjective.


Anywhere where there is uncertainty or disagreement among your students provides the perfect opportunity to do analysis, some figuring out. If you’re uncertain, that simply means something interesting is going on. One place where there may be some debate is determining whether participles are adjectives or verbs. So here’s a document and exercise on that. Another place for disagreement may be with color terms. And a third is with noun modifiers of nouns, so here’s a link to a document on that.


Here is this lesson as a pdf.

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