Adjectives can be a writer’s greatest friend, creating rich images and clear meaning. They can also be a writer’s worst enemy, convey conflicting ideas and tripping them up at every juncture. Today, we dip our toes into the pool of adjectives with a few general rules.
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 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 former.
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.
- Do the adjectives work separately? Don’t hyphenate.
long red gown
- 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.
- Garner’s Modern English Usage
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications
Originally published on Copyediting.
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