Adjective phrases: position
When an adjective is used with a noun, the usual order in English is adjective + noun:
a yellow balloon
a balloon yellow
Adjectives with nouns and verbs
Adjectives can go before the noun (attributive) or after linking verbs such as be, become, seem (predicative):
What a beautiful flower! (attributive)
This bridge looks unsafe. (predicative)
Some adjectives can only be used in one position or the other.
Adjectives normally only used before a noun
Numbers and first, last
With numbers and with words like first, last, next, the usual order is first/next + number + adjective + noun:
Special offer on the last three remaining sofas.
There used to be two big fields here when I was young.
I don’t have to work for the next four days.
That’s the second large study on unemployment this year.
Some adjectives of degree
When we use words like absolute, complete, perfect to talk about degree, they can only be used before nouns. This group of adjectives includes proper, pure, real, sheer, true, utter:
That’s an absolute lie. I did not use your car when you were away.
That lie is absolute.
Lily has always been a true friend to me.
My friend Lily is true.
Some adjectives of time and order
Some time and order adjectives, such as former, present, future, are used before the noun only. Other examples are latter, old (an old friend = ‘a friend for many years’), early (early French literature = ‘of the initial period in the history of something’), and late (the late Mr Richards = ‘died recently’):
Her former husband had bought the house but she never liked it.
Her husband was former…
This is a church from the early Romanesque period
This is a church from the Romanesque period. The Romanesque period was early.
When we use early after a verb (predicatively) it means something different. The train was early means that it came before we expected it.
Some adjectives that limit the following noun
Adjectives like certain, main, major, only, particular limit the noun that they go before (the only people who know, the particular road that we travelled on). Other examples are principal, sole (meaning ‘only’), very, chief:
The main reason why the cinema closed is because the building was too old and dangerous.
The reason is main why the cinema…
That’s the very tool I am looking for. (very means ‘exact’)
That tool is very…
Adjectives normally only used after a noun
We use some -ed forms after a noun:
Most of the issues mentioned in the documentary are not very important.
Most of the mentioned issues…
The difference in percentages is clear from the illustrations shown.
from the shown illustrations.
Adjectives normally only used after a verb
Adjectives with the prefix a-
We can’t use adjectives with the prefix a- before a noun. We use them after linking verbs such as be, seem, become, feel, smell, taste. Common examples of adjectives with the prefix a- include awake, alive, asleep, aboard (on a plane, boat, bus or train), afloat, ablaze (on fire):
Katie was awake at the time.
Katie was an awake person at the time.
People were asleep in the bedroom.
There were asleep people in the bedroom.
The passengers were all aboard when they heard the loud bang.
The aboard passengers heard the loud bang.
If we want to express a similar meaning with an adjective in front of the noun, we can use a related adjective.
before a noun
after a verb
Some adjectives referring to states of health
Most commonly, the adjectives ill and well are used after a verb and not before a noun:
I feel ill.
He went to visit his ill sister.
She’s not well.
He’s not a well child.
Words and phrases that go before and after adjectives
The most typical words and phrases that go before adjectives (premodifiers) are adverb phrases expressing degree:
He was pretty surprised then.
This cake tastes a bit strange.
Photographs are really cheap nowadays.
The major exception is the degree adverb enough, which goes after the adjective (a postmodifier):
I am strong enough to face the difficulties.
Is that car big enough for all of us?
Other types of adverbs can also go before adjectives:
He had lost his usually calm attitude and become very nervous. (adverb of frequency + adjective)
He made an insensitively timed remark that upset her. (comment adverb + adjective)
Gradable adjectives and words and phrases that go before them
Most common adjectives can express different degrees of qualities, properties, states, conditions, relations, etc. These are called gradable adjectives:
a pretty big meal
a really big meal
an extremely big meal
Before gradable adjectives, we can use words which show different degrees of the feature in question. These are usually adverb phrases.
an adverb of degree used before gradable adjective high.
