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Describing language
Describing language

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3 Adjectives working together

Just as nouns need verbs to help us communicate who is doing what to whom, adjectives need something to describe in order to make sense. If we were to stand in the street and shout Red! Most Expensive! Faster! our intended meaning would likely be lost. Thus adjectives’ primary function is not to stand alone but to work with other word classes (most commonly nouns) to express shades of meaning.

Activity 5 Ugly old-fashioned house or beautiful modern house?

Timing: This activity should take around 15 minutes

Consider these two sentences:

  • The building was ugly and old fashioned.
  • The building was beautiful and modern.

What sort of house do you think of when you imagine each one? Write some notes.

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In the first sentence the author evaluates the building in negative terms describing it as ugly, while in the second they use the positive term beautiful. The evaluative language is easy to identify because we understand the adjective beautiful to signal something that is aesthetically pleasing, and the adjective ugly to signal something that is unpleasant.

Each building is also described as old fashioned or modern. These terms are less explicitly evaluative on their own: old fashioned isn’t always negative (old-fashioned courtesy), and modern isn’t always positive (the hectic pace of modern life). But in the context of these sentences they reinforce particular evaluations. In the first sentence not only is the building ugly, it’s also old fashioned and these two terms work together to increase the negative evaluation. Similarly, modern has positive connotations when used with beautiful, but you would picture a very different building if it was described as ugly and modern.

When considering how people, places, social groups, events, or objects are described using adjectives, you should consider how different words work together to produce cumulative evaluative effects.