What’s the Difference Between Adjective and Adverb?

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Adjectives and adverbs are the only two parts of speech that can modify (or describe) other parts of speech. The two are sometimes confused with each other.

For one, both are modifiers. Second, many words can be adjective as well as adverb (examples: slow, long, this, high, back, hard, and more). Third, -ly words, which are commonly believed to be adverbs, may in fact be adjectives (examples: friendly, lively, and more).

In this post, we’ll learn how to tell if a word is an adjective or an adverb, relying on fundamental differences between the two and not on how a word looks.

Other pairs of parts of speech too can create confusion. Here are few:

Difference between adjectives and adverbs

1. They modify different parts of speech in a sentence

Both are modifiers, but they modify different parts of speech. Whereas adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. In written English, you’ll find far more adverbs modifying verbs than modifying the other two. Examples:

(Note: adjectives and adverbs in the examples have been underlined, and the words being modified by them have been shown in magenta font. Also, comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

Tom wore a blue shirt. [Comment: Adjective modifying noun]

He is lazy. [Adjective modifying pronoun]

You won’t find me in office tomorrow. [Adverb modifying verb]

He is always lazy. [Adverb modifying adjective. Note that in the second example, lazy is an adjective. Now it is being modified by an adverb.]

He didn’t perform too badly. [Adverb modifying another adverb]

2. They answer different types of questions in a sentence

The two can also be understood from the perspective of answering questions. Whereas an adjective answers what kind, how many, or which one in a sentence, an adverb answers when, where, in what manner, how frequently, or to what degree.

Tom wore a blue shirt. [Adjective answering what kind]

He is lazy. [Adjective answering what kind]

You won’t find me in office tomorrow. [Adverb answering when]

He is always lazy. [Adverb answering how frequently]

He didn’t perform too badly. [Adverb answering to what degree]

There is no dichotomy between adjectives and adverbs functioning as modifiers and answering questions. While modifying words, they answer certain questions. As we’ll see later, questions assume more importance in identifying adverbs than in identifying adjectives because adjectives can be easily identified without questions.

3. They’re differently mobile in a sentence

Adjectives are bound modifiers, implying they’re positionally fixed with respect to the noun they modify. (From hereon, noun will mean noun and pronoun as far as words modified by adjectives is concerned.) Whereas attributive adjectives almost always come before the noun they modify, predicative adjectives follow the linking verb (more on this later in the post).

Adverbs are relatively free modifiers, implying they can often, but not always, fit into more than one position in a sentence. Within adverbs, those that modify adjectives and other adverbs are bound to their modified words but those that modify verbs are generally mobile.

Tom wore a blue shirt. [Adjective can’t be moved]

He is lazy. [Adjective can’t be moved]

Tomorrow you won’t find me in office. [Adverb can be moved]

He is always lazy. [Adverb can’t be moved]

He didn’t perform too badly. [Adverb can’t be moved]

Here is a pictorial representation of the three differences between adjectives and adverbs:

(Feel free to use this image for own use, using the above link for attribution.)

How to know if a word is adjective?

We’ll call the word we’re investigating suspect. Note that we’re identifying adjective words, and not adjective phrases or clauses. (Entire phrases and clauses can also function as adjective.)

Here is brief background information about adjectives that we’ll use in this section.

Adjectives can be attributive or predicative.

Tom wore a blue shirt. [Attributive adjective]

He is lazy. [Predicative adjective]

Attributive adjective comes immediately before the noun it modifies (blue comes immediately before shirt), and predicative adjective follows the linking verb. Common linking verbs are to be, seem, sound, look, appear, become, smell, taste, and feel. Unlike regular verbs, they don’t show any action; they merely link subject to the predicate.

Linking verbs, however, can also be followed by nouns.

He is Tom.

So, you can’t blindly say that the word following a linking verb is an adjective. It can be a noun as well. Often, you can easily tell a noun from an adjective, but if you face challenge, you can apply this test: Put the suspected word before the subject. If it makes sense, it’s an adjective. If it doesn’t, it’s a noun. Example: lazy he makes sense but not Tom he. Hence, lazy is an adjective, and Tom is a noun.

1. Is the suspect modifying a noun and is placed immediately before it?

If yes, it’s an adjective.

Tom wore a blue shirt. [blue is modifying the noun shirt and is placed immediately before it. Hence, it’s an adjective, attributive adjective in fact.]

He didn’t perform too badly. [too is modifying badly and is placed immediately before it, but it’s not an adjective because badly is not a noun.]

Tom wore nothing like shirt. [like is placed immediately before the noun shirt, but it’s not an adjective because it’s not modifying shirt.]

How do you now if a word is a modifier, whether adjective or adverb? One way is to see if it is giving more information about the modified word. In the above sentences, blue and too are providing more information about shirt and badly, respectively, but like is not providing any information about shirt.

