Can you identify all the adjectives in a randomly selected paragraph? How about all of the adjectives in the preceding sentence? Give it a try! I’ll even provide a definition in order to head you in the right direction: An adjective is a part of speech that modifies a noun or pronoun. That’s simple enough!


The Adjectives in the First Sentence

  • Can you identify all the adjectives in a randomly selected paragraph?


  • all, the, a = determiners
  • selected = participle adjective

Note: It’s a little easier to analyze when the question is put in statement form.

  • You can identify all the adjectives in a randomly selected paragraph.

Alternative Answer:

The above answer is correct. However, if we wrote it as ALL OF THE ADJECTIVES, which would not be incorrect, much would change.

  • all + of the adjectives = pronoun (direct object) + adjectival prepositional phrase (modifies ALL)

A person could also argue that ALL THE ADJECTIVES = ALL OF THE ADJECTIVES, but with the OF omitted.

For many students, the answer is a little surprising and a little more complicated than they expected. As shown in the answer, that sentence does not have any True Adjectives; however, it has plenty of words that function as adjectives or that traditional grammar considers to be adjectives.

Believe it or not—we have already been introduced to most of the important adjective concepts. However, the most important concept and the most neglected concept with adjectives is the ADJECTIVE SLOT.

The Adjective Slot: Adjective Syntax

The most neglected concept in grammar is syntax. I suspect that many people grasp syntax for the first time when they learn in Spanish 101 that the adjectives in Spanish come after the noun (El Pollo Loco), not before the noun, as is usual in English (The Crazy Chicken). This contrast makes people stop for a second and internalize the concept of syntax, “How interesting! I never thought about adjective syntax before, and I use adjectives all the time!”

Syntax is defined as the rules or principles that govern the order of words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. Regardless of what a word looks like, if a word is placed in a noun slot, it FUNCTIONS AS a noun—and so on.

Students often can’t identify sentence parts or discuss sentence concepts because they don’t know how to use syntax to help them. Understanding syntax, and in particular Syntactic Slots, helps one FIGURE OUT what’s going on in a sentence.

We have two basic types of adjectives—or adjective slots: 1) Attributive Adjectives, and 2) Predicate Adjectives. These two slots are found in three locations. In the following examples RED = ADJECTIVE and APPLES = THE MODIFIED NOUN.

1.   Attributive Adjective in the Subject:       Red apples taste sweet.

2.   Attributive Adjective in the Predicate:    Karen likes red apples.

3.   Predicate Adjective in the Predicate:     The apples are red.

Adjective Slots are a useful way to think about the syntax (the placement) of adjectives in relation to the noun they modify. Of course, understanding and identifying adjectives and adjective slots requires that one can spot nouns and linking verbs. We use nouns and linking verbs to identify adjectives, and if you find an adjective, there MUST BE a noun or linking verb nearby.

The Adjective Slot: The Three (Single-Word) Adjective Categories

The following three categories of words all relate to nouns in the same or similar ways. Put simply, they all can fill an adjective slot, and therefore, they can all modify or in some way change the meaning of a noun. Having said that, these three categories are also different in many ways.

1.  True Adjectives / Descriptive Adjectives: We have four tests to confirm that a word is in fact a true adjective. If it doesn’t pass the tests (at least most of them), then it is not a true adjective.

2.  Determiners: Traditional grammar has long classified many categories of determiners as adjectives, or special adjectives. Modern grammar has taken these traditional categories and added a few more groups of words to them creating the category of determiners. Although determiners do have much in common with true adjectives, they have MUCH MORE in common with each other.

3.  Participles / Participle Adjectives: Participles are a verb form that functions as an adjective. They are one of the three types of verbals. When a participle functions as an adjective, it occupies the exact same slot as a true adjective. Students typically learn about participles when they learn about verbals, but why should they not first learn about them when they learn about adjectives? After all, they fill the same syntactic slot!

FUNCTIONS AS: The term functions as is an extremely important concept in grammar and language; however, it’s a difficult concept for students to grasp, which is why SLOTS are so effective. Functions as an adjective means that the word FILLS the adjective syntactic slot, which means the word will modify or affect a noun or pronoun.

Most lists of adjectives created for students contain at least a few words from all three categories—but they don’t usually make a distinction between the different categories of adjectives. In the end, this oversimplification leads to confusion. It’s true that all three categories can fill the adjective slot, but the categories are quite different in MANY ways.

Should we really teach students that determiner and participles are adjectives? We will take a closer look at that below. What’s important to understand right now is that they do function as adjectives or similar to adjectives. They fill the adjective slot!

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A Note on Wolf Packs ™ : Multi-Word Phrases and Clause that Function as Adjectives

One reason students should master the parts of speech and understand syntactic slots is so that they can then understand and master phrases and clauses. Phrases and clauses function as a single unit just like a Wolf Pack ™ functions as a single unit. Put simply, in traditional grammar, all phrases and some clauses function as a single part of speech—that is, they function as a single word.

