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Express Yourself Naturally in English Conversations

Kevin Naglich
Founder, Deliberate English

When it comes to languages, adjectives are what give them color. They're what we use to describe things in more detail and tell more interesting stories. You already know that to sound more natural and expressive, you need to use them. Still, I often see that English students have a hard time deciding where they go in a sentence. 

To solve this problem, let's start by looking at some examples. Take a look at these sentences. Do you think they are correct or incorrect?

If your answer was that they're all incorrect, then you're right!

Before I tell you what's wrong, let's analyze these mistakes in more detail.

The Basic Rule

You already know that as a general rule, adjectives come before the noun which they describe.

A book can be a new book.
A sandwich can be a delicious sandwich.
Or a student can be a hardworking student.

When we're merely dealing with standard adjectives, this is easy. The problem starts when different types of words are used as adjectives.

Nouns Pretending to be Adjectives (Attributive Nouns)

One of the most common mistakes I see happens when nouns are used as adjectives. Instead of placing these "attributive nouns" before the noun they modify, students tend to put them at the end.

Of course in English, when a noun is used like an adjective it is placed in front of the other noun it is describing.

Almost all nouns can be used in this way. Some are more common than others. Your job is to start noticing more of these when you're watching TV, listening to a podcast, or talking with an English speaker to add them to your collection.

The wrong way to use attributive nouns
The correct way to use attributive nouns

The Difference Between Each and Every

Here are a couple more examples of these nouns pretending to be adjectives:

  • Each one of you needs to finish the math homework by tomorrow.
  • We do market research on every product.

While we're here, do you know the difference between each and every?

We use every to talk about a group of items as a whole, without emphasizing any one part, person, thing, etc.

I'd say, "Every color is beautiful." if I want to say that all colors are beautiful. It doesn't matter if it's blue, or green, or yellow; they all are beautiful.

On the other hand, each also talks about a group of items. We use it to emphasize the individual parts of the group.

For example, "Each color is beautiful in its own way." This time I'm still saying that all colors are beautiful, but now I'm emphasizing that I think that there is a difference in what makes them beautiful. Maybe I think blue is beautiful because it's the color of the ocean and green is beautiful because it's the color of the grass.

In the first example, "Each one of you needs to finish the homework," I want to make it very clear that all students have an individual responsibility to finish the homework. It makes it more personal. 

In the second example,  "We do market research on every product", every is a better fit because we do the same research on all products, regardless of which type.

Multiple Attributive Nouns

Believe it or not, there's a lot more fun we can have with attributive nouns. We can throw a big attributive noun party and invite a whole bunch of them. When we have more than one, they all still go in front of the actual noun they're modifying. 

When you have multiple attributive nouns the order moves from less specific to more specific.

What kind of program is it?

A research program.

What kind of research?

Market research

Here's another one.

The language student gift exchange is always a lot of fun.

What kind of exchange is it?

It's a gift exchange.

Who is it for?

Students.

All students or just a specific type?

Language students.

Do All Adjectives Come Before Nouns?

Now you might be thinking, "okay, so basically I should just always put adjectives before the noun no matter what?". Unfortunately, life isn't that easy.

Try to put these words in the correct order.

The answer is: This coffee smells delicious.

In this case, we see that the adjective delicious goes after the noun coffee.

But wait, can't I say "delicious coffee?". 

Absolutely. I can say, "thank you for the delicious coffee," just fine.

So what makes this type of sentence different?

It's the verbs.

Whenever we have so-called "linking verbs," the adjective needs to go after the linking verb, which goes after the noun it's describing.

These verbs typically fall into three categories:

  1. First, the various forms of to be like am, is, are, was, were, etc.
  2. Second, we have sense verbs that, of course, talk about your five senses: to feel, to smell, to sound, to taste, or to look.
  3. Third, we have status verbs like to seem, to become, to appear, or to grow that talk about the way something is currently or is changing.

How would you arrange this sentence?

Your new coworker seems friendly.

Or this one?

Did you listen to the new album? The first song sounds so cool.

And finally, how would you arrange the words in this sentence?

The company Christmas Party was fun.

What kind of party?

A Christmas party. 

For who?

The company.

How was it?

It was fun.

How to Arrange Multiple Adjectives

The last thing we'll cover today is what happens when you have multiple adjectives.

People tend to disagree about the exact order, but in general, we'd see the following:

  • Opinions come first and are adjectives like: amazing, beautiful, cool, or funny.
  • Size, which can be both physical size or duration of time, comes next with words like big, small, long, short, or wide.
  • Next, we have the physical quality of something: maybe it's rough, smooth, steep, or messy.
  • Age is next with common words like old, new, modern, or young.
  • Shape follows with square, round, circular, or oval.
  • Next is color: red, green, blue, pink, or orange.
  • Followed by origin: American, Spanish, Italian
  • We then see material that includes adjectives like metal, plastic, wooden, or silver.
  • And finally, purpose, which explains what something is for. Often times these may be gerunds (or in other words -ing words) like Cooking or fishing, but can also be words like medical.

Do I expect you to memorize this list? No.

Am I going to give you an acronym to remember it? No.

You don't need to memorize the order. You need to internalize it. For that, you need experience and exposure. That's what I'm going to give you now.

Practice Time!

If any of these sentences seem interesting to you, write them down and try to play with them in your day to day conversations.

First, try arranging the following adjectives.

You should try the delicious new Italian restaurant that just opened.

Delicious is expressing an opinion, new is the age, and Italian is the origin.

How about this one?

Big Sur is this big rugged green and blue stretch of the California coast.

Big is the size, rugged is the physical quality, and green and blue are the colors.

When we have two adjectives from the same group, like green and blue, it's common to throw the word and between them or use a comma.

Let's do a few more.

We bought this square wooden card table.

Square is the shape, wooden is the material, and card is the purpose. 

A card table is a specific type of table that is used for playing card games. Notice that card is also one of those attributive nouns.

Two more. We stayed at this…

Gorgeous little old bed & breakfast when we were in Tuscany.

Gorgeous is an opinion, little is the size, and old is the age.

Last one.

I just had my first conversation with a native English speaker.

This one is tricky. Both native and English are talking about this speaker's origin, but they aren't interchangeable in this case. When we had the blue and green example, we saw how both blue and green can be changed.  It doesn't change the meaning of the sentence at all to say Big Sur is a blue and green coastline or Big Sur is a green, blue coastline. We are talking simply about a coastline that is both green and blue.

On the other hand, we can't say a "native and English speaker." This sounds weird. Sure, native and English are both origins, but we're not talking about a speaker who is both native and English.

We're talking about a specific type of speaker - an English speaker. Those two words together are basically one idea or unit. 

What type of English speaker? A native one.

Do you have to remember that "English speaker" is a single semantic unit? Not really. What you need to do is use "native English speaker" in your writing, texting, or talking as much as possible. Eventually, it'll just feel natural to say it that way.

Summary

Remember the three examples at the beginning of this post? We now know everything we need to correct them.

  • I'm a very motivated language student because attributive nouns go before the actual noun.
  • I want to be able to speak fluently with a native English speaker because native is modifying the concept of an English speaker.
  • And I'm progressing little by little every day because I'm practicing all days. It doesn't matter if it's Tuesday or Sunday, I'll be practicing.

Remember, knowing the theory will only get you so far. To really remember and internalize what you've learned, it's important to try to use these concepts in your daily routine.

When you're talking to a native English speaker, try using some attributive nouns or paying attention to when they use them. If you keep a list of vocabulary, add some of the workout sentences we used today and try to create some of your own!

The more you use something, the easier it'll be to remember it.

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