Another way is to drop the word, and if the sentence still makes sense grammatically, the dropped word is a modifier. In the above sentences, for example, if you drop blue (an adjective) and too (an adverb), you’ll still have grammatically sound sentences. Hence, they’re modifiers. Try dropping like. But for predicative adjectives, this test will work in almost all situations.

2. Is the suspect following a linking verb?

If yes, then it’s a noun or an adjective. A single word after a linking verb can never be an adverb.

He is lazy. [Once we rule out lazy as noun, we’re left with lazy as an adjective.]

Beware of this situation though.

He is always lazy. [always is adverb]

In this sentence, lazy is adjective but is being modified by a word in front, and anything that modifies an adjective is an adverb. You can drop always, and you’ll still have a grammatically sound sentence. That’s the test for modifier.

How to know if a word is adverb?

There are multiple ways to identify adverbs in a sentence. We’ll start with the modification method, but the question method is the simplest and the quickest to apply. In real situations, you can apply more than one to double-check.

Again, we’ll call the word we’re investigating suspect. Note that we’re identifying adverb words, and not adverb phrases or clauses. (Entire phrases and clauses can also function as adverb.)

1. Is the suspect modifying an adjective or other adverb and is placed immediately before it?

If yes, it’s an adverb. An adverb modifying an adjective or another adverb is almost always placed before the modified word.

He is always lazy. [Adverb modifying adjective]

He didn’t perform too badly. [Adverb modifying another adverb]

You can apply the test to see if always and too are modifiers.

Here adjectives and adverbs themselves are being modified. How do we know in the first place that the modified words are adjectives and adverbs? Simple answer: apply the identification test we’re covering to these words as well, without their modifiers to make it simpler.

So far so good. We’ve covered adverbs modifying adjectives and other adverbs. The only thing left is adverbs modifying verbs.

2. Is the suspect modifying a verb?

Unlike the adverbs modifying the two parts of speech we just saw, adverbs modifying verbs aren’t positionally locked to the modified verb. They can occupy almost any position with respect to the verb and often more than one position in a sentence. Also, these adverbs are far more commonly used than the ones modifying adjectives and other adverbs. See the mobility of adverbs, all of which are modifying verbs, in these examples.

I looked everywhere for the keys but couldn’t find them.

I looked for the keys everywhere but couldn’t find them.

Recently I shifted to another house. [Adverb of time and place are routinely used in the front position.]

I recently shifted to another house.

I shifted to another house recently.

Quickly he moved towards the door. [Adverb of manner too can sometimes be brought forward to emphasize the manner. This isn’t a common position for them though.]

He moved quickly towards the door.

He moved towards the door quickly.

Unlike the other two adverbs, here you can’t use adverb’s position as a clue. Hence, it is comparatively challenging to identify what word the suspect is modifying or describing. But you can still see that everywhere, recently, and quickly are telling something about their respective verbs.

Another way to know if the suspect is modifying a verb – and hence is an adverb – is to use the very thing that poses challenge in knowing this: mobility. If you can move the suspect in a sentence like in above sentences, you’ve an adverb modifying a verb.

However, sometimes, adverbs may not be mobile even when modifying a verb.

I rarely eat before washing my hands with soap.

The tycoon’s son went scot-free in the highly publicized hit-and-run case.

In such cases, you can’t use mobility to say that the suspect is modifying a verb.

For beginners, identifying the part of speech of the modified word may be little challenging, especially when it is verb. But there is a simpler way to identify any type of adverb.

A simpler way to identify adverbs

We covered three differences between adjectives and adverbs at the beginning of the post: they modify different parts of speech, they answer different types of questions in a sentence, and they’re differently mobile in a sentence.

We’ve already used the first and the third to identify them. Let’s consider the second.

If you master the question method – and it’s not difficult – you can identify adverbs in a sentence more quickly and simply than by the modification method we saw earlier. Note that we’re covering questions as a tool to identify only adverbs because adjectives are quite easy to identify even without questions. If you want, you can use questions with adjectives as well.

Let’s look at all the examples of adverbs we’ve covered so far once again. The question the adverb is answering is mentioned next to the sentence.

You won’t find me in office tomorrow. [Adverb answering when]

I shifted to another house recently. [Adverb answering when]

I looked everywhere for the keys but couldn’t find them. [Adverb answering where]

He moved towards the door quickly. [Adverb answering in what manner]

He is always lazy. [Adverb answering how frequently]

He didn’t perform too badly. [Adverb answering to what degree]

As mentioned earlier, adverbs mainly answer these five questions. If you see the suspect answering any of these questions, you don’t need to look at what word it is modifying (although you can use it as an additional check). You’ve an adverb on hand.

With practice, you’ll start seeing adverbs as one of the five answers and start spotting adverbs on the fly. For example, it’s easy to associate:

There are limited number of such words, but you don’t need to memorize them. Have a look at each word and think for a moment why it belongs to place, time, frequency, or other two categories (more exhaustive list in the link below). Soon, when you come across even a new word, you’ll be able to tell if it belongs to any of the five categories, and if yes, then which. You’ll breeze though identifying adverbs.

