Introduction to Adjectives and Adverbs
Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns; adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
Distinguish between adjectives and adverbs
- Adjectives describe, quantify, or identify pronouns and nouns.
- Adjectives typically answer the questions how many?; How much?; What kind?; or Which one?
modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
- Adverbs commonly describe how, when, or where the action of a verb took place.
- adjectives: A part of speech that describes, quantifies, or identifies a noun or pronoun.
- adverb: A part of speech that describes, quantifies, or identifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Have you ever seen a photo of the Great Wall of China? It’s simply enormous. It’s incredibly long, snaking its stony way across the mountains and valleys of Asia, with beautiful towers standing tall every couple of hundred feet. But without modifiers, “the Great Wall” would simply be “the Wall.” We need adverbs and adjectives in order to be descriptive in our writing.
Adjectives, like “great,” “enormous,” “stony,” “long,” and “beautiful,” modify nouns and pronouns. Adverbs, like “simply” and “incredibly,” modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
Descriptive words can significantly improve your writing. They enhance the quality of information you provide, making your work more precise. However, you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with unnecessary or excessive description. Try to strike a balance.
Adjectives describe, quantify, or identify pronouns and nouns. Remember, a noun is a person, place, or thing. Pronouns, such as I, me, we, he, she, it, you, and they, take the place of nouns. Adjectives also answer the following questions: What kind? How many? How much? Which one?
Descriptions concerning What kind? offer descriptive details about the noun or pronoun. It may describe physical characteristics or emotions. Here are a few examples: the black car, the angry customer, the fashionable teen.
The questions How many? and How much? refer to quantity of the noun or pronoun being described by the adjective. Quantity can be specific (four ducks) or general (some ducks). Here are some more examples: fourteen cents, a few puppies, several kittens, a dozen books.
Which one? specifically describes which object is being referred to. These are workhorse words like “this,” “that,” “these,” and other words like “them”: that car, this letter, those volunteers.
Adjectives are helpful when additional description is needed for a noun or pronoun. Like adjectives, adverbs can also help add details to your writing.
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They commonly describe how, when, or where the action of a verb took place. How refers to the manner in which an action occurred. When addresses the time of the action. Where investigates the place or location the action took place. Here are some examples:
- The boys ran loudly down the stairs. [How did the boys run? Loudly.]
- We went down later. [When did we go? Later.]
- He delivered pizza locally. [Where did he deliver? Locally.]
Adverbs can also be used to modify adjectives and other adverbs.
- The train leaves at a reasonably early hour. [The adverb reasonably modifies the adjective early.]
- She spoke quite passionately about politics. [The adverb quite modifies the adverb passionately.]
Which Should You Use: Adjectives or Adverbs?
Writers often have a choice in wording a sentence to use either an adjective or an adverb:
- Adjective: We had a quick lunch.
- Adverb: We ate lunch quickly.
So, how do you choose when to use an adjective and when to use an adverb? One way to choose is simply to figure out whether the word you want to modify is a noun or a verb. In the first sentence, you are describing the lunch; in the second sentence, you are describing the manner of eating.
A better approach, though, is not to think about the words you could modify but the information you want to convey. You do not need to describe every noun or verb—just the ones whose details are important to the sentence. If you want to emphasize the meal, you would pick the first sentence; if you want to emphasize the act of eating, you would pick the second.
Remember, adjectives and adverbs can be separated by which types of information they provide. Think about the details that are necessary to include, and then choose your modifiers accordingly.
Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.
- Adjectives are used to describe, quantify, or identify pronouns and nouns.
- They answer these questions: What kind? How many? How much? Which one?
- Compound adjectives are used when two adjectives are needed to describe a noun.
- Adjectives can be used to compare two different things.
- adjective: A word that modifies a noun or pronoun.
- compound adjective: One word formed with two hyphenated words and used to describe a noun.
Adjectives describe, quantify, or identify pronouns and nouns. They also answer the following questions: What kind? How many? How much? Which one?
Descriptions about “What kind?” add detail about the qualities of the noun or pronoun being described. This ranges from details regarding physical characteristics to emotional states. Here are some examples: the yellow dress, the sad clown, the smart pupil.
