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Style Manual

Adjectives

Adjectives describe, compare and define nouns and words that act as nouns. Use adjectives to help people understand meaning.

Adjectives describe nouns

Adjectives describe nouns, noun phrases and noun clauses.

Adjectives usually go immediately before the noun. They can go elsewhere in a sentence – for example, as a predicate.

Example

They had a short conversation. [The adjective ‘short’ describes the noun ‘conversation’.]

Their conversation was short. [The adjective ‘short’ describes the noun ‘conversation’, but appears as the predicate in this sentence.]

Adjectives also modify noun phrases and noun clauses.

Example

They had a short conversation about the meeting. [A noun phrase]

They had a short conversation that led to a decision. [A noun clause]

Different types of words, such as nouns, can also function as adjectives.

Example

A moving speech brought the sound of applause. [A verbal noun (gerund) functioning as an adjective]

Adjectives can affect clarity

Use adjectives sparingly and only when they are essential for meaning. Remove any adjective that doesn’t play a critical function in a sentence.

Because adjectives are modifiers, they can affect clarity. A lack of clarity can cause users to lose trust in government content.

Compound adjectives can have hyphens

Adjectives can be joined with hyphens to make compound adjectives. A compound adjective usually has a hyphen if the adjective is before the noun it is describing.

Example

We need a fit-for-purpose strategy to solve this specific problem. [Adjective before the noun ‘strategy’]

The strategy is fit for purpose. [Adjective after the noun ‘strategy’]

A compound adjective can be made up of an adverb and a verb.

A common error with adverbs and hyphens is when people insert a hyphen into this kind of compound adjective. Don’t use hyphens with most adverbs finishing in ‘-ly’.

Correct

A badly worded sentence can be difficult to read, even if it is grammatically correct.

Incorrect

A badly-worded sentence can be difficult to read, even if it is grammatically-correct.

There are few exceptions to this rule, so check a dictionary if you are unsure.

Most adjectives use different degrees for comparisons

Degree shows the relative scale of the words being described, such as speed, size or quality. Most adjectives can have ‘degree’.

These adjectives usually follow the pattern of adding ‘-er’ or ‘-est’ to the end to show the degree.

Example

Positive

Claire is a fast talker. [There is no comparison. Claire is fast.]

Comparative

Sam is a faster talker than Claire. [Adds ‘-er’ to compare Claire’s and Sam’s talking speed.]

Superlative

Sam is faster than Claire, but Petra is the fastest of them all. [Adds ‘-est’ to compare Petra’s talking speed to that of the others.]

Not all adjectives follow the regular pattern of ‘fast–faster–fastest’. These irregular adjectives have different patterns.

Example

little, less, least

good, better, best

bad, worse, worst

Some adjectives don’t have a different form to show degree. They show degree by using ‘more’ for comparative or ‘most’ for superlative.

Example

The department decided on a more flexible approach to working arrangements.

This is the most significant reform of public health policy in decades.

Some adjectives don’t have degree because you can’t compare them. For example, nothing can be more unique than something else.

There is a common order for strings of adjectives

Write strings of adjectives in an order that creates a more natural-sounding English. This order is determined by the types of adjectives used. List adjectives in this order:

  1. evaluative – features of a noun that you can measure or compare 
  2. descriptive – features of a noun that you can’t measure
  3. definitive – features of a noun that are intrinsic to the noun.

Evaluative adjectives can also express an opinion.

Example

A beautiful round committee table

In this example:

  • ‘beautiful’ is evaluative because it expresses an opinion
  • ‘round’ is descriptive because it’s a feature you can observe but can’t measure
  • ‘committee’ is definitive because it is intrinsic to the noun ‘table’.

Strings of adjectives have:

  • commas between adjectives of the same type
  • no commas between adjectives of different types
  • no commas and no ‘and’ before definitive adjectives.
Example

A large, black nuclear submarine [‘Large’ and ‘black’ are descriptive; ‘nuclear’ is definitive.]

A new, red long-range electric car [‘New’ and ‘red’ are descriptive; ‘long-range’ and ‘electric’ are definitive.]

You can also use ‘and’ instead of commas to help the sentence flow more smoothly.

Example

A new and shiny red long-range electric car

The meaning of nouns and adjectives shouldn’t overlap

Don’t use an adjective if it repeats a quality or property that is part of the noun.

Example

absolute perfection [Perfection is always absolute.]

added bonus [All bonuses are added.]

emergency situation [An emergency is always a situation.]

future prospect [Prospects are always in the future.]

Release notes

The digital edition gives an overview of adjectives based on the information from the sixth edition. It links to other pages that have detailed information on specific aspects of adjectives.

The sixth edition had information about adjectives in many different sections of the manual.

The Content Guide had only a brief mention of adjectives.

About this page

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Turnbull G (14 March 2014) Giles Turnbull interviews Sarah Richards: What we mean when we talk about content design [interview audio file], UK Government Digital Service blog, accessed 29 June 2020.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

This page was updated Monday 7 September 2020.

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