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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 pronominal 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 pronominal 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; The Chicago Manual of Style 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. If you have any questions you'd like to see covered, let us know in the comments below.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 30th 2010, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Mary M.
This article answered some questions I have had. Thank you. Why have the politicians and others started saying the Democrat Party instead of Democratic Party? Are they ignorant, or just being disparaging?
Thank you
Thursday September 30th 2010, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi, Mary. Happy to help. You're right that the Democrats (noun) are the Democratic (adjective) Party, not the Democrat Party. The GOP doesn't have this issue: the Republicans (noun) are the Republican (adjective) Party.

My sense is that because the term "Republican" acts as both a noun and an adjective, some people don't realize that the word is actually doing two different jobs, depending on the sentence. So they try to use "Democrat" in the same manner without realizing that sometimes they need the adjectival version of "Democrat." Does that make sense?
Thursday September 30th 2010, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Adjectival "Democrat" has actually been used in a disparaging way for quite some time. Hoover referred to "the Democrat Party" when running against FDR in 1932, and Wendell Willkie used it in the 1940 campaign. You can read Geoff Nunberg's commentary on this here and here. It also became an issue during George W. Bush's second term, as I wrote about here, here, and here.
Saturday October 2nd 2010, 8:05 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My late father justified calling the party 'Democrat' and not 'Democratic', as the word 'democratic' had another meaning, and in our home town, that other meaning was a misnomer in that it was not democratic in operation!

I think there are probably others who attributed that same meaning to 'democratic' as a stand separately word.

In other words, they need something different than a word that carries with it the meaning of people choosing to describe a member of a particular political set of beliefs. My father had an exact and precise understanding and use of English. I'll read the Wilkie and Hoover materials, but I'm sure of my own father's choice, but a bit stubborn. (He'd say that he was not stubborn, rather that he knew his mind.) He should have called it by its right name, and perhaps he did, out of my hearing!

But, as the article says, the choice depends on clarity of meaning. 'Democrat' could just be clearer than 'Democratic' to many, depending on your experience.
Monday October 4th 2010, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Ben, for the deeper information!
Monday October 4th 2010, 5:13 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
This quote from the Safire peace: Who started this and when? Acting on a tip, I wrote to the man who was campaign director of Wendell Willkie's race against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. ''In the Willkie campaign of 1940,'' responded Harold Stassen, ''I emphasized that the party controlled in large measure at that time by Hague in New Jersey, Pendergast in Missouri and Kelly Nash in Chicago should not be called a 'Democratic Party.' It should be called the 'Democrat party.' . . .''

...is exactly my father's reasoning locally.

The use of Democrat instead of Democratic for the party now bothers me. I guess since I've grown away from my home town, I've grown a bit.

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