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Adjectives modify nouns, and using an adjective is one way of clarifying or specifying exactly what is meant. For example, a student who is trying to advise a classmate to take a required course with a specific instructor might tell the friend to enroll in the class taught by the bearded professor. If every professor in the department has a beard, however, it’s more efficient to use a negative adjective in a description, or a professor who is lacking a beard. A negative adjective simply offers the opposite position as a positive adjective and can be formed in a number of ways.
The most verbally efficient way to form a negative adjective is by locating an antonym for the positive position. In the above example, that would mean the student would send the friend in search of a beardless professor. A great many, although by no means all, English adjectives have antonyms; for example, short is the opposite of tall, thin of fat, rude of polite, and so on. A great many adjectival antonyms, or negative adjectives, are obvious and are learned at the earlier stages of language acquisition. In other cases, the differences can be more subtle; for example, delicate is a negative adjective to both healthy and stout.
Other negative adjectives can be formed almost as efficiently by simply preceding the adjective with a prefix. In English, dis, un, and mis, all mean opposite, along with anti and im. Thus, someone who is disinclined to agree is someone who doesn’t agree, and if you are unhappy, you have had better days. Misinformed means to have the wrong information, and imperfect is simply a way of saying not perfect. An anti-inflammatory medication is taken to work against inflammation.
A negative adjective can also be created by inserting the word not before the adjective. This can be done if no antonym is available or, more often, for emphasis. A mother who finds her children have created a mess might inform them that she is not happy because it has more emotional weight that the nearly identical phrase, unhappy. A job applicant who feels certain a job will be offered is likely to tell friends that he or she is not worried because none of the antonyms, which include fearless, intrepid, or undaunted, sound right.
Yet another way to form a negative adjective is by using comparative language. More, most, less, and least temper the adjective’s original meaning. An attentive boyfriend who is beginning to lose interest becomes less attentive, while one who is determined to win his sweetheart becomes more attentive.