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Adjectives

An adjective is a word used to qualify, limit, or define a noun, or a word or phrase which has the value of a noun. Nouns are ordinarily very general and indefinite in meaning, for example, man conveys only a very general idea. To make that idea definite we need the help of one or more descriptive words such as black, tall, stout, good.

I saw a man.

gives no definite idea of the person seen.

I saw a tall, thin, dark, old man.

presents a very definite picture. It will be noted that these descriptive words have a way of forming combinations among themselves. It must be remembered, however, that all the words thus used describe the noun. Adjectives are sometimes used as substitutes for nouns. This is one of the many verbal short cuts in which the English language abounds.

The good die young

means good people die young.

We should seek the good and beautiful

means we should seek good or beautiful things, or persons, or qualities, or perhaps everything good and beautiful.

When adjectives indicate a quality they have three forms called degrees indicating the extent or amount of the quality possessed by the noun especially as compared with other objects of the same sort, a big man, a bigger man, the biggest man. These degrees are called positive, indicating possession of bigness; comparative, indicating possession of more bigness than some other man; superlative, indicating possession of more bigness than any other man. When we wish to tell the amount of the quality without comparing the possessor with any other object or group of objects we use a modifying word later to be described called an adverb.

I saw a very big man,

indicates that the man possessed much bigness, but makes no comparison with any other man or group of men. Comparison is generally indicated in two ways, first, by adding to the adjectives the terminations er and est as high, higher, highest, or, second, by using the words more and most, as splendid, more splendid, most splendid. The question which of the two methods should be used is not always easy to decide. It depends somewhat on usage and on euphony or agreeableness of sound.

Adjectives of three or more syllables use the long form, that is, the additional word. We should not say beautifuler or beautifulest. Adjectives of two syllables may often be compared either way; for example, it would be equally<a name="Page_7">[Pg 7] correct to say nobler and noblest or more noble and most noble. An example of the influence of euphony may be found in the adjective honest. We might say honester without hesitation but we should be less likely to say honestest on account of the awkward combination of syllables involved. Adjectives of one syllable usually take the short form but not invariably. The exceptions, however, are more common in poetry than in prose. When any question rises it is usually safer to use the long form of comparison in the case of two-syllable adjectives and to use the short form in the case of one-syllable adjectives. The proper use of the long form is one of those niceties of diction which come only with careful observation and with training of the ear and of the literary sense.

The word most should never be used, as it often is, in the place of almost. Careless people say "I am most ready" meaning "I am almost, or nearly ready." The phrase "I am most ready," really means "I am in the greatest possible readiness." Such use of most is common in old English but much less so in modern speech.

Two very common adjectives are irregularly compared. They are good, better, best, and bad, worse, worst. In spite of the fact that these adjectives are among the most common in use and their comparison may be supposed to be known by everybody, one often hears the expressions gooder, goodest, more better, bestest, bader, badest, worser, and worsest. Needless to say, these expressions are without excuse except that worser is sometimes found in old English.

Illiterate people sometimes try to make their speech more forceful by combining the two methods of comparison in such expressions as more prettier, most splendidest. Such compounds should never be used.

Some adjectives are not compared. They are easily identified by their meaning. They indicate some quality which is of such a nature that it must be possessed fully or not at all, yearly, double, all. Some adjectives have a precise meaning in which they cannot be compared and a loose or popular one in which they can be; for example, a thing either is or is not round or square. Nevertheless we use these words in such a loose general way that it is not absolutely incorrect to say rounder and roundest or squarer and squarest. Such expressions should be used with great care and avoided as far as possible. None but the very ignorant would say onliest, but one often sees the expressions more and most unique. This is particularly bad English. Unique does not mean rare, unusual; it means one of a kind, absolutely unlike anything else. Clearly this is a quality which cannot be possessed in degrees. An object either does or does not have it.