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Why adjectives are important in academic writing

When we think of adjectives we think of description. But describing is not their only use. Accurate and clear description, classification, and comparison are all important features of academic writing but without adjectives these would be very difficult to write. Adjectives also play an essential role in hedging See the glossary definition, defining See the glossary definition and evaluating See the glossary definition.


Adjectives are usually divided into two semantic groups: descriptors See the glossary definition and classifiers See the glossary definition. Descriptors are often subdivided into the categories of colour, size/quantity, time, evaluation, and general description. You can see examples of these on the descriptors page See more about descriptors .


"Outside on a bright sunny day, your pupils become very small." (Fairchild 2019).
The adjectives bright and sunny are both attributive descriptors. The adjective small is a predicative descriptor (of size).


We classify when we assign something to a particular group (excluding it from others). This is most obvious with affiliative and topical classifiers (the French revolution, medical research). But even with other classifiers we are narrowing the scope of reference of the noun and therefore placing it in a particular category (initial value, direct marketing). Classifiers are the the most important category of adjectives in academic writing.

Example "Issues of ecological and social justice cannot be separated from one another." (Alberro 2020).
The adjectives ecological and social are two classes of justice. These are two topical classifiers.
You can see more examples of these on the classifiers page See more about classifiers


An important function of adjectives is to compare. And we often compare when we evaluate. Most common adjectives (especially descriptors) are gradable See the glossary definition; they can show degrees of comparison by inflection and through the use of adverbs.


"This animal was longer than a school bus and as heavy as a railroad car!" (Heithaus 2022).
The adjective longer is a gradable adjective with the inflection '-er'. (the comparative form). The adjective heavy is also a gradable adjective but here it is used in an as ... as phrase to signal similarity.
You can see examples of these on the comparison page See more about comparison .


Hedging See the glossary definition is the use of cautious language and there are many ways of expressing this caution but the use of adjectives is an important one.


"Although it’s possible there are undiscovered elements left to find, it’s unlikely" (Addicoat 2023).
There are two examples of hedging in this sentence: "possible" (followed by a complement clause) and "unlikely". Both of these adjectives are used predicatively.
You can see more about hedging on the hedging page See more about hedging and examples on the hedging examples pages See more hedging examples .


Definitions See the glossary definition are important in academic writing. As a writer you often need to define certain terms in order to be clear about the subject you are addressing or to distinguish terms from other similar ones. As a student you may be required to write definitions to demonstrate your understanding of a particular topic or issue. Adjectives are often used in definition to narrow down the scope of a general or broad term (especially shell nouns See the glossary definition such as process, system, idea, problem, approach etc.).


"Federalism is a system of government where power is shared between a central authority and smaller regional governments" (Yimenu 2023).
This definition makes a distinction between a 'central authority' and a 'regional government'. The adjectives central and regional are essential in this definition. There is also another adjective smaller which further distinguishes a regional government from a central authority. Note that these two adjectives are classifiers. Classifiers are often used in definitions.


A task may require you to evaluate something (an argument, a proposition, a suggestion, etc). In fact 'evaluate' is a common task word See the glossary definition. If you are quoting or paraphrasing external sources you will normally be expected to evaluate them (for their reliability, acceptance, plausibility and so). These evaluations may be positive or negative and there are many adjectives (and adverbs) which are commonly used to do this.


"For its first half-century, Einstein’s theory was controversial" (Blair, Henriksen, and Hendry 2016).
The adjective controversial has negative connotations and we can expect to see examples of why the theory was controversial, which is exactly what you see if you read the original article.

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