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The Difference between Adjectives and Adverbs

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The Basic Rules: Adjectives

Adjectives modify nouns. By modifying, adjectives give a more detailed sense of the noun. For example:

  • "I ate a meal." Meal is a noun. The reader does not know what kind of meal this is, leaving a lot of room open for interpretation.
  • "I ate an enormous meal." Meal is a noun, and enormous is an adjective that modifies it. It tells us what kind of meal the person ate. By using adjectives, the writer gives the reader a better understanding of the noun.

Adjectives clarify the noun by answering one of the following different questions: "What kind?" or "Which?" or "How many?" For example:

  • "The tall girl is riding her bike." Tall tells the reader which girl the writer is talking about.
  • “Our old van needs to be replaced soon.” Old tells the reader what kind of van the writer is describing.
  • "The tough professor gave us the final exam." Tough tells the reader what kind of professor the writer is talking about. Final tells us which exam.
  • "Fifteen students passed the midterm exam; twelve students passed the final exam." Fifteen and twelve both tell the reader how many students; midterm and final both tell the reader which exam.

Adjectives cannot modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

  • The sentence, She ate her lunch quick, does not make sense.
  • The correct sentence should say, She ate her lunch quickly, because the adverb, quickly, modifies the verb, ate. How did she eat? Quickly.
  • She ate the quick lunch. In this case, quick modifies the noun, lunch. What kind of lunch was it? A quick lunch.

So, generally speaking, adjectives answer the following questions:

  • Which?
  • What kind of?
  • How many?

Some Other Rules for Adjectives

Most of the time, adjectives come before nouns. However, some adjectives actually come after the nouns they modify. An adjective follows a sense verb or verb of appearance when it modifies the noun before the verb. These adjectives will most often follow a verb form of the following:

  • be
  • feel
  • taste
  • smell
  • sound
  • look
  • appear
  • seem

Some examples:

  • "Brian seems sad." Sad describes the noun, Brian, not the verb, seems. Sad answers the question: which way does Brian seem?
  • "The milk smells rotten." What kind of smell does the milk have? A rotten one.
  • "The speaker sounds hoarse." Hoarse answers the question: which way does the speaker sound?
  • “The ice-cream looks melted.” Here, melted does not describe the verb, looks. It describes the noun, ice cream. What kind of ice cream does it look like? Melted ice cream.
  • “Alex feels sleepy.” What kind of way does Alex feel? Sleepy.

Likewise, an adjective always follows a form of the verb, “to be.” Here are some examples of “to be” verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

  • "The dog is black." Black is an adjective that modifies the noun dog, but it comes after the verb, is. What kind of dog is it? A black dog.
  • “I was nervous.” Nervous modifies the noun, I. Which way was I feeling? Nervous.
  • “She has been sick all week.” Here, sick modifies the noun, She. Which way has she been feeling all week? She’s been sick.
  • “They tried to be helpful.” In this case, helpful modifies the noun, they, not the verb, tried. What kind of people are they?Helpful people.

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.

Adverbs answer the question how . They can also answer the questions when , where , and why .

  • “She arrived late.” Late describes when she arrived.
  • “They all went there for the party.” There is where they all went to the party.
  • “The swim team practices every morning to develop good habits.” To develop good habits acts as an adverbial infinitive phrase that explains why the swim team practices every morning. Answering the question why usually requires an infinitive phrase.

Adverbs cannot modify nouns, as you can see from the following incorrect sentences.

  • The sentence, “He is a quietly man,” does not make sense.
  • The correct sentence should be written as “He is a quiet man” because quiet modifies the noun, man, not the verb is. What kind of man is he? A quiet man.
  • The sentence, “I have a happily dog,” does not make sense.
  • The correct sentence should say,” I have a happy dog” because happy modifies the noun, dog, instead of the verb have. What kind of dog is it? A happy one.

In general, adverbs answer the following questions:

  • How?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?

Examples of Differences between Adjectives and Adverbs

The following examples explain the differences between adjectives and adverbs:

  • “Sharon's cough sounds bad.” In this case, bad is an adjective that modifies the noun, cough.
  • If you wrote “Sharon’s cough sounds badly,” it would not make sense, because badly would be an adverb modifying the verb, sounds, meaning that her cough isn't very good at sounding.
  • “She seems unhappy today.” Here, unhappy is an adjective that modifies the pronoun, she.
  • If you wrote “She seems unhappily today,” unhappily would not make sense, because it would mean that the verb, seems, is unhappy when you want to say that the noun, she, is unhappy.
  • “Your dog smells carefully.” Here, carefully is an adverb that modifies the verb, smells.
  • The sentence, “Your dog smells careful,” would not make sense because it would mean that the dog gives off an odor of carefulness.

Be sure to note the differences between the following examples:

"The dog smells clean." Here, clean describes the dog itself. It's not that he smells something clean; rather, he's had a bath and does not stink. Clean describes what kind of smell comes from the dog making it an adjective .

"The dog smells carefully." Here, carefully describes how the dog smells, making it an adverb . We imagine the dog sniffing cautiously.


“Kai dressed for the quick recital.” Here, quick describes the noun, recital, making it an adjective . What kind of recital? A quick one.

“Kai dressed quickly for the recital.” Quickly describes the way Kai dressed, making it an adverb because it modifies the verb, dressed. How did Kai dress? Quickly.


“Look at the nice bed.” Nice modifies the noun, bed, in this sentence, making it an adjective .

“Look at the nicely made bed.” Nicely modifies the adjective, made, in this sentence, making it an adverb .


“Richard is careless.” Here, careless is an adjective that modifies the proper noun, Richard. What kind of person is Richard? A careless one.

“Richard talks carelessly.” Here, carelessly is an adverb that modifies the verb, talks. How does Richard talk? Carelessly.

In general, when a word has the ending “-ly,” it will act as an adverb. Pay close attention to how the noun is modified, as this is the final criteria when deciding between an adjective and adverb.