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Adjectives: Descriptors

How descriptors are used in academic writing

Descriptors are the words most people think of when asked about adjectives; words like bright, small, new, beautiful, strong. These types of adjectives are normally gradable See the glossary definition: by inflection; brighter, brightest, smaller, smallest, newer, newest, stronger, stronger, or by the use of an adverb; more beautiful, very small, extremely strong.

Descriptors are usually classified thus:

  1. Colour/Hue/Brightness: amber, black, blue, bronze, brown, dark, fuchsia, green, grey, indigo, olive, orange, pale, pink, purple, red, salmon, scarlet, violet, white, yellow;
  2. Size/Weight/Quantity/Extent: dense, finite, great, high, huge, large, long, low, narrow, small, tiny, wide;
  3. Time/Chronology/Frequency/Age: annual, daily, early, late, monthly, new, old, permanent, recent, temporary, young;
  4. Evaluative/Judgemental/Emphatic: best, drastic, good, great, important, inferior, intense, legitimate, right, simple, special, superior, utter;
  5. General: accurate, appropriate, cold, elaborate, empty, feasible, neutral, open, physical, positive, random, rigid, serious, strong, superficial.

Some of these adjectives may be placeable in more than one of these categories, depending on their use in context.


  • One important descriptor thing to know noun phrase (the head is "thing", postmodified with a to-clause) is that light moves very fast. (Baron 2021)

  • In this sentence there is just one adjective: "important". It is an attributive See the glossary definition adjective (coming before the noun) and it is an evaluative descriptor.

  • For large size descriptor collections noun phrase head, storing film in cold general descriptor vaults noun phrase head is much cheaper general descriptor (comparative) than copying. (Ahmad 2020)

  • In this sentence the adjectives "large" and "cold" are attributive See the glossary definition; "cheaper" is predicative See the glossary definition.

  • Younger age descriptor kids noun phrase head have small size descriptor brains noun phrase head and have less mental classifier energy noun phrase head available postposed adjective than older age descriptor kids. noun phrase head (Wilson 2019)

  • There are five adjectives in this sentence. The adjectives "younger" and "older" are age descriptors (comparatives). The adjective "small" is a size descriptor. The adjective "mental" is not a descriptor; it is a classifier See the glossary definition (it restricts the reference of the noun, distinguishing it from other types of energy, and it is non-gradable). The adjective "available" general descriptor and it is a postposed adjective See the glossary definition. The structure "have less mental energy available than older kids" is an example of correlative subordination See the glossary definition.

  • This is because white colour descriptor cells noun phrase head work better when your body temperature is higher extent descriptor (comparative) than normal classifier. (Koirala 2019)

  • There are three adjectives in this sentence ("better" is an adverb). The adjectives "white" and "higher" are descriptors. "white" is an attributive See the glossary definition adjective and "higher" is predicative See the glossary definition. The phrase "than normal" is a degree complement See the glossary definition of the the adjective "higher". This is a very common comparative construction. The adjective "normal" is a topical classifier See the glossary definition. "normal" obviously means the normal body temperature.

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