Category Archives: Adjectives

A Woman who …

550px-Margaret_Thatcher_(Retouched)The death of a public figure  is always marked by a respectful reflection which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a career lived in the public eye. The announcement of the death of Margaret Thatcher on Monday 8th April was no exception. On Tuesday 9th April, the newspapers were full of comment and interpretation of a political life that changed British society – and that is something that all commentators can agree on, whatever their political position

Thatcher 2

 This word cloud is made from the language being used by journalists and commentators, friends, colleagues and members of the public in remembering Margaret Thatcher. Inevitably, she has been remembered for her ‘firsts’: first woman leader of a party; first woman Prime Minister; longest serving twentieth century prime minister; and the only British Prime Minister to have a new word created based on her name. This is an example of derivation by affixation: the proper noun Thatcher + the Greek suffix –ism (‘one who believes in’) i.e. Thatcherism – ‘the policies and style of government associated with Margaret Thatcher’.

For linguists, the language of remembrance is a rich field. Collecting the media sound-bites used to pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher reveals a distinctive grammatical structure: noun phrases focus attention on her qualities as a leader, as a prime minister, as a ‘historical’ figure and as a woman; the pre- and post-modification allows contributors to express their attitude.

So where to start?

Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister800px-Margaret_Thatcher_near_helicopter

a remarkable Prime Minister   

John Major, former Prime Minister (Conservative)

a truly formidable Prime Minister

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (Scottish National Party)

… Prime Minister for a long time. Honour that. 

Clare Short, former International Development Secretary (Labour)

the most rottenest Prime Minister ever

Member of the public

These noun phrases tell us as much about the contributors as they do about Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative John Major uses the positive evaluative adjective remarkable (denotation: deserving of notice or comment – and thus striking or singular),  while the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond chooses formidable (denotation: causing fear or alarm; inspiring dread or apprehension). At first glance, this adjective appears to be positive, and yet has layers of meaning which undercut our initial impression – intensified by the adverb of degree truly, the implicitly negative effect is amplified.

The member of the public is more explicit – he does not need to dress his attitude in respectful tones. The double superlative (most rottenest) and the emphatic adverb ever clearly indicate that this voter is not a Conservative supporter. The Labour MP Clare Short opts to comment on Thatcher’s length of service in the post-modifying  prepositional phrase for a long time. This allows her to side-step the need to reflect positively on a controversial right wing Prime Minister. Her imperative (Honour that.), however, implicitly suggests that there is nothing else worth praising.

Margaret  Thatcher as a leader

Margaret_Thatcher_1983   a strong leader

David Cameron, Prime Minister (Conservative)

  a fearless leader

Bill Clinton, former President of the US (Democrat)

an inspirational leader who carried high the banner of her convictions, and whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world

George W. Bush, former President of the US (Republican)

a great leader

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (right wing Likud party)

We may expect comments about leadership to be less party-political, but the positive pre-modifying adjectives strong and great are chosen by people who will, at least to some extent, share Thatcher’s right wing principles. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, describes her using the broad evaluative adjective fearless. Because  its connotations depend on context, this adjective is ambiguous. It could seen as ‘feint praise’  – while apparently praising her decisiveness, he may also be criticising what is sometimes seen as her political ruthlessness.

The tone of the long pre- and post-modified noun phrase is very positive. The connotations of the adjective inspirational and the abstract nouns principle, confidence and clarity explicitly suggest  that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities are exceptional. As a Republican, George W. Bush can identify with Thatcher’s right wing politics. 

Margaret Thatcher as a figureheadThatcher_reviews_troops_(cropped)

a towering political figure

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister (Labour)

a unique figure

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition (Labour)

a landmark political figure

Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

The contributors here do not share Thatcher’s political views and while their comments are respectful, they lack the effusive tone of George W. Bush. The pre-modifiers are less personal: the adjective unique, the verb modifier towering and the noun landmark suggest the scale of Thatcher’s achievements while keeping a suitable political distance. The choice of words is diplomatic.

As a woman who …

… saved the country she loved and fought for so tirelessly

Daily Mail

… tore Britain apart

Morning Star

… transformed life in this country, profoundly, permanently and through sheer force of personality

The Times

… divided a nation

Daily Mirror

… changed Britain

The Independent

Many of the newspapers used a post modified noun phrase A woman who …  to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, either as the front page headline or in the report itself.

