Adjectives vs. Adverbs: What’s The Difference?

The monster sat down to write. A sentence like this one is perfectly fine and tells us what the monster did. However, it looks a bit plain. How about we spice this sentence up a bit? The jaunty, dapper monster sat down to write. Suddenly, things get a lot more exciting. Let’s try it again: The monster skillfully wrote a poem while hanging upside down. Another exciting sentence!

In both of our new sentences, we used modifying words to give more details about the monster who was doing something or about what the monster did. In these sentences, we used two major parts of speech known as adjectives and adverbs. While both of these are used to jazz up sentences by modifying words, they do it in different ways.

What is an adjective?

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun. In general, the purpose of an adjective is to describe a noun or pronoun by stating its characteristics or by providing more information about it. For example, in the sentence She has a big dog, the adjective big tells us that the dog (a noun) is large in size and mass.

Adjectives can be placed directly adjacent to the nouns/pronouns they modify or can function as a subject complement following a linking verb:

 

  • The hungry elephants ate tasty leaves. (The adjectives hungry and tasty are directly adjacent to the nouns elephants and leaves.)
  • I am tired. (Tired is a subject complement following the linking verb am.)

List of adjectives

There are tons of adjectives that all have different functions. This list gives just some examples of the many different types of adjectives that we use:

 

  • angry, busy, careful, dizzy, eager, fearful, glad, hot, icy, jittery, klutzy, lazy, missing, nice, opened, patient, quiet, ready, soft, transparent, unlucky, victorious, wobbly, yellow, zesty

 Examples of adjectives in a sentence

 

  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
  • He is smart.
  • Vanessa is taller than her older sister.
  • This picture looks better than that one.
  • She loves to eat spicy Indian food.

Don’t worry, we have an excellent primer on 13 types of adjectives ready for you to review.

What is an adverb?

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, a clause, or even another adverb. In general, adverbs provide more information that answer questions such as When?, Where?, How?, and Why? For example, in the sentence Ann walked slowly, the adverb slowly tells us how Ann walked: she took her time and didn’t go fast. When modifying verbs, adverbs can come before or after the word that they modify:

 

  • He read quietly.
  • He quietly read.

An adverb may even be separated from the verb it modifies by an object:

 

  • She completed her chores quickly.

When adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs, they are usually placed directly before the words they modify:

 

  • They were really bored.
  • Henrietta danced very gracefully.

List of adverbs

As was the case with adjectives, there are loads of adverbs that we use in our sentences. Here are just some examples:

 

  • appropriately, boldly, cautiously, dangerously, effortlessly, flatly, gallantly, hastily, ironically, joyfully, kindly, longingly, masterfully, needlessly, openly, perfectly, quickly, rashly, silently, tragically, unknowingly, vocally, wastefully, yesterday, zealously

Examples of adverbs in a sentence

 

  • We sat quietly.
  • Tyler carefully opened the box.
  • The ninja crept nimbly and stealthily.
  • She will do it tomorrow.
  • Are we there yet?

You can stop waiting patiently and head over to this thorough review on adverbs for more!

How to differentiate between adjectives and adverbs

It is easy to confuse adjectives and adverbs because they are both modifiers that provide us with more information. Some words, such as slow, well, and late can even be used as either an adjective or an adverb. So, how do we tell the difference? The main way to figure out if a word is being used as an adjective or an adverb is to check the word that it modifies. If it is modifying a noun or a pronoun, it is an adjective. If it is modifying anything else, it is an adverb. Adjectives only modify nouns and pronouns, while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, clauses, or other adverbs. Adverbs do not modify nouns or pronouns.

When it is an adjective

Adjectives modify nouns or pronouns. But is there another way to determine if a word is an adjective? Yes, there are some jobs specific to adjectives that can also give away their identity. Adjectives are likely to be:

Words that answer What kind?, How many?, or Which thing?

Because the above questions typically refer to nouns or pronouns, words that answer any of these questions are most likely to be adjectives:

 

  • I bought new shoes. (What kind of shoes? New shoes. New is an adjective.)
  • She has four cats. (How many cats? Four cats. Four is an adjective.)
  • This sculpture is beautiful. (Which sculpture? This sculpture. This is an adjective.)

Words that describe feelings

Words that refer to feelings, such as happy, excited, or scared, usually only make sense if they are used to refer to living things. Because we use nouns and pronouns to refer to living things, these words are most likely to be adjectives:

 

  • Salisa was delighted by her birthday present. (Delighted is an adjective that modifies the noun Salisa.)
  • Gary is afraid of clowns. (Afraid is an adjective that modifies the noun Gary.)
  • The veterinarian calmed down the terrified kitten with gentle pats. (Terrified is an adjective that modifies the noun kitten.)

Words that appear before the noun

In most cases, it doesn’t make grammatical sense to use an adverb immediately before a noun. If a modifying word appears immediately before a noun, it will almost always be an adjective.