Descriptions answering “How many?” and “How much?” specify the amount of whatever noun or pronoun you are modifying. Quantifying adjectives can be specific (ten candles, three hundred pages) or general (several minutes, a few people, some candy).
Descriptions answering “Which one?” confirm exactly which object the writer is referring to. Examples include phrases such as “that novel,” “this writer,” or “those students.” Most adjectives that serve this purpose are called determiners or demonstrative pronouns.
In some situations, two adjectives may be used to describe a noun. Sometimes these two adjectives remain separate, as two distinctive words describing the noun. But other times, the adjectives combine to become one adjective joined by a hyphen.
- The phrase a heavy metal detector refers to a metal detector that is heavy in weight. Heavy and metal are separate adjectives describing the detector in this situation.
- The phrase a heavy-metal detector refers to a detector of heavy metals. Heavy-metal is the compound adjective describing the detector.
As you can see, the hyphen completely changes the meaning of the phrase by combining two words into one. Here’s another example:
- The phrase man eating shark refers to a man who is eating a shark.
- The phrase man-eating shark refers to a shark that eats men.
Adjectives for Comparison
Adjectives are also used to compare items:
- This year’s graduating class was smaller than last year’s class.
- This book is the best one we’ve read so far.
The standard form for using adjectives for comparison is to add -er to the end of an adjective being used to compare two items (brighter, cooler) and -est to the end of an adjective used to compare more than two items (brightest, coolest). However, some adjectives—for example, ones that are three or more syllables—like beautiful are changed to say “more beautiful” and “most beautiful” rather than adding these endings.
Pronouns as Adjectives
Sometimes, pronouns can be used as adjectives. In addition to demonstrative pronouns, possessive pronouns like “his” or “their” can also identify specific objects within a set. For example:
- Which car should we drive? We should drive her car.
- Whose house is closest? Your house is closest.
Prepositional Phrases as Adjectival Phrases
Prepositional phrases can act as adjectives, normally modifying the noun that precedes them.
- Which books should we read? The books on the curriculum.
- Whose stories did we listen to in class? Those of the teacher.
Lastly, in addition to single words, you can use adjectival phrases. These are phrases that begin with an adjective but then have a noun that adds further detail, such as “full of toys” instead of just “full.” They are most frequently used as a modifier placed right after a noun or as a predicate to a verb. For example, you could say “The child loved his bin full of toys,” or “That bin is full of toys.”
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
- An adverb is used to modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
- Adverbs answer these questions: When did something happen? How often did it occur? How was the action performed? Where did it take place?
- Sometimes, adverbs and adjectives are hyphenated to better describe a noun.
- adverb: A part of speech which modifies verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Just as adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. How slimy was that swamp? Extremely slimy. How did she run? She ran quickly. How quickly did she run? Very quickly.
Adverbs are used to answer how, when, and where an action took place. More specifically, consider: When did something happen? How often did it occur? How was the action performed? Where did it take place? Let’s explore some examples:
- Describing when: The last time I went shopping was a while ago.
- Describing how often: I visit my friends frequently.
- Describing how: He ran quickly in the race.
- Describing where: She sat down nearby.
Many adjectives can be made into adverbs simply by adding -ly to the end. However, there are other adverbs that do not end in -ly: very, quite, somewhat, most, least, and many others.
Prepositional Phrases as Adverbs
You can use prepositional phrases as adverbs if they modify a verb, adjective, or adverb. For example:
- Don’t judge a book by its cover. [The phrase “by its cover” describes the verb “judge.”]
- I am tired of this diet. [“Of this diet” describes the adjective “tired.”]
The Hyphenated Adverb
Hyphens can be used to combine an adverb and adjective to describe a noun. In this situation, the adverb is describing the adjective, and the adjective is describing the noun. However, when the adverb ends with -ly, a hyphen should not be used. Let’s review some examples.
- beautiful-looking flowers
- best-known author
- well-rounded student
- best-paid job
If the hyphen was removed from any of these examples the phrase would take on a different meaning. For example, “best-known author” describes the author who is known the best, whereas “best known author” would describe an author who is, separately, both best and known. The hyphen is what makes sure that “best” describes “known” rather than “author.”
Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
A modifier is a word or group of words that describes another word or group of words.