All we need to do here is to read the verbs. In the post-modifying relative clauses, they tell a complete story. The right wing press choose past tense verbs with positive connotations – saved, transformed (reinforced in this case by the  strong connotations of the adverbs profoundly/permanently and the prepositional phrase through sheer force of personality). The left wing press choose verbs with negative connotations – tore apartdivided. The Independent, living up to its name, chooses the neutral verb changed.

As a person

478px-Margaret_Thatcher_headshot  a terrific person to spend time socially with

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury

  a very, very kindly lady

Local Conservative Party member 

a far more caring and modest person in retirement than you get from those sort of clips

Baroness Anne Jenkin of Kennington, House of Lords (Conservative)

The people who have commented on Thatcher in a more personal way are those who have a different kind of relationship – these are people who interacted with her in social contexts. The language is almost homely, describing an individual quite removed from the public ‘figurehead’. The adjectives terrific and kindly have a slightly dated feel, and there is a warm enthusiasm in Lord Carey’s choice of adjective and in the repetition of the degree adverb very. 

Baroness Jenkin bridges the gap between the two representations of Margaret Thatcher. The pre-modifiers, the comparative compound adjectives more caring and modest, mirror the warmth and familiarity of Lord Carey and the local Conservative Party lady, while the degree adverb far intensifies the positive connotationsThe post-modifying comparative clause, on the other hand, sets personal experience against media representation – it suggests that the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Lady Jenkin knew was not the same as the one the media dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ and the ‘Milk-Snatcher’.

Amongst the praise and celebration, the diplomacy and the delicately worded epithets, there were some explicitly negative responses. These were, however, not noun phrases that commented directly on Margaret Thatcher as a politician or as a private individual. Recognising that her family will be grieving, the criticisms focus instead on Thatcher’s record, on the political legacy she left behind. For Neil Kinnock, former Labour leader, her time in 10 Downing Street was an unmitigated disaster; for a resident in her old Finchley constituency, she destroyed the infrastructure of our society and created a consumer-based generation; for the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, she did great hurt to Irish people.        

When a public figure dies, particularly in the case of a politician like Margaret Thatcher who evokes such strong emotions, a private and personal loss becomes public property. What we can see in the examples quoted here are people paying tribute to the life of someone they admire, people treading a delicate line between political judgement and diplomatic reflection, and people rejoicing in a friendship.

Some useful links for further language study: 

[I should perhaps point out that the ‘readings’ expressed here are my own and that the people cited have in no way endorsed my interpretation of their words.]

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‘Come into my castle,’ said the spider to the fly: describing buildings in Gothic fiction

Carl_Blechen_-_Gothic_Church_Ruin_-_Google_Art_Project If you like atmospheric descriptions, then Gothic literature is for you! Castles, dungeons,  vaults, ruins – they all provide a rich setting for tales of blood and imprisonment, horror and  fear.

The language used to describe these typically Gothic settings  is always vivid, appealing to our senses and drawing us in to an unknown world. We see the dark ruins and the jagged battlements; we smell the dank rooms; we hear the distant groans.

Looking at examples, we can begin to explore more closely just how the writers create that strong sense of place. The extracts below are all taken from well-known Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The notes that follow them show how close reading reveals their linguistic secrets.

Castle Udolpho


… though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object … the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity … The gateway … leading into the courts  was of gigantic size, and was defended by two round towers, crowned by over-hanging turrets, embattled, where, instead of banners, now waved long grass and wild plants … The towers were united by a curtain, pierced and embattled also, below which appeared the pointed arch of an huge portcullis, surmounting the gates: from these, the walls of the ramparts extended to other towers, overlooking the precipice, whose shattered outline … told of the ravages of war.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)

The great castle is presented to readers as an austere hulk that dominates the landscape.