 

  • We counted the purple marbles. (The noun marbles is preceded by the modifying word purple. Because it comes right before marbles, purple is an adjective.)
  • Gordon is a very large man. (The noun man is preceded by the modifying word large. Because it comes right before man, large is an adjective. You’ll notice that the adverb very does NOT come right before the noun man.)

This, that, these, or those followed by a noun

The words this, that, these, and those are demonstrative adjectives. However, all of these words can also be used as pronouns, and the words this and that can be used as adverbs. When these words are immediately followed by a noun or pronoun (which means they are modifying a noun or pronoun), they are functioning as adjectives.

 

  • Adjective: I am going to give her this cupcake. (The word this is followed by the word cupcake. Cupcake is a noun, so the word this is being used as an adjective).
  • Adverb: A turtle isn’t supposed to move this fast. (The word this is followed by the word fast. Fast is not a noun but is still being modified by this, so the word this is an adverb.)
  • Pronoun: This is a cool toy. (The word this is not modifying anything. It is being used alone as the subject of a sentence. The word this is a pronoun in this sentence.)

When it is an adverb

There are some important clues that will help you identify adverbs as well. Adverbs are likely to be:

Words that explain how, when, or where something happened

All of the above questions refer to actions that happen. We use verbs to describe things that happen. Adjectives never modify verbs, only adverbs do. If a word is explaining how, when, or where something happened, it must be an adverb.

 

  • Joshua skillfully tied the knot. (How did Joshua tie the knot? He tied it skillfully. Skillfully is an adverb that modifies the verb tied.)
  • Rachel is coming tomorrow. (When is Rachel coming? Tomorrow. Tomorrow is an adverb that modifies the verb coming.)
  • We drove here. (Where did we drive? Here. Here is an adverb that modifies the verb drove).

Words that end in -ly

Many—but not all—adverbs end in -ly. If you see a modifying word ending in -ly, there is a good chance that it is an adverb. This is especially true if the word is an adjective with -ly attached to it.

 

  • Arnold slowly cooked the turkey. (Slowly is an adverb ending in -ly.)
  • Maggie joyfully chased the butterflies. (Joyfully is an adverb ending in -ly.)

You need to be careful, though, because some adjectives such as ugly and silly do end in -ly. Always consider what word is being modified to pin down if a word is an adverb or adjective.

 

  • Santa Claus is a jolly fellow. (In this sentence, jolly modifies the word fellow. Fellow is a noun, which means the word jolly isn’t an adverb even though it ends in -ly.)

Words that describe how you perform the action 

If a word describes how you feel while doing an action, it is most likely an adverb. Remember that adverbs and not adjectives are used to modify verbs (which refer to actions). Similarly, if a word is describing how you experience a feeling, it is most likely an adverb.

 

  • Isabella calmly performed yoga. (The word calmly describes how Isabella felt while performing yoga. Calmly is an adverb.)
  • Chris finally felt relieved after he saw his test scores. (The word finally describes how Christ performed his feeling of relief. Finally is an adverb.)

Words that appear after the verb (and can move freely in a sentence)

If a modifying word appears after a verb that is not a linking verb, it is most likely an adverb. If you can freely move that same word somewhere else in a sentence and the sentence still makes grammatical sense, it is more than likely an adverb.

 

  • Adverb: She slept peacefully in her bed. (The word peacefully comes after the verb slept. We can also move the word peacefully before the verb or to the end of the sentence and the sentence will still make sense. The word peacefully must be an adverb.)
  • Adjective: She is sleepy. (The word sleepy comes after the linking verb is. This sentence does not make sense if we move the word sleepy anywhere else in the sentence. The word sleepy must not be an adverb.)

What are linking verbs exactly? Learn about them here.

How to turn adjectives into adverbs

Most of the time, it is relatively easy to turn an adjective into an adverb. As you may have noticed already, many adverbs are simply an adjective with a -ly stuck on at the end.

To turn most adjectives into adverbs, simply put -ly at the end of the adjective:

 

  • sad becomes sadly
  • tired becomes tiredly
  • perfect becomes perfectly

If the adjective ends in a –y, change it to an -i and then add -ly.

 

  • easy becomes easily
  • lazy becomes lazily
  • hasty becomes hastily

If the adjective ends in -le, change the -e to a -y. An exception to this method is the adjective vile, which becomes vilely.

 

  • believable becomes believably
  • probable becomes probably
  • gentle becomes gently

If an adjective ends in -ic, add -ally. An exception to this method is the adjective public, which becomes publicly.

 

  • tragic becomes tragically
  • frantic becomes frantically
  • specific becomes specifically

Some words can be used as either an adjective or an adverb. In this case, you wouldn’t change the word at all. Some examples include the words early, wrong, and straight.

Adjective or adverb? Maybe you need Grammar Coach™!

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There's a lot more to say about adverbs. Start with this review on 6 types we use in English.