having dealt with objects, ideas and actions, the next step is to be able to describe them. you can call descriptive words adjectives or adverbs among other things but the important part isn’t what type of word they are but what they do. english has many descriptive words. here are some of the most common. they’re generally grouped by type of description and paired but that pairing is often unequal in modern english – there are usually more and more varied negative words than positive equivalents.
size & location
when we talk about an object, usually the first thing we discuss is its size, shape and where it is.
- big (bigger, biggest), large, huge, giant, gigantic, colossal
- small (smaller, smallest), little, tiny, miniature, minuscule, microscopic
a good place to start when understanding english descriptions – and english words in general but this applies especially to descriptive words – is that longer words are usually more formal than their shorter versions. big and small are common, everyday words while colossal, gigantic, microscopic and miniature are more detailed, more complex words with more specific meanings. the other piece of these longer, complicated words, however, is that they tend to be more extreme versions of their simpler relatives. it’s not just a big dog – it’s a gigantic dog! or that problem’s so small it’s microscopic! are good demonstrations of their use to emphasize how far to the extreme of one side or the other of the size spectrum the object being described is.
big is a general term for anything above-average in size. so a big dog is not the same type of size as a big car or house or city. it is important to use common-sense. its partner is small. little and large hold the same meanings but they carry the extra subtlety of being negatively-judgmental. if a person is small, they may be damaged or cute. if you call them little, you are implying there is something wrong with them. large is generally heard as a synonym for overweight. tiny, huge and giant are informal versions of small and big. they don’t necessarily carry judgment but, as with all english descriptions, there is an implied judgment, usually negative, in the act of description already. many languages have implied bias in descriptive language and in some languages (korean, japanese, arabic) it defaults to positive, others (hebrew, french, spanish) neutral and others negative (english, german, dutch, chinese, mongolian). it is important to keep this in mind when describing things, especially if you usually speak a language where the default implication is different.
gigantic and colossal are more formal, more extreme terms. they can mean “extremely big” or “too big” depending on context. similarly, miniature and minuscule have the same double-meaning relative to small. microscopic means “too small to see” (micro from small, scopic from see) but it’s often used outside its technical meaning to just mean “extremely small” or “too small to matter”.
at this point, it is good to begin practicing by describing objects you see around you. find a partner and talk about the sizes of things in the room or outside. you can use the terms in (brackets) to describe them relative to each other. these are not given for the more complex descriptions but there are patterns you will gradually learn and almost all descriptions work in one of a few ways – usually just “er” or “est” added to the basic word.
- long (longer, longest), short (shorter, shortest), tall (taller, tallest)
- wide, narrow, deep, shallow, profound
- distant, near, close, far
- high (higher, highest), low (lower, lowest)
- less (least), more (most)
continuing with descriptions, you can become more specific without needing to use more formal or extreme words. for example, long is more specific than big because it means it is bigger in one direction, not all of them. english has an uneven pairing here. if something is horizontally-stretched, it becomes long and its opposite is short. if it is vertically-stretched, it is tall but the opposite of tall is short, the same word. so it is difficult without additional description to be sure whether a short object is small in the vertical or horizontal dimension. this ambiguity is understood in english but many other languages have specific words for these two different concepts and it’s important to note that switching from tall to short loses some meaning in context.
the other descriptions of specific dimensions, wide, narrow, deep and shallow describe horizontal and vertical size, too. these are more technical, however. if you are looking at an object, wide and narrow specifically mean the distance between left and right not front and back. deep and shallow are usually used to describe the size of an opening in an object (for example, a hole or valley can be described that way) but they are sometimes used for the third dimension – the distance from the side of an object closest to you to its opposite side. this ambiguity is also difficult but context helps.
another important piece of “deep” and “shallow” is that they are used metaphorically to describe someone’s intelligence or understanding. someone who is deep is intelligent with a good understanding while someone shallow is unintelligent, often thought of as silly or stupid, understanding little. these metaphorical understandings do not typically apply to other descriptions of size, only these two. “profound” is possible to use for physical size but rarely appears that way. it’s almost always a description of the complexity or detailed nature of an idea. its opposite isn’t a description of size at all – we usually use “simple”, though it’s not technically its pair.