  1. references to ‘light’ are typical:
    • the noun phrase the setting sun marks the atmospheric transition between day and night
    • the clauses the light died … the rays soon faded … use negative verbs to suggest the movement towards night
    • the pre- and post-modified noun phrase the solemn darkness of evening at the end of the sentence is emphatic
  2. the location is always at a distance: the building is in an austere and inhospitable spot (overlooking the precipice)
  3. the natural world is dominant – humanity is insignificant in this environment and cannot impose order :
    • the banners (symbolic of people) have been replaced by nature’s blazons (grass, plants)
    • the adjectives linked to the natural world reflect its supremacy (long, wild)
  4. concrete nouns define the physical elements of the castle (battlements, gateway, courts, towers, turrets, curtain, arch, portcullis, ramparts) – they are subject specific and very much linked to a by-gone age
  5. colours tend to be dull:
    • dark grey is typical of the austere mood created   
    • brighter colours (purple) will often be modified by a negative adjective (melancholy)
  6. words relating to size suggest the scale: greatness (noun), gigantic, huge (adjectives)
  7. adjectives have negative connotations to set the tone: mouldering, gloomy, melancholy, more awful
  8. words associated with battle remind us of the dark, violent nature of Gothic fiction: embattledpierced and embattled, shattered (verb modifiers), the ravages of war (noun phrase)
  9. the repetition of the adjective sublime is an important element of the physical description – it combines a sense of grandeur with a feeling of awe and terror
  10. the extended metaphor of the castle as a ruler is dramatic:
    • the tripling of adjectives in the initial position (Silent, lonely, sublime …) set the tone
    • there is a semantic field of kingship (the sovereign of the scene, its solitary reign, crowned)
    • the personification brings the castle to life – the tone is negative and menacing (to frown defiance on all)

St Clare’s Sepulchre

738px-View_of_the_Interior_of_the_Apis_Tombs_at_Sakkâra._(1885)_-_TIMEAWe stopped before the principal shrine of St. Clare. The Statue was removed from its Pedestal, though how I knew not. The Nuns afterwards raised an iron grate till then concealed by the Image, and let it fall on the other side with a loud crash. The awful sound, repeated by the vaults above, and Caverns below me, rouzed me from the despondent apathy in which I had been plunged. I looked before me: An abyss presented itself to my affrighted eyes, and a steep and narrow Staircase, whither my Conductors were leading me. … I was hurried down the Staircase, and forced into one of the Cells which lined the Cavern’s sides.

My blood ran cold, as I gazed upon this melancholy abode. The cold vapours hovering in the air, the walls green with damp, the bed of Straw so forlorn and comfortless, the Chain destined to bind me for ever to my prison, and the Reptiles of every description which as the torches advanced towards them, I descried hurrying to their retreats, struck my heart with terrors almost too exquisite for nature to bear.  …  A Lamp glimmering with dull, melancholy rays through my dungeon, permitted my distinguishing all its horrors.

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

Agnes is dragged by the Nuns to the ghastly sepulchre concealed beneath the statue of a saint.

  1. the first person point of view is emotive: Agnes is presented as a helpless victim through the passive verbs (I was hurried … and forced) and the indirect description of what she first sees (An abyss presented itself to me; A Lamp … permitted my distinguishing …)
  2. the sounds are immediately threatening:
    • the negative pre-modification in the noun phrases (a loud crash. The awful sound …)
    • the haunting echo indicated by the verb repeated
  3. the concrete nouns give us visual points of reference: grate, vaults, Caverns, Staircase, walls
  4. synonyms linked to entrapment draw attention to Agnes’ predicament (Cells, prison, dungeon)
  5. modifiers are negative
    • linked to Agnes’ mood: despondent, affrighted
    • linked to the location: melancholy, cold, forlorn, comfortless, 
  6. adverb intensifiers heighten the tone of desolation: so forlorn and comfortless, almost too exquisite
  7. the figurative My blood ran cold is a literary trope – a figure of speech which represents an extreme state of emotion
  8. the list of five long complex noun phrases (The cold vapours …, the walls green with damp, the bed of Straw … the Chain … , and the Reptiles …) forces us to wait for the dynamic verb struck
  9. the plural abstract nouns (terrorshorrors) emphasise the inexplicable and indescribable nature of Agnes’ experience
  10. the light from the lamp (described with the modifiers dull, melancholy) brings no comfort since it reveals the nightmarish world of the vault

Castle Draculamedieval-castles-2

I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone. I could see in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather. … The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!  … Looking out … I felt that I was indeed in prison …   The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable, and great windows were placed here where sling or bow, or culverin could not reach …

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

Jonathan Harker’s first impressions of Dracula’s castle are dominated by references to its scale and location.

