Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Secret Lives of Adjectives

If we divide up the short list of English parts of speech according to status, adjectives are at the top of the B-list. The elites, nouns and verbs, seem to get everyone's attention because without them, sentences wouldn't have a job.

English users, from first-time learners to sophisticated software used in data mining, are all over nouns and verbs. This focused spotlight has meant that until recently, even meticulous observers of language have failed to notice that adjectives possess arcane subtleties — qualities that fly under the radar of the typical language user but that figure importantly in their meaning and usage. Linguists investigating adjectives today discover that there may be a lot more going on than meets the eye when you plop an adjective into the predicate slot of an innocent-looking sentence.

The conventional wisdom about adjectives — and the only thing you're likely to glean about them by looking at dictionary definitions — is that they're gradable (like fat) or not (like multiple), limited to predicate use (like alive), limited to attributive use (like elder), or show somewhat different meanings depending on whether they're used attributively or predicatively (like ready). Is there any more you need to know? Well, that depends on how fluent you want to be. Gradable adjectives — the ones that have comparative and superlative forms with suffixes -er and -est or with more and most — have other semantic potentials that may come into play at the moment of use.

The first clue that an adjective may be up to something that you don't know about is when using it results in a sentence being infelicitous. Here we don't mean infelicitous "unhappy," but infelicitous "not appropriate in application." Linguists use this term to characterize sentences that are not well-formed semantically (despite violating no obvious grammatical rule); in other words, sentences that don't sound right. Unless they are making jokes or having fun with words, fluent native speakers avoid infelicitous sentences instinctively and can spot them a mile away. Learners — including children, speakers of other languages, and computers that would aspire to literacy — are prone to these kinds of linguistic infelicities. The infelicities often turn up in modified adjectives in predicates. Take for example,

a. Sarah's very talkative for a two-year-old.
b. Sarah's very awake for a two-year-old.

a. The table is small for a dining-room table.
b. The table is wet for a dining-room table.

Though the adjectives in all of these sentences are gradable, the b. sentences are things we wouldn't say and that we would correct (or balk at) if we heard or read them. Why? Linguists Chris Kennedy and Louise McNally have looked behind the curtain of adjective behavior and developed an analysis of some gradable adjectives based on this aspect their variable qualities. Their explanation is that some adjectives (like awake, wet, and full, for example) normally get their meaning with reference to an absolute scale, independent of the context in which they're used. Other adjectives (like talkative, small, wide, and in fact most gradable adjectives) mean what they do with reference to a context. The presence of a "for" prepositional phrase supplies a context that may make the absolute kind of adjective infelicitous.

We say "may make" because different contexts call up slightly different senses of some adjectives, and an adjective's meaning may suggest an absolute scale in one context but a relative one in another. We don't object to "The restaurant was full for a Tuesday night" but "The glass was full for a milk glass" sounds a bit off.

It would be a neat and handy trick if all adjectives did not transgress beyond either of these two categories into which most of them naturally fall; but language being what it is, they leap out from time to time to make an appearance in the other category. And that's only the beginning of the story. If you read the following sentences,

a. This stick is not quite straight.
b. *This stick is not quite bent.

a. The door was slightly open.
b. *The door was slightly closed.

a. This water is absolutely pure.
b. *This water is absolutely impure.

Again, you'll probably like the a. sentences; and feel that the b. sentences all don't get it quite right. What's the difference, when the adjectives (all gradable) that constitute the only difference between the pairs are generally considered to be opposites?

Kennedy and McNally's explanation is that many adjectives have reference to scales in which the end points may be either open or closed. Where do these scales reside? Mainly in the minds of native speakers. In the illustration below, a filled circle indicates a scalar endpoint; an open circle indicates unboundedness or open-endedness.

lower limit closed ●――――――○ examples: wet, bent, bumpy
upper limit closed ○――――――●  examples: pure, straight, accurate
both ends closed ●――――――●  examples: opaque, open, necessary

Adjectives that have a scale with a closed end characterize a quality that we think of as a kind of phase transition — a Rubicon that, once crossed, does not admit of scalable or comparative adjustment any more. But there are other adjectives that are open at both ends and do not have a point at which the difference between zero and nonzero reference is fixed by anything other than context.

open at both ends ○――――――○ examples: short, deep, expensive, likely

Open-scale adjectives like these allow a wider range of modification by adverbials, but don't do so well with, e.g., absolutely.

If you play around with adjectives in your lexicon, you may be surprised to discover that despite their gradability, there are restrictions on the kinds of modifiers that they can take. If you're an adult native speaker, you know what these restrictions are, without necessarily being able to articulate the reasons for them. You know that something is unlikely to be called almost completely fluffy, or only slightly vertical. If you're a child, a learner, or a computer, on the other hand, you may only gape in slack-jawed wonder at your mistakes and be at a loss for how to correct them.