distant, near, close and far are relative distance indicators and their use is contextual but easy to understand. the only exception to this is that distant is also used to describe people who are not interacting well with those around them. near and far are the most common words to describe relative physical distance and they are made stronger by the addition of very instead of replacing them with more extreme words. “nearer” and “closer” are often used but “far” is typically made relative by using “more distant” in modern english. high and low are the vertical relative distance markers and work the same way as near and far.
less and more are special words in english. they are used to modify other descriptions. something can be “less distant” in the same way it can be “closer”. these can be used for any description that doesn’t have its own relative form. least and most are the ends of these scales. a dog can be more friendly but only one dog is most friendly.
- up, down, left, right, forward, back, over, under, above, below
- east, west, north, south
english has direction descriptions much the same as other languages – relative and cardinal (compass) directions. up and down describe the vertical axis, left and right directions on each side, forward and back the directions nearer to or farther from the speaker. over, under, above and below are relative. above and below are generally seen as more formal versions of over and under but they are still very common – any of these is perfectly fine for everyday speech or formal writing.
the compass directions work as you expect – they describe specific directions regardless of where the speaker is. the only thing to remember about their use is that you can be moving east, describing the direction of motion or you can be east of another object, describing its relative position. this applies to all cardinal directions and their combinations (northeast or southwest, for example).
while there are many more types of description to think about, this is a good place to take a break and practice. you can now describe objects in terms of their physical attributes and where they are located. play a guessing game describing objects a little at a time, asking and answering questions until your partner can guess what you’re talking about.
is it big?
is it taller than the nearest tree?
is it wider than the car?
is it right of the swings?
is it near the sidewalk?
color & judgment
- good (better, best), great, fantastic, awesome, exciting
- bad (worse, worst), awful, terrible, abysmal, boring
english, as i have mentioned multiple times, is an extremely judgmental language. its default judgment position is negative. unless you use a specifically-positive word, all neutral descriptions are heard as negatively-biased and negative words are amplified. this is important to keep in mind – a “normal” or “typical” class will be understood as boring and uninteresting while one described as “boring” or “terrible” will be seen as extremely negative.
- black, white, red, blue, green, yellow, brown, orange, pink, turquoise, indigo, violet
colors vary wildly. there are more color descriptions than any sensible person is willing to learn. every english-speaker has their own collection of favorite color words they use on a regular basis and there are hundreds more they know the meanings of, usually hundreds or thousands more they have to guess at when they appear. every color of paint or vehicle, plant or animal has its own specific color word. it is best to start with a simple list of color words every english-speaker uses and understands.
i can’t stress how much at this point it is important to remember that colors when applied to people have centuries (often more) of history in english where in other languages those are not necessarily the words used to describe racial groups or judgments about people. calling someone “white”, “black”, “brown”, “red”, “yellow”, etc carries a racial and historical context (european, african, indian, indigenous, asian respectively, though this is simplified and generalized as this is not a history or sociology class). i strongly suggest avoiding such descriptions in english before learning their deeper context. this only applies to humans, however. describing objects and animals (with a few notable exceptions like “black music” or “red culture”) is safe and doesn’t have these racial or cultural overtones.
- skillful, unskillful, able, unable, disabled
- early, late, true, untrue, false, perfect, imperfect, flawed, damaged, broken
while able and unable describe someone’s ability to do a task, it is important not to confuse this with disabled, which describes a person as having a recognized disability (for example, being unable to walk without help or having difficulty seeing). while words like perfect and broken are sometimes used for people, this is seen as extremely disrespectful and they are usually reserved for judgments of only inanimate objects. even applying them to animals can sound very rude.
- same, different, identical, varied, distinct, indistinct, other
- normal, unusual, typical, atypical, common, strange, expected, unexpected, surprising, unsurprising
in english, as in many other languages and cultural settings, there is a strong dividing judgment between things that are same or different – this is, in sociology and history, called “othering” but the only significant thing to know from a language perspective is that these judgments carry a strong negative connotation. what is less obvious is that normal and its partners (typical, common, strange, etc) are used by different groups of english-speakers in distinctly-different ways. in conservative groups, normal often carries a strongly-positive deeper meaning while in liberal groups it means the opposite and holds the unspoken sense of stupid or old-fashioned. knowing the group dynamics when using these words is key to their understanding and not being misheard.
- easy, hard, simple, difficult, complex, complicated
- clear, unclear, understood, misunderstood, comprehensible, incomprehensible
- free, expensive, cheap, pricy
- full, empty, half-full, filled, whole, complete, incomplete
judgments of complexity, cost and completeness are very simple in english. remember the longer words are usually heard as more formal than their simple alternatives. price judgments in particular are always seen as negative. something that is cheap is also expected to be low-quality or valueless while something expensive is judged to be too expensive or overvalued for what it is. there are no positive value judgments in english so this is a significant thing to keep in mind – if you want to positively-judge something based on its cost, you must qualify your description with a positive statement. “it’s cheap but great quality” or “it’s expensive but worth every cent” are common ways to overcome this negative default-judgment.
- major, minor, severe, inconsequential, special, problematic
- strong, weak, forceful, gentle, aggressive, passive
- important, unimportant, significant, insignificant
descriptions of importance or intensity are often applied to ideas or people but rarely objects. gentle is almost always heard as positive, as is strong. weak, forceful, aggressive and passive are, unless modified by the context, always understood as negative. important and significant are usually heard as negative judgments (from a position of jealousy) while unimportant and insignificant are negative but dismissive.
- human, inhuman, rude, polite, virtuous, evil, ethical, unethical, moral, immoral, vegan, vegetarian
in much the same way as other english descriptions, human is usually heard as dismissive while inhuman is a strong condemnation of someone’s actions. being rude is often seen as a minor negative while polite is typically a dismissal of a person as being unwilling to be modern or liberated. these same distinctions between negative character traits and a dismissal of positive character traits can be generalized for the rest of the descriptions on this list. vegan and vegetarian are descriptions of eating choices but they are almost always applied in negative, dismissive contexts unless a person is describing themself.
- new, old, young, middle-aged, modern, outdated, obsolete, deprecated
- political, apolitical, partisan, aligned, unaligned, biased, even-handed
- liberal, conservative, socialist, communist, free-market
new is always used to describe objects or ideas while young is for humans and animals. old is used as the opposite of either. these again all hold negative default-judgment positions – young implies inexperienced and uninformed while old implies outdated. modern is used in liberal communities as a positive description while in conservative communities as an insult. middle-aged refers to humans approximately forty or fifty years old and is always a negative description. outdated, obsolete and deprecated are more formal versions (in increasing formality) describing ideas – if applied to people, they are extremely insulting – whose times have passed.
political descriptions are emotionally-charged but important to understand. their meanings, however, are something to study and this is not the place to find a description of social or economic theories. read some articles about the words you come across – a deep understanding is often necessary to use them correctly and i suggest not using them until you are certain of their meaning as they can be misleading or worse. they are included here because i suggest taking the time to at least recognize them and learn a few basic definitions of their use and history in english as soon as possible.
- certain, uncertain, sure, unsure, absolute, vague, distinct, indistinct
- possible, impossible, practical, pragmatic, logical, illogical, sensible, senseless
- international, national, regional, local, global, universal, ubiquitous
- low, high, treble, bass
- public, private, visible, invisible, secret, hidden, social
- real, unreal, fantastic, imaginary, dreamlike
- spiritual, religious, cultural, societal, secular, holy, sinful, forgiven
the remainder of these descriptions are common, everyday words in english you will hear spoken and see in news articles and books, even simple ones, on a regular basis. some are really only present in specific contexts (like temples, churches and schools) while others are more general. practice with these and get to know them as you expand your vocabulary.
as a brief aside, these descriptions are loosely-sorted in terms of their frequency and usefulness. those at the beginning of this list are the ones you should learn first and only move on to the rest when you have the first five or ten groups firmly in your memory. this is admittedly an extremely long list of descriptive terms but if you learn them all you will rarely find any in your everyday life you don’t know. it’s not important to know them all at first, though. remembering size, direction, color and basic judgment (good/better/best, bad/worse/worst) is plenty to begin!