What is a proper adjective?
Proper adjectives, like all adjectives, modify nouns, but they are different from other adjectives because they are actually formed from proper nouns.
A noun, we know, is a person, place, or thing. We can distinguish between two types of nouns: common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns are general, such as man, street, and city. James, Canning Street, and Paris are all proper nouns, because they talk about specific people, places, or things. “James” is a specific man, “Canning Street” is a specific street, and “Paris” is a specific city. Proper nouns are always written with a capital letter in English.
Proper adjectives are formed from these proper nouns, and they are also capitalized. They are often made from the names of cities, countries, or regions to describe where something comes from, but they can also be formed from the names of religions, brands, or even individuals. Some examples will make this clear:
I love Italian food.
How much does this Chinese robe cost?
In Europe, you can visit many ancient Christian churches.
He writes in an almost Shakespearean style.
I’m really excited to use my new Canon camera.
Why We Use Proper Adjectives
We use proper adjectives to describe something efficiently, directly, and explicitly. We could manage to avoid them, but it would result in clunky, awkward sentences. If we want to express the same meaning as the example sentences from the table above, we could write:
- “I love food that comes from Italy.”
- “How much does this robe that comes from China cost?”
- “In Europe, you can visit many ancient churches of the religion that worships Christ.”
- “He writes almost in the style of the writer Shakespeare.”
- “I’m really excited to use my new camera from the Canon brand.”
These sentences are lengthy, awkward, and choppy to read. Using the proper adjectives Italian, Chinese, Christian, Shakespearean, and Canon makes our meaning come across much more smoothly.
Proper adjectives are often used in an academic or artistic context, when the speaker (or writer) is addressing an audience of his or her peers and knows that they will quickly understand the reference. For example, the sentence “He writes in an almost Shakespearean style” would frequently be used among scholars of English literature. You would want to avoid the term Shakespearean if you were addressing a group of young students who had not yet heard of the author. Likewise, a group of architects or historians may refer to a “Romanesque building,” while we would want to avoid that term if we were addressing a group that lacks background knowledge in historical architecture.
How to Form Proper Adjectives
A proper adjective is usually formed by adding an ending to the noun that it is derived from. There is not an easy rule to memorize for which ending to use. If you’re not sure, you can try some of the most common endings—-ian, -an, -esque, -like, and -istic—and see which sounds right.
Proper Adjectives for Countries, Cities, and Regions
Many proper adjectives are formed from the names of countries to describe where a person, place, or thing is from. We have seen some examples already. The most common endings for nationalities are -ian/-ean/-an, -ic, ese, and -ish. The reason that English has so many endings for different nationalities is that we borrowed them from other languages. We borrowed the -ian, -ean, -an from Latin, -ic also from Latin but via Germanic languages, -ese from Italian, and -i from Arabic. The native Germanic suffix is -ish, which English has only kept for only a small number of nationalities.
Here are some of the most common proper adjectives for countries:
Proper adjectives can also describe what city or state/province something or someone comes from. Often, these are formed without an additional ending. For example:
- “Let’s have a New York bagel for breakfast.”
- “She has a real London etiquette.”
Other proper adjectives are formed by adding an ending to the name of the city or state, but it’s impossible to learn them all. They’re very irregular. You may find it useful to learn the endings for the most famous cities of the world, or the places around where you live. Some examples of well-known proper adjectives for cities or states are:
- “I will never be able to keep up with Parisian fashion.”
- “There is nothing better than Alaskan smoked salmon.”
Finally, we also have proper adjectives for general geographic regions. For example:
- “An African elephant.”
- “An Asian person.”
- “A European museum.”
- “A South American blanket.”
- “A Middle Eastern film.”
A Few More Notes
Sometimes, a word that began as a proper adjective can lose its “proper” significance over time. In these cases, the word is no longer capitalized. Take the following sentence:
- “He was making quixotic mistakes.”
Quixotic was a proper adjective derived from the name Don Quixote, a fictional character who was prone to foolish, grandiose behavior. Through time, it has come to mean “foolish” in its own right, without necessarily pointing to the character of Don Quixote. Therefore, it has lost its capitalization.
Another example of this phenomenon is the word gargantuan. Once associated with the name of a giant in a 16th-century book, it has come to mean “huge” in daily use. Since losing its link with the fictional monster, it is no longer capitalized.
- “The couple purchased the house next door and built a gargantuan house.”
On the other hand, there are some common nouns that can act as proper nouns in specific cases and need to be capitalized. For example, the adjective native would normally be considered a common noun, as in the sentence “I want to practice Spanish with a native speaker.” Consider the word native in the following sentence, though:
- “The indigenous people of Canada and the United States are commonly referred to as Native Americans.”
In this sentence, Native acts as a proper adjective because it describes a specific group of people, just like Italian or French.
When a proper adjective needs a prefix, make sure to place a hyphen between the prefix and the proper adjective. Don’t capitalize the prefix, though. For example:
- “He was accused of stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment.”
- “I love studying pre-Shakespearean theater.”
The exception to this rule is if the prefix is formed from a proper noun itself, as in the “Austro-Hungarian empire.” In this example, both Hungarian and its prefix Austro are derived from proper nouns (Hungary and Austria), so they are both capitalized.
Lastly, while proper adjectives are generally placed before the noun they modify, most can also be placed after the noun, provided that there is also a linking verb before them. For example, all of the following sentences are correct:
- “The winning team was Spanish.
- “The man over there is Italian.”
- “The monks in this monastery are Buddhist.”