Adverbs and adjectives are both used to modify other words, allowing us to provide more information about something we’re describing. They’re also both essential to good grammar and communicating clearly in writing.
However, despite these similarities, adverbs and adjectives are also importantly distinct, so it’s crucial to understand the differences between them.
Adverbs (Words that Modify an Action)
Adverbs are words that modify a verb, adjective or even another adverb, usually by describing the way in which something takes place or the nature of a particular state of affairs. Typically, an adverb will specify how, why, when, where, to what extent or the frequency with which something happens.
In the case of verbs (i.e. doing words), it’s easy to see how adverbs work. In the following sentence, for example, the adverb ‘firmly’ is used to modify the verb ‘denied’:
The president firmly denied the rumours about his love life.
Here, ‘firmly’ means ‘with force’, showing us something about how the action described occurred.
Adverbs can also be used to add detail when using an adjective, such as when ‘very’ is used as an intensifier (e.g. saying something is ‘very unpleasant’ shows it’s worse than just ‘unpleasant’):
The rumours were very unpleasant.
Or they can be used alongside another adverb, like in the following:
The story spread worryingly quickly.
Here, one adverb (‘worryingly’) modifies a second (‘quickly’), combining to tell us something about how the verb (‘spread’) occurs (i.e. that the speed that the story spread caused concern).
Most adverbs end in ‘-ly’, which makes it easier to know when a word is an adverb. But this isn’t always the case, such as with ‘very’, ‘now’ or ‘almost’, so you can’t rely on this rule all of the time.
Adjectives (Words that Modify Nouns)
Adjectives primarily modify nouns and pronouns. This means that they tell us something about the properties of an object or person, such as its size, origin, purpose or colour.
Adjectives are therefore good for clarifying something in a sentence, since adding an adjective allows us to specify the particular example of a noun being discussed: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are both adjectives, for instance, so we could use them to distinguish between a ‘good dog’ (one that scares off a burglar) and a ‘bad dog’ (one that steals the family silver).
There are adjectives to specify many different qualities, including:
- Taste (e.g. ‘bitter medicine’)
- Touch (e.g. ‘a hard surface’)
- Colour (e.g. ‘a dark grey sky’)
- Shape and size (e.g. ‘the television’s screen is big and rectangular’)
- Sound (e.g. ‘a noisy klaxon’)
- Time and age (e.g. ‘an old man’)
- States of being (e.g. ‘my pen is broken’)
- Emotions and character (e.g. ‘a happy coincidence’)
It’s also worth noting that you can sometimes form an adverb out of an adjective, typically by adding ‘-ly’ to the end (or replacing the ‘-y’ with an ‘-ily’ when an adjective already ends in a ‘y’, such as when ‘happy’ becomes ‘happily’).
And if you’re ever unsure about whether you’re using a particular adverb or adjective correctly, getting your work proofread by a professional is a great idea.