Would we all be better served if language somehow encoded these distinctions by way of morphology, syntax, or phonology? Probably not, because language hasn't evolved that way. Our brains seem ready to devote a lot more resources to the software side than the hardware side when it comes to getting meaning right: we interpret things in the moment, rather than storing an unlimited number and variety of forms that do the disambiguating for us. Linguist Kennedy's idea of this is called Interpretive Economy: language favors flexibility of application and tends to let a small set of lexemes do as much work as possible.

You can dive deeper into the subject in the following papers and slideshow:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 1st 2011, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Bill (Sewickley,, PA)
Thursday September 1st 2011, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Bill: Here's a link that should take you to the definition of lexeme: "a minimal unit (as a word or stem) in the lexicon of a language."
Thursday September 1st 2011, 11:55 AM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
What is interesting to me about this article is that correct (felicitous) usage becomes automatic at some point. I tend to play with language and may actually say that something is slightly vertical, but the context makes the joke apparent. (You really need to hang that picture better.)
My five year old granddaughter completely amazes me with her excellent language skills and her vast vocabulary. She has mastered the use of adjectives already. How do kids do that?
Thursday September 1st 2011, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Obviously this article was written by a guy.

It is not only a child who might regard "fluffy" as having such restrictions: Many of us have regarded fashions in the last couple of years as being "a bit too fluffy", while our grand-daughters have--with semantic sense--complained that a skirt or sweater was "not quite fluffy enough".
Thursday September 1st 2011, 6:15 PM
Comment by: Philip C. (Absceon, NJ)
Adjectives are the salt and pepper in both speech and writing. Without them either would be flat and tastless.
Thursday September 1st 2011, 11:09 PM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Gradable adjectives have sliding values. Slide the value the wrong way for a local culture or environment and the locals will look at one another and say, "Where did that upity up come from." Or, "Whose ruler is he using?"
Friday September 2nd 2011, 12:29 AM
Comment by: Rhonda H. (WA)
So many articles and books I read stress that if you find the right nouns and verbs, you do not need adjectives and adverbs. My sixth grade students have received instruction to include both to improve their writing. I believe the thinking is students need to elaborate. I want my students to seek clarity and remove extra words.

What would you suggest for helping twelve year old writers?
Friday September 2nd 2011, 2:27 AM
Comment by: Nora F.
Rhonda H:
I suggest that you employ the same practise with your sixth graders that teachers used to use way back in the Stone Age of the Twentieth Century: i.e. present them with good pieces of English Literature in the form of short stories and poetry and then instruct them by pointing out various aspects of style and vocabulary that make the works effective.
In the event of long silences between you, you might play a few rounds of "Colloquialisms" in which you could pose the question: "Does the phrase 'It's a "no brainer" ' imply that a task is intended for people with no brains or that it has been fashioned by people without them?"
Sunday September 4th 2011, 1:05 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
In other words, only natives are allowed to comment on this article, because in their mind a different scenario for language exists. I'm not native, so I'm out of any remark.
However, I personally felt difficult understanding the entire message of the article.
Tuesday September 6th 2011, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
Rhonda H:
The removal of extra words certainly has its place in technical or purely expository language but in literature, the poetry of meaning and expression are accomplished by the judicious use of adjectives and adverbs. I have written many newspaper columns for a small town newspaper and I have found that my readers appreciated the columns with color added. Mentioning a "high" surf doesn't have nearly the impact of a "raging" surf. The literary masters all had a great mastery of descriptive words. Adjectives and adverbs take a bare room and add pictures to the walls, color to the ceiling, boquets to the tables and colorful books to the coffee tables to make it an enjoyable place to visit.
Wednesday September 7th 2011, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
For me this article is absolutely fascinating because I am trying to learn to communicate more interestingly with speach or writing, to properly convey my intended meaning.
Monday September 12th 2011, 8:47 AM
Comment by: Karen A.
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Denise B. (Malmesbury United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I think it is very sad that a teacher would teach a student that writing is better without adjectives. There are occasions when flowery writing is unnecessary, and perhaps even inappropriate, but to discourage the use of descriptive words certainly decreases the size of one's vocabulary. Surely it is better to make them understand what is appropriate for the situation, and then be supportive of creative writing.
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 9:00 PM
Comment by: mei lily C.
I think adjectives are quite important sorry not quite, very!
Adjectives are something really important in forms of speech and writing.
If we didn't have any adjectives everything will be quite fuzzy or boring.
Yes verbs and nouns are mostly in sentences, we all know that!
Thought adjectives are important too.
This is a great piece of reminder of adjectives.
Simply fantastic!
Monday January 23rd 2012, 8:48 PM
Comment by: Ralph Benedict C.
Adjectives also known as modifiers.Adding adjectives in your sentences can make them vivid and alive.

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