Describing adjectives

I feel pretty

Oh, so pretty

I feel pretty and witty and bright!

Maria feels pretty. And she tells us so many times. 

Pretty and witty and bright are adjectives, which qualify nouns or pronouns, often describing an attribute of a person, thing or place.

There is no consistent marking of adjectives in English. In other words, we can’t tell just by looking at it whether or not a word is an adjective. Many English adjectives end in -y, such as pretty and witty in the lines above. Others used later in the song are dizzy, sunny, fizzy and funny. Witty, sunny, fizzy and funny are derived from the nouns wit, sun, fizz and fun, but pretty and dizzy aren’t derived from pret or prett and diz or dizz. In those cases, the nouns are derived from the adjectives: prettiness and dizziness. We can also make wittiness, sunniness, fizziness and funniness, but these are awkward and far less used than wit, sun, fizz and fun.

But not all words ending in -y are adjectives: later in the song, Maria sings “And I pity any girl who isn’t me today”. Pity here is a verb, and can also be a noun (“It’s a pity that every girl isn’t me today”). The related adjectives are the sometimes confusing pitiful, pitiless, pitiable and piteous. (Pity can’t be an adjective because we can’t say I adjective (or I noun).

And, clearly, not all adjectives end in -y. Others in the song are: charming (n and v charm), alarming (n and v alarm), stunning (n and v stun); attractive (n attraction, v attract); wonderful (n and v wonder); advanced (n and v advance), refined (n refinement, v refine). –ive and –ful are common adjective endings. -ing and -ed are also verb endings: charming, alarming, stunning and entrancing are gerund-participles, and advanced and refined are past participles. Well-bred is also a past participle verb (an irregular one), but the relationship to the verb breed is less obvious: She is well-bred. She was well-bred by her parents. Her parents well-bred her. Her parents bred her well. All Puerto Rican parents breed all their children well.

Many adjectives have no ending at all, and their related nouns and some verbs are derived from them: bright (n brightness, v brighten), real (n reality, v realise), good (n good, goods, goodness), insane (n insanity), rare (n rarity, rareness, v rarefy/rarify), modest (n modesty), pure (n purity, v purify),  mature (n maturity, v mature), fine (n fineness, v refine). Obviously, –ness, –y and –ity are common suffixes to derive nouns from adjectives (see also prettiness and dizziness above), while, perhaps less obviously, –en, –ise and -(i)fy are reasonably common suffixes to derive verbs from nouns). 

Gerund/participles can also be used as nouns: I feel like running and dancing for joy. Adjectives can’t be used in this way: *I feel like pretty. Past participles can also be used in passive voice: I’m loved by a pretty wonderful boy < A pretty wonderful boy loves me; A committee should be organised < Someone should organise a committee.

Many adjectives have comparative and superlative forms: crazy, crazier, craziest. Comparative adjectives often come with someone, something or somewhere as a comparison: Maria is crazier than I am/me. Superlative adjectives often come with some people, some things or some places as ‘scope’: Maria isn’t the craziest girl ever, or in the world now, or in America now, or in New York now; she’s the craziest girl on the block

Two prepositional phrases work like adjectives in this song: She thinks she’s in love/She isn’t in love and She’s out of her mind! These could be replaced by the adjectives enamoured and insane (in fact the girls use insane in the song). A third prepositional phrase – She thinks she’s in Spain – retains its meaning as a place and cannot be replaced by an adjective.

In English, adjectives are generally used in three patterns, two of which are found in the song.  The first is after a verb like be, feel, look etc (technical term: predicatively). Maria might say I am pretty, I feel pretty or I look pretty. Throughout the song, she sings: I feel pretty … I feel pretty and witty and bright. She also feels charming, stunning, entrancing, dizzy, sunny, fizzy, funny and fine.

She later sings I’m real, and her friends sing she’s insane, as well as the adjective-like prepositional phrase she’s in love and she isn’t in love and the adverb-like prepositional phrase she’s in Spain.

If there is a difference, feel more likely states something which is true now (or for a shorter time), while be can state something which is always true (or for a longer time) or is true now (or for a shorter time). Is Maria always real? In her own world, yes. (In ours, she’s a character in a musical/movie.) Can she sing I am pretty (always or now)? Maybe, but she can certainly sing I feel pretty (now). Do her friends mean that she’s insane always? Possibly (she is the craziest girl on the block). They certainly mean that she’s insane now.

Things or ‘it’ can also be: it’s alarming, where ‘it’ is how charming I feel.

The second pattern for adjectives is before a noun (or just possibly a pronoun) and after any determiner or adverb (technical term: predicatively). In the song, we get: the pretty girl, that attractive girl, a pretty face/dress/smile/me (me is very unusual in this pattern), a wonderful boy (note, not a pretty boy – more about that in a later post), my good friend, the craziest girl, an advanced state and some rare disease. (Adjectives before pronouns are usually found in formulas like silly me! or poor you!)

The third pattern for adjectives is instead of a noun phrase. We can say French people feel like eating cheese and surrendering or The French feel like eating cheese and surrendering. Some nationalities work better in this pattern, and some don’t work at all: in The Puerto Ricans like running and dancing for joy (< Puerto Rican people like running and dancing for joy), The Puerto Ricans is a simple noun phrase. In society, we often talk about the rich, the poor, the old/elderly, the young, the unemployed (but rarely the employed), the blind, the deaf (these two are problematic – always ask someone how they want to be referred to), the sick, the injured, the living and the dead.

And there’s more (in a future post – I’m over a thousand words already).

West Side Story (1961) Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, Words: Stephen Sondheim, Music: Leonard Bernstein, Actress: Natalie Wood and others, Singer: Marnie Nixon and others

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One thought on “Describing adjectives

  1. Pingback: I feel like writing more about adjectives | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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