I can’t believe the waves are that high in the winter.
This high would usually be spoken with a gesture showing a specific height.
That high refers to a statement made by someone about the height of the waves or to the moment of seeing the high waves.
Six metres is a noun phrase. Certain adjectives expressing measurable features (e.g. height, thickness, age, time) may be modified by such noun phrases:
Some degree adverbs (so, too, as) need a word or phrase to complete their meaning (a complement). The complement may be a clause or a phrase. The complement comes after the adjective head.
So is the degree adverb before the adjective high. It needs the complement that they went onto the street in order to complete its meaning.
Too is the degree adverb before the adjective high. It needs the complement to go sailing in order to complete its meaning.
To say that things are the same, we use as + adjective + as + complement.
To compare two things which are different, we add the suffix -er to the adjective before the complement.
How is used to ask questions and to make exclamations about degree. There is an important difference in word order.
A question about degree:
how + adjective + verb + noun phrase?
An exclamation about degree:
how + adjective + noun phrase + verb!
Some adjectives cannot be made bigger, smaller, higher, lower, stronger, weaker, etc. These are called ungradable adjectives:
The tree is dead.
The tree is fairly dead.
My dog is female.
My dog is sort of female.
Other common ungradable adjectives include: automatic/manual; Irish/Brazilian/Thai etc.; married/unmarried/single.
Gradable opposites (antonyms)
The most common gradable adjectives can be grouped into pairs of opposites (antonyms) which refer to features like height: short – tall; heat: hot – cold, size; big – small, etc. These adjectives are at the upper and lower parts of an open-ended scale (a scale with no maximum or minimum):
We can’t use ungradable adverbs such as completely, absolutely, entirely, utterly or totally before these adjectives because they are open-ended:
My working day is very long. I start work at 8 am and I don’t finish until 8 pm.
My working day is completely long.
My house is so hot.
My house is absolutely hot.
This office is extremely small.
This office is totally small.
Maximum and minimum
Some other gradable adjectives can express features which have a maximum and/or minimum (zero) value:
We can use degree adverbs such as absolutely, completely, entirely, totally and other similar words before these adjectives:
We haven’t had rain for two months. The garden is completely dry.
The city centre is absolutely full of tourists at this time of year.
Other degree adverbs which we can use before this type of gradable adjective include almost, barely, half, scarcely:
Brain cell regeneration is almost possible, say scientists.
The ungradable adverb quite has different meanings depending on whether it is used with an open-ended gradable adjective (hot – cold) or an adjective which has a maximum and/or minimum (black – white).
quite means ‘fairly’
quite means ‘completely’
In this context, quite is given extra spoken stress.
Different meanings of adjectives before the noun and after the verb
We can use some adjectives before the noun or after the verb but the meaning differs.
before the noun (attributive)
after the verb (predicative)
(particular means ‘this and not any other/specific’)
(late means ‘not on time’)
Adjectives before nouns that modify other nouns
A noun (n) is sometimes used before another noun to give more information about it. This is called a noun modifier. Adjectives (adj) come before noun modifiers:
He drives a [ADJ]red [N] sports [N]car.
That’s an expensive laser printer.
Order of adjectives in noun phrases with articles and degree modifiers
When adjectives are used before the noun (attributive function), there are also sometimes degree adverbs. Different degree adverbs require different positions for the adjective phrase.
Positions of indefinite article and degree adverbs.
Quite: quite a cold day
The normal order with quite is quite a cold day. The order a quite cold day (indefinite article + intensifier + adjective) is also possible but it is not as common.
Rather: a rather cold day
As and so: a man as/so tall as him
The most common order with as and so in negative clauses in speaking is a man as/so tall as him (as/so + adjective + as + complement):
I haven’t seen a man as tall as him before.
You won’t often find a room so small as that.
The order as/so tall a man as him is also possible but it is more common in writing.
(Adjective phrases: position von English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)