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What is the technical term to describe adjectives like fast, long, strong that are used to describe a particular property of an object in relation to another object's?

Here is an example.

Let's say I have a 20-centimetre ruler.

  1. I can say,

    This ruler is short.

    as I compare it to a 1-meter ruler.

  2. Or I can give the opposite statement as I compare it to my pen:

    This ruler is long.

Both statements make sense. Whether it is short or long depends on what I am comparing it to.

(Edit: counterexamples would be Christian, gravitational, electromagnetic, cosmic, cosmological. These are adjectives, too. And I don't think they fit into the category.)

So what is this type of adjectives technically called?

I've come up with the phrase 'relative term', but after a check with Wikipedia, it doesn't seem to be the technical term I am looking for.

A relative term is a term that makes two or more distinct references to objects (which may be the same object, for example in "The Morning Star is the Evening Star"). A relative term is typically expressed in ordinary language by means of a phrase with explicit or implicit blanks. Examples:
__ loves __
__ is the same object as __
__ is giver of __ to __.

The word is is a relative term when it expresses identity. The colloquial meaning for a relative term is that > it is different for different people. An example: someone who is 5 feet tall might think someone who is 6 feet tall is tall, but someone who is 5 feet 5 inches would think that someone who is 6 feet 5 inches is tall.

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"Relative term" seems to me like exactly the phrase that you want. Can you clarify why you think it's not the right answer? –  user16269 Jul 28 '12 at 12:20
    
@David: it is indeed the right answer; see my answer. –  Peter Shor Jul 28 '12 at 13:52
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6 Answers 6

up vote -1 down vote accepted

The Adjectives article in wikipedia mentions four kinds of use of adjectives; see the article for details, but (in brief) it refers to Attributive adjectives, Predicative adjectives, Absolute adjectives, and Nominal adjectives. In your example "This ruler is long", long is being used as a nominal adjective, in spite of being a relative term. Note, your question presupposes the adjectives in the examples are relative terms; that there is another object being compared to; but often the comparison is to a fixed set of things, and within that framework the comparison is absolute rather than relative.

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No, in "this ruler is long", "long" is a predicative adjective. In a later section, the same Wikipedia article says the kind of adjectives the OP is asking about are called comparable or gradable. –  Peter Shor Jan 12 '13 at 6:43
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As has been pointed out, most if not all adjectives presuppose a reference system whereby their appropriateness in describing a referent is judged.

Sometimes, this will call for a subjective decision - where does green end and yellow begin?

Classifying and 'singling out' adjectives such as chemical, unique, solar are inherently ungradable, but may still be contrasted with adjectives referring to related classes (physical; lunar).

Those terms which apply to a referent when viewed in one reference system, but not when viewed in others (such as short / long above) are context-dependent - a descriptor hardly confined to grammar, but very appropriate.

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I guess you're thinking of a grammatical unit native to another language. I imagine some other languages can have a particular term.

But in English, the words that you cited are all just classified as "adjectives."

Relative properties start when we employ comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. But they're already different from what you want to identify. For example, faster, longer, stronger etc.


Words that you might find helpful are:

attribute 

property 

But I have to tell you that they're not really limited to grammar terminology.

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+1 Yes, you are correct. In my language there is a precise term to define these words. –  user19148 Jul 28 '12 at 12:52
    
In English, I think you can make any adjective into a relative adjective, even ones which you logically shouldn't be able to. Consider the grammatical arguments about more perfect, more unique, more just, more dead (although note this last one isn't deader, which it should be if it followed the rules since dead is one-syllable). –  Peter Shor Jul 28 '12 at 13:32
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There has been an argument among English prescriptive grammarians about whether you should be able to use comparatives on adjectives like perfect, just, dead, unique. It seems that logically, they shouldn't be able to take comparatives1, but English speakers persist in using more perfect, more just and juster nevertheless. Googling this set of adjectives, you find that they have been called absolute or ungradable. Adjectives not in this set would then be relative or gradable.

Since English speakers go ahead and apply comparatives to all adjectives, it isn't clear that this is a real grammatical class in English.

1 If something isn't perfect, it has to be imperfect, so it can't be less perfect. Similarly, unique means there is only one of them. If there are two, it's no longer unique. And someone is either dead or alive; how can one person be more dead than another?

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deader than a doornail –  tchrist Jul 28 '12 at 15:01
    
It is not true that all adjectives are gradable. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 28 '12 at 16:21
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@Edwin: I would say that in English, gradable is not a grammatical class, but maybe a logical class. Nobody says pink justice, but that's because the concept doesn't make sense, and not because of any grammatical rule that pink cannot modify justice. There's no grammatical rule that color adjectives cannot modify abstract nouns. Similarly, nobody may say more igneous, but that's because the concept doesn't make sense, not because more igneous is an ungrammatical construction. –  Peter Shor Jul 28 '12 at 16:35
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@Edwin: I agree, although I don't think you chose the right examples; "more chemical" can occur naturally. In fact, found on the web: "... or do you think that addiction is really more chemical in nature?" –  Peter Shor Jul 28 '12 at 16:44
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I'd say that "more" in "more chemical" in the example you give is part of an elision, say from "controlled more by chemical factors than by psychological ones", rather than a true modifier of the adjective (contrast "more violent"). This would follow the models 'fairer society' (society closer to being a fair one) and 'fairly unique' (fairly close to being unique). I consider elisions 1 and 3 here poor renderings; I suppose 'fairer society' is snappy and now accepted. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 28 '12 at 16:59
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It sounds like you’re looking for scalar, i.e., those adjectives that appeal to a conventionalized scale of measurement. (The linguistics literature notes that ad hoc scales can be improvized for most adjectives; hence, the qualification “conventionalized”.)

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Scalar incidentally refers to quantities that have 'only magnitude, not direction'., cf. vector; 'of or relating to a musical scale'; 'a variable quantity that cannot be resolved into components'. –  Kris Jan 12 '13 at 4:48
    
@Kris Scalar also has another meaning: ladderlike in arrangement or organization; graduated (Webster's) (though I also wish it hadn't). –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 10 '13 at 11:02
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Modifiers of measurement/ dimension adjectives
small, large, short, long, old, new, cold, hot,

The long hot Japanese summer
- - -length- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - -temperature- - - - - - - -

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