The differences between adjectives and adverbs in English

The differences between adjectives and adverbs in English

by Laura Jones

Updated November 11, 2022

Adjectives and adverbs can be confusing. Which is which? When and how do we use them? Does it even matter? To answer the last question, yes, it does matter! Knowing which words are adjectives and which are adverbs makes your speech and writing much clearer in English. So let’s have a look at some of the differences. 

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What are adjectives and adverbs?

The difference between adjectives and adverbs is fairly easy: An adjective describes a noun. They answer questions like what kind or how many. For example, red is an adjective and car is a noun. Adjectives usually go before nouns in English so we say a red car. Red is a descriptive adjective, and we’re going to focus on these today. 

An adverb usually describes a verb. They answer questions like when, where and how. Quickly is an adverb and run is a verb. Adverbs can go in lots of different places in a sentence, but here we can say he runs quickly. This answers the question, How does he run? We’re going to focus mainly on adverbs that answer the how question, which are adverbs of manner.

This explanation is simple enough – especially for English teachers – but it doesn’t really tell you much in practical terms does it? Because the real question is, how do you know if a certain word should be used as an adjective or an adverb? How do you make adverbs from adjectives? And where do you put them in a sentence?

Regular adverbs in English

It’s easy to spot regular adverbs vs adjectives because they end with –ly, like quickly in the example above. To form these regular adverbs, we add -ly to the end of adjectives. So, serious becomes seriously; slow becomes slowly. A slow tortoise walks slowly. This works with quite a lot of adjectives with just small changes to the rule:

If the adjective ends with a –y, change the –y to an –i then add –ly: happy becomes happily, easy becomes easily.

  • He smiled happily!

If the adjective ends in –able, –ible or –le, change the –e to a –y. We see this in words like horriblehorribly, and responsibleresponsibly.

  • They didn’t act very responsibly.

And if the adjective ends in –ic, add –ally. Basic changes to basically, classic changes to classically. The exception to this is public, which becomes publicly.

  • She is a classically trained musician. 

Irregular adjectives and adverbs in English

Some adverbs have the same form as adjective. Examples of this are fast and high

  • This is a fast car. He drives fast.
  • We saw a lot of high towers. The plane flew high.

We said above that adverbs can be made by adding –ly to the adjective, but not all words that end in –ly are adverbs! Some adjectives also end in -ly, and they have the same form as the adverb. Common words like this are: early, late and daily

  • We ate an early dinner. We finished work early today. 
  • I read the daily newspaper. I read the newspaper daily.

We also have some adjectives that don’t have an adverb equivalent. For example: friendly, lonely and lovely. Instead of using an adverb, we can say in a … manner. The adjective remains an adjective. 

  • What a friendly dog! The dog behaves in a friendly manner. 

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The different types of adjectives

1. Predicative adjectives

Most adjectives come before nouns. But, sometimes adjectives come after the noun they modify, and after a verb too. This is when we are talking about a sense verb or a verb of appearance, and they are called predicative adjectives. Here they are:

  • be
  • feel
  • taste
  • smell
  • sound
  • look
  • appear
  • seem

Here are some examples of these verbs: 

  • London is busy.
  • I feel bad about what happened.
  • The cake tastes nice.
  • The flowers smell sweet.
  • That dog sounds unhappy.
  • Gemma looks sleepy.
  • The sea appears blue in some lights.
  • Bob seems angry. 

In all of these sentences, the adjective comes after the verb but it describes what the noun is like. English learners often make mistakes like this: 

  • The cake tastes nicely (this means the cake can taste something – and last time I checked, cakes don’t have mouths).
  • The flowers smell sweetly (and this makes it sound like flowers have noses). 

The easiest way to remember this is to think about the verb be, which we use a lot with adjectives: 

  • She is nice.
  • The dog is happy.
  • The chair is comfortable. 

2. Adjective + adverb

So far, we have looked at adverbs modifying verbs, but they can also modify adjectives. Here’s an example: 

  • The weather is terribly hot today. 

Terribly is an adverb and it is modifying the adjective hot. Here are some more examples: 

  • The girl is quite pretty.
  • I am completely exhausted. 

3. Adverb + adverb

Adverbs can also modify other adverbs, making what you’re saying more descriptive. For example: 

  • My dog eats incredibly loudly. 

Incredibly, an adverb, modifies the adverb loudly. Some more examples: 

  • She spoke very quickly. 
  • He was walking awfully slowly. 

4. Adverbs of frequency

There are six main adverbs of frequency in English which tell us how often something happens. Here they are in sentences: 

  • I always eat cereal for breakfast. 
  • I usually wake up at 7am. 
  • I often go to the gym before work. 
  • I sometimes walk to the office. 
  • I rarely go to bed later than 11pm. 
  • I never eat meat. 

Other adverbs of frequency you might know are normally, frequently and hardly ever

5. Adverbs of place

Words and phrases that tell us where something happens are often also adverbs. For example: 

  • He has lived in the city centre all his life. 
  • He still lives there now. 
  • Come here!
  • I’ve looked everywhere for him but he’s just disappeared.

5. Adverbs of time

We have already talked about the irregular adverbs early and late. These are examples of adverbs of time; they describe when something happens. Here are some more examples of sentences with adverbs of time: 

  • I don’t like driving after dark
  • She finished her exam first
  • The TV show is on now and we’re missing it! 

6. Adverbs of degree

We have also met some of these adverbs of degree already when we were looking at modifying adjectives and adverbs. Adverbs of degree tell us about the intensity of something. In some of the sentences above we had very, quite and completely. Here are some more examples: 

  • It’s rather chilly today. 
  • The play was absolutely terrible.
  • I almost forgot to tell you.

7. Adverbs of evaluation

We can use adverbs to show our opinion of something as part of the sentence. Here are some examples: 

  • Unfortunately, the weather was bad. 
  • She didn’t want to come to the party, surprisingly
  • Incredibly, no one was hurt in the accident.

The use of adverbs in all of these sentences shows us what the speaker thinks and feels about the situation, and gives us more information about the context. We can infer, for example, in the last sentence, that the accident was quite bad and it’s amazing that no one was hurt. 

So, how do you know if something is an adjective or an adverb? Does it describe a noun, or does it describe a verb, adjective or adverb? And, does it end in –ly? It’s probably an adverb. But English wouldn’t be English without a few exceptions, so try to memorise the ones we’ve talked about here, and you’ll be a long way to learning the difference between adjectives and adverbs. 

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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