Identify incorrectly used modifiers
- A modifier is a word or phrase that describes, limits, or qualifies another word.
- Adjectives and adverbs are two types of modifiers as they are used to describe other words.
- It is important to use modifiers correctly so readers understand your intended meaning.
- Incorrect modifiers come in the form of dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, and squinting modifiers.
- The best way to fix an incorrect modifier is to restructure the sentence.
- misplaced modifier: Occurs when it is unclear what word or words a modifier is referencing.
- modifier: A word or phrase that describes, limits, or qualifies the sense of another word or phrase.
- squinting modifier: A word that is placed right next to the word it refers to, but is also near another word that it might be modifying.
- dangling modifier: An error in the sentence in which a modifier is associated with a word or phrase that it is not supposed to describe.
A modifier is a word or phrase that describes another word or phrase. Two common types of modifiers are the adverb (a word that describes an adjective, a verb, or another adverb) and the adjective (a word that describes a noun or pronoun). However, though all adjectives and adverbs are modifiers, not all modifiers are adjectives and adverbs. Many modifiers are entire phrases. For example:
- Responsible for representing students to the faculty and overseeing student organizations, the Student Council plays an important role in campus life.
The modifying phrase (in italics) provides additional information about the subject of the sentence: the Student Council.
Clarity with Modifiers
Above all, it should always be clear to the reader which word an adjective, adverb, or modifying phrase is describing. By paying attention to placement and making sure that if you want to modify a verb you use an adverb instead of an adjective, you will make it much easier for your reader to pick up on your intended meaning. In situations where modifiers are used incorrectly, the result is a dangling modifier, a misplaced modifier, or a squinting modifier.
A dangling modifier occurs when the modifying phrase is too far away from the word it is supposed to describe. As a result, the modifier appears to refer to something else, causing confusion for the reader. Dangling modifiers can be corrected by restructuring the sentence. For example:
- Dangling: Covering most of Minnesota, the illustration showed the glacier created thousands of lakes. [This phrasing makes it seem like the illustration covers most of Minnesota!]
- Corrected: Covering most of Minnesota, the glacier created thousands of lakes, as depicted on the illustration. [Here, the modifying phrase clearly refers to glacier as it is intended.]
- Dangling: Walking across the desert, fierce winds swirled around the riders. [Here, the dangling modifier makes it seem like the winds are walking across the desert!]
- Corrected: Fierce winds swirled around the riders as they walked across the desert. [The sentence has been rephrased so that the riders are the ones walking across the desert.]
- Dangling: Strolling through the park, the squirrels scampered across our feet. [This dangling modifier makes it sound like the squirrels are enjoying a nice stroll in the park!]
- Corrected: As we strolled through the park, squirrels scampered across our feet. [The sentence has been clarified so that the speaker and his companion are the ones who are strolling.]
Similar to a dangling modifier, a misplaced modifier occurs when it is unclear what word(s) the modifier is referencing. Most misplaced modifiers can be corrected by placing the modifying phrase next to the subject it refers to. For example:
- Misplaced: Erik couldn’t ride his bicycle with a broken leg. [Here, it sounds like the bicycle has a broken leg!]
- Corrected: With his broken leg, Eric couldn’t ride his bike. [Now that the modifier is in the right place, the sentence makes it clear that Eric is the one with a broken leg.]
- Misplaced: The little girl walked the dog wearing a tutu. [Is she walking a dog that is wearing a tutu?]
- Corrected: Still wearing a tutu, the little girl walked the dog. [No, the young lady is the one in the tutu!]
A squinting modifier is a modifier that is placed right next to the word it refers to, but is also near another word that it might be modifying. This can also be corrected by restructuring the sentence. For example:
A Great Exercise
- Squinting: Cycling uphill quickly strengthens the leg muscles. [Here, “quickly” could modify either “cycling uphill” or “strengthens the leg muscles.”]
- Corrected: Quickly cycling uphill strengthens the leg muscles. [Now it’s clear that it’s the cycling that has to be quick!]
Peter, I’m Sure We Could Find You a Chair
- Misplaced: Peter ate the pie sitting on the windowsill. [Is Peter sitting on a windowsill or is the pie?]
- Corrected: Peter ate the pie that was sitting on the windowsill. [It was the pie.]