  1. the description of the light as dim sets the tone 
  2. the location is extreme:
    • the adverb intensifier very in the prepositional phrase on the very edge of a terrible precipice amplifies the life-threatening nature of the spot
    • the negative connotations of the modifier terrible create an appropriate atmosphere and prepare readers for what is to come
    • the prepositional phrase on the corner of a great rock reinforces our sense of distance – the inaccessibility of the castle is important 
    • the reference to the effect of the elements (much worn by … weather) draws attention to the exposed position of the castle
  3. the scale is vast:
    • the semantic field of adjectives linked to size draws attention to the castle’s immensity (great – repeated three times; large; massive)
    • the adverb massively contributes to this – even the carvings are on a larger-than-life scale
    • the reference to height in the noun phrase a thousand feet reinforces the sense of distance and the castle’s imposing proportions
    • references to the age of the castle (old; much worn by time …) give it a permanence that can be linked to the immortality of its inhabitant
  4. the language of warfare enhances the negative tone
    • the adjective phrase in parenthesis (studded with large iron nails) establishes the defensive nature of the castle
    • the adjective phrase quite impregnable is in an emphatic position after the verb (predicative) to draw attention to the castle’s impenetrability
    • the syndetic list of weapons with repeated conjunctions (sling or bow, or culverin – a forerunner of the musket) suggests the impossibility of storming the defences
  5. the connotations of the noun prison make explicit the danger in which Jonathan Harker finds himself

Carfax Estate


At Purfleet, on a byroad, I came across just such a place as seemed to be required, and where was displayed a dilapidated notice that the place was for sale. It was surrounded by a high wall, of ancient structure, built of heavy stones, and has not been repaired for a large number of years. The closed gates are of heavy old oak and iron, all eaten with rust. … It contains in all some twenty acres, quite surrounded by the solid stone wall … There are many trees … which make it in places gloomy, and there is a deep dark-holed pond or small lake … The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say, to medieval times, for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up and heavily barred with iron. It looks like part of a keep … There are but few houses close at hand, one being a very large house only recently added to and formed into a private lunatic asylum …

Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

The house that Jonathan Harker finds for Count Dracula in England is suitably gothic.

  1. the light is again dim – the adjective gloomy sets the tone
  2. the location is distant from other houses:
    • the quantative noun phrase some twenty acres emphasises its isolation
    • the repeated reference to the perimeter stone wall and the modifying adjectives high, heavy, solid mirror the impregnability of Castle Dracula perched on its precipice
  3. the scale of the house is grand:
    • the adjective phrase very large is in a stressed position after the copular verb is
    • linking it to the medieval times reinforces our sense of its size and its castle-like nature
  4. the references to its defensive qualities reminds us of Castle Dracula
    • the modifiers closed, heavy, oak and iron describing the gates reinforce our sense that this place is inhospitable
    • modifiers describing the walls (immensely thick) and the windows (high up and heavily barred) have negative connotations
    • the parallel drawn between the house and a keep (a fortified tower built within a castle) make the association with conflict more explicit
  5. the lunatic asylum is symbolic of the social outsider – people will stay away from Carfax just as they stay away from the asylum

Monks’ Hall

And now one for you to try!  Read the extract below and try to work out how the writer has used language to describe this Gothic setting.

800px-Ruins_of_Arbroath_Abbey_(18thC)The ruins covered a considerable extent, of ground, but the only part which seemed successfully to have resisted the encroaches of time, at least to a considerable extent, was a long, hall … Adjoining to this hall, were the walls of other parts of the building, and at several places there were small, low, mysterious-looking doors that led, heaven knows where, into some intricacies and labyrinths beneath the building, which no one had, within the memory of man, been content to run the risk of losing himself in. It was related that among these subterranean passages and arches there were pitfalls and pools of water … The place is as silent as the tomb …

There is a dungeon—damp and full of the most unwholesome exhalations—deep under ground it seems, and, in its excavations, it would appear as if some small land springs had been liberated, for the earthen floor was one continued extent of moisture.

From the roof, too, came perpetually the dripping of water, which fell with sullen, startling splashes in the pool below. … That dreadful abode is tenanted. In one corner, on a heap of straw, which appears freshly to have been cast into the place, lies a hopeless prisoner.