When students understand that single words represent a SLOT, they can also understand that a phrase or a clause (a Wolf Pack ™) also represents a SLOT.

Another reason why SLOTS and SYNTAX are important to understand with adjectives is because the location of the syntactic slots for adjective phrases and adjectives clauses are different from those of single-word adjectives. Attributive single-word adjectives usually come before the noun they modify, and Adjective Wolf Packs ™ tend to come after the noun they modify.

We won’t cover these Adjective Wolf Packs ™ here, but I will list them. We have five types of phrases and clauses that function as adjectives:  1) infinitives,  2) infinitive phrases,  3) participle phrases,  4) adjectival prepositional phrases, and  5) adjective clauses.


The Three (Single-Word) Adjective Categories: A Closer Look

It’s worth teaching students from the beginning that these three categories are SINGLE-WORD adjectives. Why? Because students will soon hear that certain phrases and clauses FUNCTION as adjectives. Single-word or multi-word, they both do the same thing—they modify a noun or pronoun. That’s the important thing to understand—if we really do want to understand!

Let’s take a quick look at these three categories.

1.  True Adjectives / Descriptive Adjectives

Lexicographers use tests to determine how to classify words. True adjectives, often called descriptive adjectives, typically meet all or most of these four criteria:

1.  They have a comparative (-er/more) and superlative (-est/most) form.

2.  They Are Gradable: They can have very etc. placed in front of them.

3.  They Can Be Used Attributively: They can be placed right in front of a noun.

4.  They Can Be Used as Predicate Adjectives or Object Complements. (Note: I mostly ignore the Object Complement aspect of this test. With young students, it’s confusing and unnecessary.): Predicate adjectives follow and complete the meaning of a linking verb, and in the process, they modify the noun found in the subject.

These four criteria eliminate all determiners and most participles from being classified as true adjectives.

Eight True Adjective Examples with Comparative or Superlative Form and Graded Example:  C = Comparative; S = Superlative; G = Gradable.

1.  red  (S reddest, G extremely red)   2.  tall  (C taller, G very tall)    3.  happy  (C happier, G intensely happy)   4.  strange  (S strangest, G extraordinarily strange)    5.  horrid  (S most horrid, G somewhat horrid)   6.  angry  (C angrier, G very angry)   7.  serious  (C more serious, G really serious)   8. beautiful  (S most beautiful, G exceptionally beautiful)—and thousands more!

2.  Determiners

For hundreds of years, students have learned that some groups of determiners are adjectives. However, I vote for making determiners the official ninth part of speech. But let’s keep them closely connected to adjectives and teach them at the same time as adjectives. On the other hand, I’m comfortable calling all determiners adjectives, as long as students understand how they are different from true adjectives. Point being, we should standardize the category of determiners across all the grades.

Honestly, it’s shocking that students still learn that certain categories of determiners are adjectives in the same way that true adjectives are adjectives. Determiners meet only ONE of the four True Adjective tests listed above—determiners are attributive. This teaches grammar wrong right from the beginning. It’s also shocking that articles are still taught as a ninth part of speech or as the only category of special adjectives.

Modern grammar has fixed much that is wrong with traditional grammar. Isn’t it time we let students know? But in defense of this snail-paced progress in school grammar, teaching determiners correctly also upends the categories of pronouns and possessives. However, when one looks at the SLOTS and sees how the words relate to the noun, the proper categories are very clear—at least to me.

•  Bob’s boat is blue.      Bob’s is not in a noun slot; it’s in an adjective slot. Can you see that Bob’s does not fill a noun slot?  Bob is not blue, and Bob’s is not blue!

•  The boat is blue.        Notice that “the” fills the same slot as “Bob’s” in the preceding sentence.

Keeping things simple, we have nine categories of determiners:

1) articles, 2) possessive adjectives, 3) indefinite adjectives, 4) demonstrative adjectives, 5) interrogative adjectives, 6) cardinal numbers, 7) ordinal numbers, 8) nouns used as adjectives, 9) possessive nouns as adjectives.

In the list below, I’ve included these 55 determiners.

a, all, an, another, both, certain, each, eight, eighth, either, every, few, fewer, fifth, first, five, four, fourth, her, his, its, less, many, more, most, much, my, neither, nine, ninth, no, one, our, second, seven, seventh, several, six, sixth, some, such, ten, tenth, that, the, their, these, third, this, those, three, two, what, which, whose

Every single one of these 55 determiners can be placed immediately before a noun. That’s what makes them a determiner!

