This page explains the difficulty of adjectives for English language learners.


Adjectives in English may not seem like they should cause any problems. You do not need to change their endings according to the gender and case of the noun they qualify, as in German. Nor do you have to know whether they should be placed in front of or after the noun, as in French†.

In fact, however, there are a number of difficulties that English adjectives can cause, even to the more advanced learners of the language. Let's have a look at some of these.

Attributive and predicative adjectives

In general, adjectives can be both attributive and predicative. This means simply that we can say both the big house and the house is big ; or the interesting book and the book is interesting . There are some exceptions however.

Many adjectives beginning with the letter a cannot be used attributively. So, for instance, we can say the girl is asleep but not the asleep girl ; or the animal is alive but not the alive animal .

Similarly, we can say that a child is ill but to refer to an ill child does not seem quite right (although a sick child is acceptable English).

The word poor is interesting, too. In its meaning of not rich, it can be used both ways: the people are poor or the poor people . But when it has the meaning of unfortunate or unhappy, it can only be used attributively. In other words, we can say the poor child , but not the child is poor .

Some adjectives, the so-called classifying adjectives, behave in the opposite way. For example you can speak about a woollen jacket , but we do not say my jacket is woollen . Similarly we refer to outdoor sports , but the sentence this sport is outdoor is impossible. A piece of writing may contain countless mistakes , but we cannot tell a child that her mistakes are countless .

Order of adjectives

Another problem for non-native speakers is knowing the correct order of adjectives when there is more than one qualifying a noun. For example, is it a big, old house or an old, big house ? Do we speak of the three first days of the vacation or the first three days ? Is someone who is annoying us a little obnoxious boy or an obnoxious little boy?

Native speakers do not have to worry themselves with questions like this. They intuitively chose the correct order, although very few have any idea of the "rules" they are following when they do so.

Punctuation of attributive adjectives

A related problem, and one not intuitive to native-speakers, is the punctuation of strings of adjectives used attributively or predicatively. Can we write: He's a silly little boy or must it be He's a silly, little boy ? If a nice big blue belt is acceptable (in British English at least), why is a wonderful enormous aquamarine belt not? He has a large, beautiful, powerful car , is correct, but what about His car is large, beautiful, powerful?

Comparative and superlative

A further difficulty with adjectives is knowing the comparative and superlative form of those which consist of two syllables. Do they follow the one-syllable rule of adding " -er "? Or do they require more/most as three-syllable adjectives do? For example, is John a commoner name than Wilberforce or a more common one? Is this restaurant crowdeder than that one or more crowded ? Is Mary politer than Susan or more polite ?

There are no simple rules that are of much use to answer these questions. The learner must rely on a good dictionary in order to employ the words correctly.

Prefixes: Opposites

Many languages have prefixes that turn adjectives into their opposites. The most common one in English is the prefix un (unhappy, unlucky, unusual etc.) Unfortunately for the learner, however, there are several other prefixes of this type, including in- (incorrect), dis- (dishonest), il- (illegible), ir- (irregular), and im- (impolite), and so the opposite form cannot be predicted with any certainty.

The learner is also faced with certain rogue adjectives that don't behave as they should. Having established that unlucky is the opposite of lucky , for example, the learner may be surprised to find out that uneasy is not the opposite of easy; and that the word appointed ‡ is not an adjective and not the opposite of disappointed .

Similarly, he will be a little puzzled to learn that invaluable is not the opposite of valuable and does not mean having no value or worthless. And take that famous pair: flammable and inflammable . Who could guess that they mean exactly the same, i.e. describing a material that burns easily? In fact, the word for something that does not burn (easily) is non-flammable .

No doubt the learner will relinquish any expectation of consistency in English on discovering that although the opposite of the adjective able is unable , the opposite of its noun form is inability .


To test your knowledge of the use of adjectives in English, see if you can answer these questions:

1. Can the following adjectives be used both attributively and predicatively?

  • little
  • afraid
  • closed
  • shut
  • daily

1. Attributive, predicative or both?

  • little: attributive only. We can speak of a small house or a little house , and we can say the house is small , but we do not say the house is little .
  • afraid: predicative only. We can say the boy is afraid but we do not talk of an afraid boy . It must be something like a fearful boy or a frightened boy .
  • closed: both. We can say both the door is closed and a closed door.
  • shut: predicative only. The door is shut is acceptable, but a shut door does not sound right.
  • daily: attributive only. We can say this is a daily paper but we do not say this paper is daily. It would have to be something like This paper is published daily (in which case daily is an adverb).

2. He's an old friend of mine . What does this sentence mean?

He's an old friend of mine means that I have known him for a long time.

To express the idea of his advanced age you would need to say something like: He's a friend of mine; he's (very) old.

3. Put these adjectives into the correct order to qualify the given noun:

  • leather - Spanish - red - beautiful:     belt
  • round - ancient - heavy:      mirror
  • lazy - wonderful - long:      vacation

3. These are the usual orders of attributive adjectives.

  • a beautiful Spanish red leather belt
  • an ancient round heavy mirror
  • a wonderful long lazy vacation

The examples from the text above are as follows:

  • a big, old house
  • the first three days of the vacation
  • an obnoxious little boy

4. A silly little girl and a silly, little girl are both possible. Is there a difference in meaning between them?

4. Yes, there is a difference in meaning. A silly, little girl is a girl who is silly and who is little. The writer wants to give equal weight to both adjectives. A silly little girl , on the other hand, is a girl who is silly. The writer wants to emphasize her silliness, not her littleness. In fact, she may not even be particularly little in size - the littleness may be in the immaturity of her behaviour.

5. Do we form the comparative of the following two-letter adjectives with -er or more ?

  • handsome
  • narrow
  • stubborn
  • tired
  • clever

5. -er or more

  • more handsome (handsomer seems just about possible)
  • narrower is the usual form
  • more stubborn
  • more tired
  • cleverer is more usual but more clever is acceptable

The other examples from the text above:

  • commoner and more common are both acceptable
  • it has to be more crowded
  • politer and more polite are both ok

6. Look at these adjectives beginning with in- and decide if there is a form without the prefix. If there is, say whether that word is the genuine opposite of the in- word. If it isn't, say what the other word means.


  • Inimitable (meaning: having a quality that is impossible for anyone to imitate ) There is no English word imitable .
  • Insane (meaning: mad, mentally ill) There is a word sane which is the genuine opposite of insane .
  • Infirm There is a word firm, but it is not the opposite of infirm , which means ill.
  • Invisible
  • Invincible
  • Infamous
  • Inapt
  • Inept
  • Inane
  • Indifferent

6. Adjectives beginning with -in:

  • Invisible - There is a word visible , which is the direct opposite of invisible.
  • Invincible (cannot be beaten) - There is no word vincible.
  • Infamous - The word famous exists of course, but it is not the opposite of infamous (meaning: famous in a bad or evil way)
  • Inapt - There is a word apt and it is the opposite of inapt (not correct or appropriate).
  • Inept - (clumsy, lacking in skill) Ept does not exist as a word.
  • Inane (silly or stupid) - Ane is not a word in the English language.
  • Indifferent - The word different exists but it is not the opposite of indifferent , which means having no particular interest, not very good.

There are several interactive quizzes on adjectives and adverbs elsewhere on this site. You can find them in the Other grammar drop-down list on the Grammar index page.

† A reader of this page reminded me of the small number of postnominal English adjectives as in the following examples: whiskey galore, malice aforethought, notary public .

Appointed is not used alone as an adjective, but can be used together with an adverb like well or excellently to describe the furnishings in a room. E.g. My sister has a large house with well-appointed rooms.