Chapter 6 Adjectives and Adverbs

Alice Matthews
6 min readOct 31, 2018

An adjective is a word or set of words that modifies (i.e., describes) a noun or pronoun. Adjectives may come before the word they modify.

That is a cute puppy.

She likes a high school senior.

Adjectives may also follow the word they modify:

That puppy looks cute.

The technology is state-of-the-art.

Adjective phrases consist of adjectives together with elements which complement or modify them in different ways. Although adjective phrases are potentially complex, in practice most of them have a fairly simple structure. Thus, a typical adjective phrase consists of a head in the form of an adjective sometimes accompanied by degree modifiers, as in the following example:

(1) The poor living conditions make planning your future [almost impossible].

The adjective phrase almost impossible consists of the head impossible and the degree modifier almost.

The function of adjective phrases

Adjective phrases have two primary functions. First, they can be used to modify nouns inside noun phrases, as in the following example:

(2) The scarcity of supplies has become [an increasingly difficult problem].

Here, the noun phrase within square brackets has the noun problem as its head, and the adjective phrase increasingly difficult serves as a modifier. This function of adjective phrases is referred to as attributive.

The second main function of adjective phrases is as predicative in clause structure, following verbs like be, become, seem, etc.

(3) Maintaining a reasonable level has become increasingly difficult.

This function of adjective phrases is referred to as predicative.

Whether it is attributive or predicative, an adjective phrase always modifies (i.e. somehow provides more information about) a noun phrase (or a dependent clause functioning as the subject of a sentence, e.g. To be a true adult is sometimes difficult.).

Predicatives

Predicative-only adjectives

Some adjectives only occur in predicative adjective phrases. Most dictionaries mark such adjectives as special (e.g. by labeling them “predicative only” or “not in attributive use”). A few examples are given here:

afraid

Bill is afraid of dogs.

NOT: *Bill is an afraid boy.

alike

The two brothers are very much alike.

NOT: *The two most alike results were compared.

aware

We are aware of the difficulties

NOT: *We expect more aware attempts in the future.

Adjectives as heads of noun phrases

A somewhat odd function of adjectives is that of serving as heads of noun phrases. In English, this use is virtually restricted to noun phrases that have a generic reference (i.e. which refer to entities in general, rather than to specific instances). The following two examples illustrate this use:

(4) We must plan for the future needs of the elderly. [elderly people in general]

(5) In the early 20th century, the study of the supernatural was attracting a lot of interest. [supernatural phenomena in general]

In the first example, reference is made to a category of people who share some characteristic (age in this case). In the second example, reference is made to an abstract concept.

Almost without exception, these two uses are the only ones where adjectives are used in this way in English. When reference is made to a specific individual or a specific group of individuals or specific instances of abstract concepts a nominal head (a noun or a pronoun) is used.

(6) The elderly woman was confused and disoriented.

(7) They insist that the supernatural events described in the Bible are real-world manifestations of God

An adverb is a word or set of words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Adverbs answer how, when, where, why, or to what extent — how often or how much (e.g., daily, completely).

Examples:

He speaks slowly (tells how)

He speaks very slowly (the adverb very tells how slowly)

She arrived today (tells when)

She will arrive in an hour (this adverb phrase tells when)

Let’s go outside (tells where)

We looked in the basement (this adverb phrase tells where)

Bernie left to avoid trouble (this adverb phrase tells why)

Jorge works out strenuously (tells to what extent)

Jorge works out whenever possible (this adverb phrase tells to what extent)

Rule 1. Many adverbs end in -ly, but many do not. If a word can have -lyadded to its adjective form, place it there to form an adverb.

Examples:

She thinks quick/quickly.

Rule 2. Adverbs that answer the question of how sometimes cause grammatical problems. It can be a challenge to determine if -ly should be attached. Avoid the trap of -ly with linking verbs such as taste, smell, look, feel, which pertain to the senses. Adverbs are often misplaced in such sentences, which require adjectives instead.

w does she think? Q Examples:

Roses smell sweet/sweetly.

Do the roses actively smell with noses? No; in this case, smell is a linking verb — which requires an adjective to modify roses — so no -ly.

quickly.

Rule 3. The word good is an adjective, whose adverb equivalent is well.

Examples:

You did a good job.

Good describes the job.

Rule 4. The word well can be an adjective, too. When referring to health, we often use well rather than good.

Examples:

You do not look well today.

Rule 5. Adjectives come in three forms, also called degrees. An adjective in its normal or usual form is called a positive degree adjective. There are also the comparative and superlative degrees, which are used for comparison, as in the following examples:

Positive, Comparative, Superlative

Sweet, sweeter, sweetest

Bad, worse, worst

Efficient, more efficient, most efficient

A common error in using adjectives and adverbs arises from using the wrong form of comparison. To compare two things, always use a comparative adjective:

Example: She is the cleverer of the two women (never cleverest)

Rule 6. There are also three degrees of adverbs. In formal usage, do not drop the -ly from an adverb when using the comparative form.

Incorrect: She spoke quicker than he did.

Correct: She spoke more quickly than he did.

Incorrect: Talk quieter.

Correct: Talk more quietly.

Rule 7. When this, that, these, and those are followed by a noun, they are adjectives. When they appear without a noun following them, they are pronouns.

Examples:

This house is for sale.

This is an adjective.

Adverb phrases consist of adverbs together with elements which complement or modify them in different ways. Although adverb phrases are potentially complex, in practice most of them have a fairly simple structure. Thus, a typical adverb phrase consists of a head in the form of an adverb sometimes accompanied by modifiers, as in the following example:

(1) Aluminum burns comparatively slowly.

Here, the adverb head slowly is modified by the adverb (phrase) comparatively.

Functions of adverb phrases

Adverb phrases can have a fairly wide range of grammatical functions. Two of their main uses are as modifiers of adjectives and adverbs, as in the following examples:

(2) The current design of the platform is vastly superior to the old one. (vastly modifies the adjective superior)

(3) The situation has improved very slowly. (very modifies the adverb slowly)

A third major function that adverb phrases have is that of adverbial in clause structure, as in the following example: 1) Aluminum burns comparatively slowly.

Here, the adverb head slowly is modified by the adverb (phrase) comparatively.

Functions of adverb phrases

Adverb phrases can have a fairly wide range of grammatical functions. Two of their main uses are as modifiers of adjectives and adverbs, as in the following examples:

(2) The current design of the platform is vastly superior to the old one. (vastly modifies the adjective superior)

(3) The situation has improved very slowly. (very modifies the adverb slowly)

A third major function that adverb phrases have is that of adverbial in clause structure, as in the following example:

(4) Consequently, the design had to be improved.

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Alice Matthews

Graduate Student, Neuroscience, Medical Diagnostic Sonographer