The Difference between Adjectives and Adverbs
The Basic Rules: Adjectives
Adjectives modify nouns. To modify means to change in some way. For example:
- "I ate a meal." Meal is a noun. We don't know what kind of meal; all we know is that someone ate a meal.
- "I ate an enormous lunch." Lunch is a noun, and enormous is an adjective that modifies it. It tells us what kind of meal the person ate.
Adjectives usually answer one of a few different questions: "What kind?" or "Which?" or "How many?" For example:
- "The tall girl is riding a new bike." Tall tells us which girl we're talking about. New tells us what kind of bike we're talking about.
- "The tough professor gave us the final exam." Tough tells us what kind of professor we're talking about. Final tells us which exam we're talking about.
- "Fifteen students passed the midterm exam; twelve students passed the final exam." Fifteen and twelve both tell us how many students; midterm and final both tell us which exam.
So, generally speaking, adjectives answer the following questions:
- What kind of?
- How many?
The Basic Rules: Adverbs
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. (You can recognize adverbs easily because many of them are formed by adding -ly to an adjective, though that is not always the case.) The most common question that adverbs answer is how.
Let's look at verbs first.
- "She sang beautifully." Beautifully is an adverb that modifies sang. It tells us how she sang.
- "The cellist played carelessly." Carelessly is an adverb that modifies played. It tells us how the cellist played.
Adverbs also modify adjectives and other adverbs.
- "That woman is extremely nice." Nice is an adjective that modifies the noun woman. Extremely is an adverb that modifies nice; it tells us how nice she is. How nice is she? She's extremely nice.
- "It was a terribly hot afternoon." Hot is an adjective that modifies the noun afternoon. Terribly is an adverb that modifies the adjective hot. How hot is it? Terribly hot.
So, generally speaking, adverbs answer the question how. (They can also answer the questions when, where, and why.)
Some other rules:
Most of the time, adjectives come before nouns. However, they come after the nouns they modify, most often when the verb is a form of the following:
- "The dog is black." Black is an adjective that modifies the noun dog, but it comes after the verb. (Remember that "is" is a form of the verb "be.")
- "Brian seems sad." Sad is an adjective that modifies the noun Brian.
- "The milk smells rotten." Rotten is an adjective that modifies the noun milk.
- "The speaker sounds hoarse." Hoarse is an adjective that modifies the noun speaker.
Be sure to understand the differences between the following two examples:
"The dog smells carefully." Here, carefully describes how the dog is smelling. We imagine him sniffing very cautiously.
"The dog smells clean." Here, clean describes the dog itself. It's not that he's smelling clean things or something; it's that he's had a bath and does not stink.
Avoiding Common Errors
- Bad or Badly?
When you want to describe how you feel, you should use an adjective So you'd say, "I feel bad." Saying "I feel badly" would be like saying you play football badly. "I feel badly" would mean that you are unable to feel, as though your hands were numb. Here are some other examples:
- "The dog smells badly." Here, badly means that the dog does not do a good job of smelling.
- "The dog smells bad." Here, "bad" means that dog needs a bath.
N.B. Sometimes people say "I feel badly" when they feel that they have done something wrong. Let's say you dropped your friend's favorite dish, and it broke into a million pieces. You might say, "I feel really badly about what happened."
- Good or Well?
Good is an adjective, so you do not do good or live good, but you do well and live well. Remember, though, that an adjective follows sense-verbs and be-verbs, so you also feel good, look good, smell good, are good, have been good, etc. So:
"My mother looks good." This does not mean that she has good eyesight; it means that she appears healthy.
"I feel really good today." Again, this does not mean that I touch things successfully. It means rather that I am happy or healthy.
N.B. Many people confuse this distinction in conversation, and that's okay. You will hear people say, "I feel well" when they mean that they feel good. However, if you're talking about action verbs, you'd say "well." "I did well on my exam." "She plays tennis well."
- Sure or Surely?
Sure is an adjective, and surely is an adverb. For example:
- "He is sure about his answer." Sure describes he.
- "The Senator spoke out surely." Here, surely describes how the senator spoke.
N.B. Surely can also be used as a sentence-adverb. For example, "Surely, you're joking." Here, surely describes the entire sentence "you're joking." The sentence more or less means, "You must be joking."
- Near or Nearly?
Near can function as a verb, adverb, adjective, or preposition. Nearly is used as an adverb to mean "in a close manner" or "almost but not quite." Here are some examples that demonstrate the differences between various uses of near and nearly.
- "I'll be seeing you in the near future." Here, near describes the noun "future."
- "The cat crept near." Near is an adverb that describes where the cat crept.
- "Don't worry; we're nearly there." Here, nearly describes how close we are.
Near can also be used as a verb and a preposition.
- "My graduation neared." Here, neared is the verb of the sentence.
- "I want the couch near the window." Near is a preposition at the head of the phrase "near the window."