« Complementation of the verb | Main | Work/life balance »

Teaching adjectives

February 04, 2009

Hello again,

Observing a lesson recently, I was struck by the complexities that surround the use of adjectives. Clearly the teacher had stepped unknowingly....

into a minefield.

There are good reasons for grouping adjectives in sense clusters, as this teacher had done. Learners need hooks to help them remember the large quantities of vocabulary they have to deal with and so it seems logical to allow the specific situation or context to generate typical lexical material. Groups of adjectives to be used in describing people might therefore be:

young, old, middle-aged;

tall, short, little, medium-built;

afraid, anxious, worried.

It is easy to contextualize adjectives presented in this way, but if adjectives are grouped for teaching purposes only in sense groups, learners will have no understanding of how the position of adjectives is a vital part of understanding their use. In fact each group has a pitfall:

My old friend/my friend is old
a little boy/a boy is little (not attested)
an anxious mother/ a worried parent/an afraid father (not

As these examples demonstrate, the successful use of adjectives depends partly on the word's non-linguistic reality. To help students cope with the differences between attributive and predicative adjectives, they could be grouped for behaviour as well as for meaning. Most adjectives refer directly to the characteristics of the noun they describe (they are inherent adjectives) and can be used either before the noun (attributively) or after it following such verbs as 'to be' or 'to seem' ( predicatively). Their strength can be increased by the use of 'very'. Important groups of adjectives, however, behave differently and this behavior influences meaning. The difference in meaning in the following two uses of 'certain' is dictated by the position of the adjective: a certain person/ she is certain.

When emphasizers and amplifiers are referring not to the qualities inherent in the noun to which they refer, they are used directly before the noun in question:

a true friend (cf. a true story/the story is true)
a real bargain (cf. a real diamond/the diamond is real)
a strong opponent (an opponent is strong)

Amplifying adjectives which move upwards on a scale from what might be considered neutral behave similarly:

a close relative (cf. the restaurant is close/ at close range)
a complete ass (cf. the set is complete/ a complete set)

When adjectives are used restrictively, they precede the noun:

a certain person (cf. the person is certain)
the very man (the man is very is not attested)
the same day (the day is same is not attested)

There are some adjectives that are used attributively only because they are closely related to adverbs. Examples are:

my former wife (she was my wife formerly)
a possible solution (this is the solution possibly)
the present government (the government at present)

Other adjectives preceding the noun are nouns being used as if they were adjectives and adjectives related to adverbs or nouns:

a kitchen knife; a car window; a school textbook
a former president (X was formerly president); the present
difficulties (there are difficulties at present);
criminal law ( the law relating to crime as opposed to a law which
seems criminal)

Adjectives appearing after the noun with verbs such as 'to be', 'to seem' are those beginning with -a:

asleep, awake, ashamed, afraid, aghast, alike, aware,

Sometimes adjectives are used directly after the noun and this position has a very important effect on meaning;

she pulled the window shut (cf. she pulled the shut window)
she turned the screw tight (cf. she turned the tight screw)

In these examples the adjective reflects a result of the action described in the verb on the noun as its object.

Implications for the Classroom

Learners need to be aware that:

a) the position in which adjectives may occur is not fixed and that the same word may have a different sense according to its position.

b) that the meaning an adjective has in one position may in fact have no relation to its meaning in another, e.g. the late king; the king is late.

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Post a Comment



Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)