by Marc Anderson

Boring. Not! How ESL Learners Describe Language with Adjectives and Adverbs

chef spilling food

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~ Anton Chekhov

Characteristics of Adjectives and Adverbs

In the English language, adjectives and adverbs have some similarities.  These words are used to describe other words.  Sometimes adjectives and adverbs can be characterized by form. One of the most important ones is that adverbs often end with “ly”. There are a few cases, where both the adjective and the adverb form of the word ends in “ly” like in the words cowardly and hourly. There are some adverbs that don’t end in “ly”.  Let’s look at some examples to understand this concept better.

Noun                                      Adjective                                Adverb

Examples of adverbs ending in “ly”

Happiness                               Happy                                   Happily

Sadness                                   Sad                                          Sadly

Sickness                                  Sick                                         Sickly

Honor                                      Honorable                           Honorably

Examples of adjectives and adverbs both ending in “ly”

Coward                                   Cowardly                                Cowardly

Hour                                        Hourly                                       Hourly

Example of an adverb that does not end in “ly”

Crab                                        Crablike                                   Crabwis

Articles as Adjectives

Articles are classified as adjectives. To review what articles are all about, check out a recent blog Articles in the English Language – Who Needs Them Anyway?  that discusses the importance of a, an and the. Some linguists classify articles as “determiners” as well as other adjectives that express large general features such as definiteness, indefiniteness, quantity, countableness, singularity or plurality: one, some, many, both, much, all, other, another, any, several, more, most, first, last, second, third, enough, no, which, neither, and either. These common determiners are only used once in a sentence.  For example, you could say, My father has one chicken or My father has a chicken. You would not say, My father has one a chicken or My father has a one chicken.

What do Adjectives and Adverbs Describe?

A major distinction between adjective and adverbs are the words that they modify or describe. Adjectives are used to modify mostly nouns like in the sentence: The happy salesclerk sold the gold jewelry to the distinguished gentleman. The word happy describes salesclerk, gold describes jewelry, and distinguished describes gentleman. Adjectives can also describe pronouns and other adjectives. They often end in suffixes: ous, ful, ish and able. In reading the example sentences above, you can tell what adjectives give to the English language. They provide life and color to your speech and writing. The audience gets a clearer picture of what you mean. In written expression, adjectives excite the reader to continue reading. Without them, the writing may not contain enough substance to hold a reader’s attention.

Adverbs usually describe verbs and other adverbs. (You can remember this rule by looking at the word “adverbs” and seeing the word “verbs” as the second syllable.) Examples of adverbs used in sentences include: The lion roared loudly, or The soloist sang extremely well.

Comparative and Superlative Forms

Both adjectives and adverbs have positive, comparative and superlative forms. The base word is the positive form like in the words: small, big, beautiful and lush. For adjectives that are one syllable, the comparative is usually formed by adding the suffix “er” like in small to smaller, big to bigger, and lush to lusher. And the superlative form of one-syllable adjectives usually contains the suffix “est” like small to smallest, big to biggest, and lush to lushest. However, if the adjective has more than one syllable like in the example word beautiful, the comparative is more beautiful and the superlative is most beautiful. The same holds true for adverbs. For example, She sang loudly; She sang more loudly than her sister; She sang the most loudly of anyone in the room.

When you use the comparison forms it is important to remember that you are comparing two people, places or things, or you are comparing two groupings of people, places or things. For example, She ran faster than her brother; The girls ran faster than the boys and She sang quietly; She sang more quietly than her brother; She sang the most quietly of all the students in class.

When using the superlative form, you compare more than two people, places or things, or you compare more than two groupings of people, places or things. For example, Margaret was the fastest runner in her family; The girls were the fastest entry in the race (implying there were 2 or more other categories of entries… maybe boys, men, and women).  You can use superlatives with adverbs, too, like in the sentences:. Josef ran quickly; Josef ran more quickly than Sammy; Josef ran the most quickly of all the runners his age.

Confusion of Adjectives and Adverbs

  1. There are some words that function as both adjectives and adverbs. These include the words fast, slow, very, and late:

Functions as an adjective:  It was a fast car. (Modifies the noun “car”)

Functions as an adjective:  Her wristwatch was fast. (Complements the verb “was”)

Functions as an adverb:  The greyhound ran fast. (Modifies the verb “ran”)

  1. Some adjectives and adverbs are often confused.  These include the words good, well, bad, and badly. 

Good is an adjective and it functions as an adjective: My father was a good person. (Modifies the noun “person”) Yes, my mother feels good. (Complements the verb “feel”)

Well is an adjective that means in good health. So if you say, My mother is well, that means that your mother is in good health. It can also be an adverb to mean in a superior manner like in the sentences, My aunt played the piano well (Modifies the verb “Played”) and The forest ranger was well aware of the fire (Modifies the adjective “aware”).

