Adjectives and Adverbs


Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers. These two parts of speech make descriptive writing possible. They modify a word by adding or emphasizing information. We group adjectives and adverbs because they add meaning to sentences in similar manners.

Adjective (adj.)

An adjective describes a noun or pronoun by answering which, what kind, or how many. Adjectives frequently refer to color, shape, size, origins, or type.

He saw a ____________ gadzook.

He saw a… blue, fat, tall, ugly, rare… gadzook.

Comparative Forms

Adjectives have three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative.

Positive

The positive degree is the standard form of the adjective. The positive adjective degree describes one noun or pronoun. Because this is grammar, the positive form can be a negative description. The important thing to remember is that the positive form describes one noun or pronoun without comparing it to other items.

John is a tall man.

The red car won the race.

Mary is a successful writer.

Comparative

The comparative compares two nouns or pronouns. Adding the suffix -er to the positive degree adjective forms most one or two-syllable comparatives. Some multi-syllable adjectives require either more or less for their comparative forms. As usual, there are irregular forms. Writers use comparative forms to give readers points of reference, often through figurative speech.

John is taller than Roger.

The red car is faster than mine.

Mary is more successful than Amy.

Superlative

A superlative compares one noun or pronoun to any number of others. One or two-syllable superlatives are usually formed by adding -est as a suffix. Multi-syllable superlatives use either most or least.

John is the tallest man in the room.

The red car is the fastest design ever.

Mary is the most successful writer in our town.

Common Adjective Suffixes

The following table lists common adjective suffixes. The adjective suffixes can be used to determine the meaning of some adjectives. For example, -less means “lacking or without,” so a humorless person lacks a sense of humor. Because suffixes alter many words, it is important to know their meanings. See our English root word list.

able/ible
al
an
ant
ary
ed
en
ent
ern
esque
ful
ic
ile
ish
ive
less
ose
ous
some
y

Limiting Adjectives

When a word helps clarify which one or how many of a noun is being discussed in a sentence, the word is often a limiting adjective, also known as a delimiter. Many of these combinations are common doubles, meaning one part of speech acting as another. There are six major forms of limiting adjectives:

  • Articles — The common words a, an, and the.
  • Numerical — An implied number appearing before a noun or pronoun. There are several items in the list.
  • Demonstrative — Pronouns acting as adjectives. This book is great.
  • Possessive — Similar to demonstrative adjectives, but possessive pronouns. This is my book.
  • Indefinite — An identifier than lacks specificity. Bring me any book.
  • Interrogative — A word requesting identification. Do you know which book fell?

Many newer texts have dropped discussions of delimiters, but continue to discuss their functions as roles for adjectives. Grouped together or not in a grammar text, limiting adjectives are an important part of writing clearly.

Articles

Articles define which noun. There are three articles: the, a, and an. The is a definite article referring to one noun. A and an are indefinite articles, meaning they do not specify a particular subject or object.

Demonstrative Adjectives

We could write, “See demonstrative pronouns,” but that wouldn’t be nice. Then again, who said we were nice? The demonstrative adjectives are the demonstrative pronouns. We suggest using them as adjectives, which improves readability.

this
that
these
those

Common and Proper Adjectives

Common and proper adjectives are similar to their noun relatives. In fact, proper adjectives are the children of proper nouns and are capitalized in the same manner.

Often, adding an “n” sound to the end of a proper noun forms the proper adjective.

I am a proud Californian.

Adjective Position

Adjectives are placed in three positions. An adjective usually appears before the noun it modifies. Some sentences feature a predicate adjective, which describes a noun or pronoun.

  • Normal Position: adjective noun
  • Predicate Position: subject verb adjective
  • Appositive Position: noun, appositive, verb

Using Adjectives

Writers should avoid extra adjectives. We think they serve a purpose, but many writers use adjectives liberally. Let your nouns carry the burden, saving adjectives for moments when emphasis is appropriate.

Omit adjectives if the noun implies the meaning.

The frozen snow chilled her to the bone.

The snow chilled her to the bone.

Reserve emotional adjectives for people, unless personification adds substantial meaning to the passage. Using figurative language sparingly increases effectiveness when it is used.

The wicked wind destroyed the house.

The wind destroyed the house.

Replace adjective-noun unions with a single precise noun.