Varney, the Vampyre, James Malcolm Rymer (1847)

A challenge …

See if you can create your own Gothic building set in a dramatic landscape  in no more than 250 words using the techniques explored in this post. You will need to think about:

    • the light and colour
    • the location
    • the scale

You will have to use:

    • concrete nouns to develop the physical detail
    • negative adjectives to create the appropriate tone
    • adverb intensifiers to heighten the descriptive detail

You can enhance the effect by adding layers of meaning:

    • personify the building or the landscape
    • develop a semantic field of warfare or conflict
    • create a contrast between the human world of order and the disorder of the natural

Remember to appeal to the senses in order to draw your reader into the place you are creating.

If you send your Gothic descriptions to me (use the ‘Contact’ tab for details), I’ll create a page for the best examples – with analysis of the language features which have made them successful. 


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Introducing the Count …

The extract below is taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written in 1897. It is the entry in Jonathan Harker’s diary written after his first meeting with Count Dracula.

588px-Dracula-jpgHis face was a strong – a very strong – aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion.

The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.

Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they seemed rather white and fine;but seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice they were rather coarse – broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder.  

(Chapter II)

Bram Stoke creates a strong visual image of Dracula here.  The description is designed to alert the reader to key characteristics – but while appearing to tell us a great deal, Stoker reveals very little. He manages to keep his readers guessing.

The adjectives describing Dracula are important:

  1. many are visual, representing physical features (aquilinehigharchedloftybushy, heavyfirm, fine) – they suggest Dracula is a rather distinguished man
  2. some begin to hint at his larger than life presence (massive, pointed)
  3. others characterise his physical strength (strong, broad, squat)

The most important adjectives, however, have negative connotations:

  1. fixed and cruel-looking begin to hint at Dracula’s underlying nature – so far, he has shown himself to be a gracious host, and Harker has no more than a vague sense of unease
  2. long and sharp (Dracula’s nails) and sharp (his teeth) have dramatic significance – though Harker and the reader do not yet recognise this 
  3. repeated references to white and pale, and extraordinary modifying the noun pallor set him apart from humanity
  4. the repetition of the adverb intensifier peculiarly and the adjective remarkable reinforce his difference
  5. opposites (fine/coarsestrong/thin) suggest the Count is a man of contradictions – someone Harker should not trust

Many of the adjectives come before the noun they describe (lofty domed forehead) – we call these attributive adjectives. Others, however, are in a more prominent position after was/were (stative verbs).  We call these predicative adjectives. They are interesting because they have a greater semantic significance when they stand alone. Stoker is implicitly drawing our attention to: 

  1. Dracula’s physical presence (massive, broadstrong)
  2. his pallor (pale, white)
  3. his underlying potential for evil (fixedcruel-lookinglongfine)

The tension between appearance and reality is central. In the beginning, we have to believe Harker’s account; we have to believe that the Count is no more than a foreigner, with unfamiliar customs and habits. In his description of Dracula’s hands, however, Stoker begins to prepare us for an alternative point of view. The stative verb seemed suggests that we cannot trust appearances. It hints at the Count’s potential for deception – his hands betray his true nature.  The image of the hairs in the centre of the palm and Harker’s comment clause Strange to say reinforce the sense that his difference is threatening. And his touch makes Harker shudder.

It is important to remember that while Dracula is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century, contemporary readers will have come to the text with no expectations. Their view of the Count will have been shaped by the limitations of Jonathan Harker’s first person narrative: his blindness will have made them blind. The clues that Stoker builds into this description begin a process of revelation, a process which moves inexorably towards recognition of the Gothic horror of Dracula’s blood-thirst.

(Adapted from Mastering Practical Grammar)

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Interim – the power of a word

Rafael Benitez is unhappy with his title. In a speech after Chelsea had beaten13455754401401239785Manager Between Chair and Middlesbrough 2-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Benitez objected to being called “interim manager”. So why is “interim manager” linguistically and semantically so different from “manager”?

In structure, both are noun phrases, but the pre-modifying adjective “interim” alters our response to the head noun.  This is the power of pre-modification – it affects the way we interpret the noun that follows.

The meaning of the adjective appears to undermine the authoritative connotations of “manager” in this context.  For Benitez, it makes his role seem less important because it suggests that he is only transitional, temporary – a stand-in until someone else (someone better or more suitable?) can be appointed.


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