Determiners: Nouns Used as Adjectives

Here is a closer look at and a partial list of Determiner #8 (nouns used as adjectives) from above. Nouns are frequently used as adjectives. Are they true adjectives? No. They don’t meet our four criteria for true adjectives; however, they do function as determiners, which function as adjectives. Here are 51 nouns (taken from my list of 4,800 adjectives) that are often used as adjectives:

acid, airline, animal, baby, background, brick, bronze, budget, business, chance, chemical, chicken, computer, corner, day, designer, downtown, dress, economy, evening, future, glass, holiday, home, house, human, iron, kitchen, lead, leather, life, liquid, mission, mother, motor, mountain, parking, party, plastic, prize, rebel, salt, satin, sea, status, steel, street, time, trick, vegetable, wood, wool.

Really, most nouns can be placed in front of another noun in order to modify it. Although this strategy is extremely common, results often appear informal or colloquial—at least, until the words catch on:

•   The taco chef is hard at work.

•   The meal monitor checked every single meal.

The ones that catch on eventually become compound nouns, or at least begin a debate on how they should be classified.

3.  Participles / Participle Adjectives

When attempting to identify the verb in a sentence, many people incorrectly choose a participle adjective. Participle adjectives do not fill a VERB SLOT. Furthermore, they don’t even fill a VERBAL SLOT, as there is no VERBAL SLOT. Participle adjectives fill an ADJECTIVE SLOT.

Participles end in –ed (past participles) and –ing (present participles). While all present participles end in –ing, a number of irregular verbs have irregular past participles. Students learn a confusing mix of information about participles at three different times: when learning about adjectives, verbals, and verbs.

Most grammar instruction treats participles as true adjectives (usually by omission of the full truth) when teaching adjectives. There is no mention that these –ing and –ed adjectives are really participle adjectives at this time. Students later learn about verbals, and they learn that participles are verb forms that function as adjectives. Well, this should have been pointed out back when they learned about adjectives. And what does function mean? Students are left wanting to know, “Are participles an adjective, a verb, or a verbal?”

Later students learn that participles are verbs. Participles do function as verbs under this construction:

Helping Verb + Participle (Main Verb) = Verb Phrase

Let’s compare two sentences, and in particular, the word juggling.

1.  Jim is juggling eggs.

2.  Jim is a juggling expert.

Word by word, nearly everything about these two sentences is syntactically different. I wonder… what are we teaching students about grammar if they can’t look at two extremely simple sentences and see how they are syntactically different? At what age should students know that these two sentences are very different?


Analysis of the Two Sentences

1.  Jim is juggling eggs.              juggling = Main Verb: Participle

2.  Jim is a juggling expert.        juggling = Participle Adjective

Word by Word Analysis (or Parse) of the Sentences:

1. noun (subject) + helping verb + main verb + noun (direct object)

2. noun (subject) + linking verb + ADJ. (determiner) + ADJ. (participle adjective) + noun (predicate nominative)

Please Note: The parentheses mark a more advanced, more complicated level of analysis: i.e., LEVEL 2. When students can correctly identify the LEVEL 1 components, teaching the LEVEL 2 components becomes much easier. And then we add on LEVEL 3. 

Participle Adjectives, Participle Verbs, and Other Lookalikes

When not functioning as a verb, participles function as adjectives. If it looks like a participle but is not functioning as a verb or adjective, then it’s not a participle. It may be a gerund, or some kind of idiom, or just a word that ends in –ed or –ing.

Some Participle Adjectives are True Adjectives

Some participles are true adjectives. In other words, some participles meet all four criteria for true adjectives. Let’s look at a couple examples, and please note, the word repetition is intentional.

•  TIRED:  The tired child is very tired. – This one example sentence shows that tired meets these three criteria: 1) attributive, 2) predicate adjective, and 3) gradable. Furthermore, it meets criteria #4 because it has comparative and superlative forms: more tired and most tired.

In contrast, this participle adjective is not a true adjective, as it meets only one criteria:

•  SMILING:  The smiling child is smiling. – The first smiling functions as an adjective, but the second smiling functions as a verb. Furthermore, smiling is not gradable (very smiling), and does not have comparative and superlative forms, as more smiling and most smiling do not work. Therefore, smiling only meets one of our four criteria: 1) attributive.

These two examples are clear-cut; other participles are less so.

Participle Adjectives vs. Verb Participles

Let’s looks at these two participles: laughing and smiling. You will notice that each word functions as an adjective (ADJ) in one location and as a main verb (V) in the other location. This is how syntax works!

1.  The laughing (ADJ) child is smiling (V).

2.  The smiling (ADJ) child is laughing (V).

In these two examples, IS is functioning as a helping verb, not a linking verb. If the word that followed IS were a true adjective, then IS would be a linking verb:

•  e.g., The child is tired.     (is = linking verb; tired = predicate adjective)

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