Grammar Bite: Adjective Basics

Adjectives can be a writer’s greatest friend, creating rich images and clear meaning. They can also be her worst enemy, convey conflicting ideas and tripping her up at every juncture. Today, we dip our toes into the pool of adjectives with a few general rules.

The Basics

An adjective is a word that describes a noun. It usually comes before the noun (attributive), but it sometimes comes after the noun (predicate).

attributive: a blue dress
predicate: The dress is blue.

Nouns are often made into adjectives:

A system
A system price

Use the singular form of the noun for the adjective, not plural:

system prices, not systems prices

Unless (you knew there’d be an unless, right?) the plural form functions as a singular noun:

mathematics class, not mathematic class

When do you use the noun form and when the adjective form of a word, you ask? Good question. Bryan Garner points out examples of each:

investigative purposes, not investigation purposes
prostate cancer, not prostatic cancer
pronoun problem, not proniminal problem

First, consider whether there is a different meaning results from adjective and noun forms. Again, a Garner example:

pornography commission vs. pornographic commission

If meaning isn’t an issue, which would the reader expect? A general readership might trip over proniminal problem but would immediately understand pronoun problem. A group of grammarians might prefer the later.

Watch for Ambiguities

Good writing is clear and free of ambiguities. Your reader gets your meaning the first time. An adjective that is used as a noun and then used as an adjective can be confusing. Consider:

The Boston Food Bank offers poor relief through food distribution to local food pantries.

Do we mean to say that the Boston Food Bank doesn’t offer adequate relief through food distribution? It’s more likely we mean that the food bank offers relief for the poor. (It’s also likely that the sentence would benefit from a rewrite, but I digress.)

Another source of confusion is when a noun that usually follows a preposition is instead used as an adjective:

The research report advocated for criminal awareness.

Is the report advocating that others be aware of criminals or that criminals be more aware?

The research report advocated for awareness of criminals.
The research report advocated for criminals to be aware.

A third confusion comes in with adjective (or adjectival) phrases: which words go together? Your style guide will have specific rules; Chicago has restored its wonderful hyphen chart to the 16th edition (find it at 7.85). But you should know a couple general rules:

  • Do the adjectives work as one adjective? Hyphenate.

big-box store
seven-year-old boy

  • Do the adjectives work separately? Don’t hyphenate.

long red gown big
overstuffed chair

  • Is the adjective phrase a set open phrase (meaning it doesn’t usually have hyphens and might be found in the dictionary)? Don’t hyphenate.

real estate tycoon
elementary school children

  • Does the adjective phrase start with an -ly adverb? Don’t hyphenate. (Really don’t. This one drives me crazy.)

strongly built house
aptly named store

There’s so much more to discuss with adjectives. Send me your issues, and I’ll cover them next.


About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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