Preceding the hurricane, heavy rain flooded streets.

Preceding the hurricane, a downpour flooded the streets.

Adverb (adv.)

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs by answering when, where, how, how much, or how often. Adverbs indicate the manner and degree of an action. Look for words that explain the action in a sentence.

Many adverbs end in -ly, -ward, -long, and -wise.

Pete walked quickly to his car.

How did Pete walk? He walked quickly.

How Adverbs Modify

Adverbs modify parts of speech in different manners.

Adverbs and Verbs

Adverbs modify verbs by indicating the manner, time, frequency, location, or degree of an action.

The royalty checks were late.

Books printed by hand are bound beautifully.

She wrote the poems there by the lake.

Adverbs and Adjectives

When an adverb modifies an adjective, it usually indicates the degree to which the adjective applies to the noun or pronoun the adjective modifies. We admit the chain can be confusing, so consider an example:

The author is old.

The author is very old.

The adverb very modifies the adjective old. The adjective modifies the noun author. While it lacks clarity, very describes the degree to which the author is old. We suggest using precise measurements when possible.

Adverbs Together

When adverbs appear together, the adverb modifying the other usually specifies the degree or frequency of the primary adverb.

She writes quite quickly.

He is usually late.

Comparative Forms

No, you aren’t rereading the section on adjectives. Adverbs also have comparative forms. Adverbs have three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative.

Forming comparative and superlative adverbs follows the same rules as for adjectives, so we won’t repeat those. Comparative adverbs compare actions or states of being. Comparative adverbs act as adjectives by describing a noun.

I read slowly.

She reads slower than I do.

He reads slowest of all.

In the above examples, the adverbs modify the verb read. The comparative acts like a predicate adjective:

I am a slow reader.

Slow reader describes me, both in the example and in reality. The adjective slow modifies the noun reader.

Positive-ly

Many adverbs in the positive degree are formed by adding -ly to adjectives. It is easy to confuse the related adjectives and adverbs, and some English teachers cannot tell which is correct at times.

Please, drive slow.

Though slow is acceptable to some, this revision is better:

Please, drive slowly.

Slowly is a manner of acting. You might own a slow car, but even a Porsche 911 can be driven slowly. The adjective cautious and adverb cautiously illustrate the concept better.

Please, drive cautious.

Correct:

Please, drive cautiously.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs join phrases or clauses to indicate when, how, or to what degree an action occurred. Conjunctive adverbs are not conjunctions.

accordingly
again
also
besides
consequently
finally
for example
furthermore
however
indeed
moreover
nevertheless
otherwise
therefore
then

Using Adverbs

Avoid using too many adverbs, especially those lacking clarity. Adverbs of time or frequency are the exceptions to this advice; daily is better than every day. (There is irony in this paragraph.)

If an adverb implies the same meaning as the verb, omit the adverb. We understand an adverb can emphasize the meaning of a verb, so this is a subjective edit. It might be necessary to replace the verb with a stronger verb before removing the adverb.

He snickered derisively.

He snickered.

Three Common Adverbs

The three most common adverbs in English are: not, very, and too. We suggest writers avoid all three, but sometimes no other words will do.

Avoid Adjective-Adverb Confusion

One of the common problems we see is the use of an adjective when an adverb is proper. Here are some examples:

This was a real good book.

Edited:

This was a really good book.


It rained awful hard.

Edited:

It rained awfully hard.


Sources

Scholastic Writer’s Desk Reference. New York: Scholastic, 2000. (ISBN: 0439216508)

Christ, Henry I. Modern English in Action, Ten. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co, 1965.

Ellsworth, Blanche and John A. Higgens. English Simplified. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004. (ISBN: 0321104293)

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. (ISBN: 0312247567)

Hacker, Diana. Pocket Style Manual. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 2004. (ISBN: 0312406843)

Mulvey, Dan. Grammar the Easy Way. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron's, 2002. (ISBN: 0764119893)

Rozakis, Laurie E. Grammar and Style. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to. New York: Simon & Schuster, Alpha Books, 1997. (ISBN: 0028619560)

Shertzer, Margaret. The Elements of Grammar. New York: MacMillian Publishing, 1986. (ISBN: 0020154402)

Strunk, William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1959. Reprint 1979. (ISBN: 0024182001)



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 27-May-2014
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach