Adjectives Versus Adverbs: Introduction


Adjectives and adverbs are describing words; the former describes a noun or pronoun; the latter, a verb, adjective, or other adverb. Here, you learn how to use these words with skill and confidence so you'll never again face the dreaded bad/well dilemma.

They Walk Alike, They Talk Alike: You Could Lose Your Mind

Both adjectives and adverbs are modifiers—words that describe other words. For example:

  • Adjective: The quick fox jumped.
  • Adverb: The fox jumped quickly.

Ah ha! you say. Adverbs end in -ly; adjectives don't, so that's how I can tell these suckers apart. Not so fast, kemosabe. Some adverbs end in -ly, but not all. Further, some adjectives also end in -ly, such as lovely and friendly. As a result, the -ly test doesn't cut the mustard. Instead, the key to telling the difference between adjectives and adverbs is understanding how they work:

  • Adjectives describe a noun or pronoun.
  • Adverbs describe a verb, adjective, or other adverb.

As you learned in Parts of Speech, the only dependable way to tell whether you should use an adjective or an adverb is to see how the word functions in the sentence. If a noun or pronoun is being described, use an adjective. If a verb, adjective, or other adverb is being described, use an adverb. Here's an example to refresh your memory:

  • He is a skillful driver.
  • (The adjective skillful describes the noun driver.)
  • The cabby drove skillfully.
  • (The adverb skillfully describes the verb drove.)

Graphic Proof

Use the following table to keep adjectives and adverbs straight. That way, we'll all be reading from the same sheet music as we play together in the rest of this section.

In the Know: Adjective or Adverb?
AdjectivesDescribe nounsThe busy bee never rests.
  (The noun is bee.)
AdjectivesDescribe pronounsShe felt disappointed.
  (The pronoun is she.)
AdverbsDescribe verbsThe child cried bitterly.
  (The verb is cried.)
AdverbsDescribe adverbsThe child cried very bitterly.
  (The adverb is bitterly.)
AdverbsDescribe adjectivesThe child was truly annoyed.
  (The adjective is annoyed.)

I'm Ready for My Close-Up Now, Mr. DeMille

Reality check: Are you still with me? Find out by taking this little quiz. Identify the underlined word or words in each of the following sentences. Hint: The answer will be either “adjective” or “adverb.” Those are better odds than you get in Vegas.

  • ____ 1. My school colors were “clear.”
  • ____ 2. Question: How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Two. One to hold the giraffe firmly and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools.
  • ____ 3. If the cops arrest a mime, do they tell her that she has the right to remain silent?
  • ____ 4. Maybe you're right. Maybe I should have been insulted when the mind reader charged me half price.
  • ____ 5. For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow slowly, but phone calls taper off.
  • ____ 6. Diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggy” until you can find a big rock.
  • ____ 7. Is it true that cannibals don't eat clowns because they taste funny?
  • ____ 8. Murphy's Oil Soap is the chemical most commonly used to clean elephants.
  • ____ 9. Giraffes have no vocal cords.
  • ____ 10. A man ordered a taco. He asked the server for “minimal lettuce.” The server said he was sorry, but they only had iceberg.
1. Adjective6. Adjective
2. Adverb, adjective7. Adverb
3. Adverb8. Adverb
4. Adjective9. Adjective
5. Adverb10. Adjective
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.