See a more exhaustive list of adverbs:

  • Different types of adverbs, with examples. In this post, you’ll also learn that answers to questions is a better way to identify adverbs because it scales better to adverbials, which are nothing but phrases and clauses functioning as adverb.

One more test to identify adverbs

Like you can immediately spot an adverb by seeing that the suspect is answering one of the five questions, you can immediately say with some confidence that an -ly word like badly, quickly, and recently is an adverb. We’ll see in examples further down in the post that this test is not full-proof as -ly words can be adjectives and even other parts of speech. But often they’ll be adverbs, which will help you narrow down the suspect.

Common adjective vs. adverb error

Do you see any problem with the adverb awfully modifying the verb smells in this sentence?

The fermented rice smells awfully.

On the surface, awfully looks fine. After all, adverbs are supposed to modify verbs, aren’t they?

But smell here is functioning as a linking verb, and not a regular verb performing any action. (Is rice performing an action like in He hit the ball? No.) And linking verbs aren’t modified by adverbs. As mentioned earlier, they can take either a noun or an adjective. So, the above sentence should take the adjective awful and not the adverb awfully.

The fermented rice smells awful.

People forget that non-be verbs such as seem, look, appear, become, feel, sound, taste, and smell can also be linking verbs and erroneously modify them with adverbs. So:

I feel badly bad about the entire episode.

She looked beautifully beautiful in that dress.

The food tastes deliciously delicious.

The pie smells well good.

But these verbs can take adverbs when they’re not functioning as linking verbs. Here, sound and smell aren’t linking verbs; they’re performing some action.

The alarm sounded loudly.

I smelt the dish hesitatingly.

Let’s apply what we’ve learnt so far to few examples.

Examples: adjective vs. adverb

Like elsewhere, adjectives and adverbs have been underlined, and the word modified has been highlighted in magenta font.

1. He is polite and convincing, and never bulldozes his argument.

polite and convincing follow a linking verb and are not nouns. (Remember that linking verb can take nouns as well as adjectives, and you need to rule out noun.) Hence, they’re adjectives modifying the pronoun He.

never reminds of frequency (or how often) and hence is answering the question how frequently, implying that the suspect is an adverb. You can also see that it is modifying the verb bulldozes but is not mobile.

2. If you’re a yes-man and often talk sweet language to please others, people won’t respect you.

sweet is placed directly before the noun language and is telling more about it. Hence, it’s an adjective.

often reminds of frequency (or how often) and hence is answering the question how frequently, implying that the suspect is an adverb. You can also see that it is modifying the verb talk but is not mobile.

3. We avoid difficult conversations till the issue becomes unmanageable.

difficult is placed directly before the noun conversations and is telling more about it. Hence, it’s an adjective. unmanageable follow a linking verb and is not a noun. Hence, it’s an adjective modifying the noun the issue.

4. A person who says ‘yes’, even if hesitatingly, to any work given to him will soon find himself overloaded with work.

hesitatingly reminds of manner and hence is answering the question in what manner, implying that the suspect is an adverb. You can also see that it is modifying the verb says but is not mobile. soon reminds of time and hence is answering the question when, implying that the suspect is an adverb. You can also see that it is modifying the verb find and is mobile.

5. Why take the trouble of investing in a cow and then maintaining it when you can simply buy milk far cheaply?

This sentence has three adverbs. simply reminds of manner and hence is answering the question in what manner, implying that the suspect is an adverb. You can also see that it is modifying the verb buy but is not mobile. cheaply exactly follows the script of simply. far reminds of degree and hence is answering the question to what degree, implying that the suspect is an adverb. You can also see that it is modifying the adverb cheaply and is positionally fixed with respect to the modified word.

Examples of same word functioning as adjective and adverb

Also known as flat adverbs or bare adverbs, some words can function as both adjective and adverb. It’s easy to make out the difference between the two by applying the differentiation process we’ve done so far. Let’s look at few examples.

1. He is a slow typist. [Adjective]

He types slow. [Adverb answering in what manner]

2. This subject required hard work. [Adjective]

I have worked hard in this subject. [Adverb answering in what manner]

3. This house has high ceiling. [Adjective]

This bird flies high. [Adverb answering where]

4. The watch came packed in a little box. [Adjective]

I am little apprehensive about our team’s odds. [Adverb answering to what degree]

5. I entered from the back door. [Adjective]

I turned back as I couldn’t find the place I was looking for. [Adverb answering where]

6. I’ve been waiting for a long time. [Adjective]

It’s taking long. [Adverb answering when]

7. The balloon burst with a loud sound. [Adjective]

I shouted loud enough to catch the attention of the man two blocks away. [Adverb answering in what manner]

8. We get monthly reimbursements. [Adjective]

We’re reimbursed monthly. [Adverb answering how frequently]

9. I’ve an early flight to catch. [Adjective]

I arrived early for the meeting. [Adverb answering when]

10. That’s a pretty hat. [Adjective]

The journey was pretty tiring. [Adverb answering to what degree]

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