The adverb badly is often used instead of the adjective bad which means in poor spirits. The correct sentence usage is, I feel bad about the accident not I feel badly about the accident; and My driving record looks bad rather than My driving record looks badly. However, you can use the word “badly” to describe verbs like the verb “mistake” in this sentence, My teacher was badly mistaken and thought I did not complete the assignments for the chapter (Modifies the verb “mistaken”).

  1. In summary, when an adjective follows a linking verb (e.g. is, feel, look, seem, become and smell), it complements the verb and is classified as a predicate adjective. Some examples of this include, The water is refreshing; The water feel refreshing, The water looks refreshing, The water seems refreshing, The water is becoming refreshing, The water smells refreshing; not the use of refreshingly like in the sentences, The water is refreshingly, etc.  Other examples using linking verbs include, Yes, I feel fine, not Yes, I feel finely; and That dress makes you look beautiful, not That dress makes you look beautifully.

Sentence Connectors

Sentence connectors join whole statements in clause or sentence form and because there is an adverb as part of this clause, they are often called conjunctive adverbs.  You probably have heard many of these and use them naturally, too. Some common examples include there, however, consequently, thus, then, in fact, moreover, nevertheless, so, in addition and meanwhile. When they are used to relate to the previous sentence(s), a period is used to separate them like:  Tiger woods is a famous golfer. However, he is struggling this year with some of the tournaments. If they join independent clauses (meaning they can stand by themselves), then a semi-colon is used like: We watched the hockey tournament; in fact, we had box seats. Some coordinating connectors can be inserted within the structure of the second statement as in the example sentence: My boss did not like the overall performance of the IT department this year. She was delighted, however, about my contribution.

Misplaced Common Adverbs

Sometimes in casual conversation, adverbs are placed in the wrong order which may or may not lead to some confusion for the listener. Some commonly misplaced adverbs include the words only, almost, merely, scarcely, just and even. For example, someone might say, Mother almost washed the dishes (which might imply that she didn’t wash any at all because of any number of reasons…too busy, something else to do, being distracted, etc.)  However, if you say, Mother washed almost all the dishes, this means that Mother is not quite finished with the dishes, but she has washed most of them. It is helpful to place these adverbs after what they modify. Yet, many times the verb can be placed in several spots in the sentence and the meaning does not change. For example, let’s look at the word “slowly”. Look how these sentences use the word slowly but they don’t change in meaning:  The teenager drove slowly. Slowly the teenager drove. The teenager slowly drove.

Position of Adjectives

If you are a native English speaker, you probably just speak naturally and chances are that most times the grammar is correct. If you aren’t a native English-speaker or if you grow up around people whose English is not their first language, then this point might be important to review. Adjectives have a fixed position in a sentence. For example, you would say, I would like to buy a beautiful, big, new, red, European convertible. You can see that the order of adjectives used in speaking or writing English follows this chart:

Opinion (good/bad, beautiful/ugly, smart/dumb) Appearance (size/shape/condition), Age, Color, Origin, Material

In the example sentence, the word “beautiful” is an opinion, followed by “big” which is an appearance, then the word “new” which refers to age, then “red’- a color, and finally “European” which is the origin.  These adjectives are all separated with commas and precede the noun “convertible” which is the material.

In writing, remember to use commas after each adjective except the last one that comes before the noun. If an adjective has more than one word, there is no need to separate the words with a comma. And you don’t need to use adjectives with all nouns, just when you feel it is important to offer more descriptions about something in particular so the listener or reader has a more complete understanding of what you want to express in the English language.

Practice Exercises

You can practice adding adjectives and adverbs to your daily speaking and your writing. This will give description to your language and help the listener and reader see more clearly what you mean to say.  You can take a class in-person or select an on-line English course, join an English language speaking group and/or study English by yourself with any number of materials.

With consistent practice and additional study and focus towards English language learning, you will be able to use adjectives and adverbs in your daily speech and writing.  You will be more confident in knowing when and how to use these figures of speech correctly. And you will be one step closer to becoming more fluent as an English speaker and writer. 

Share Some Examples!

Do you have a favorite adjective or adverb that you like to use? Write and tell me all about it. And remember to watch for an upcoming blog on prepositions, conjunctions and interjections, additional figures of speech which make up the English language. I know that this was a lot of information, so read it through slowly or read a few parts of it at one time. If you know there is an area that needs improvement in your English language, then you can direct attention to that. It won’t be long before you join the ranks of other English speakers and use lots of adjective and adverbs in your sentence patterns. Keep up the great work! (Great = adjective to describe “work”). I know that you can speak and write correctly with the right combination of practice and study.  (Correctly = adverb to describe “write”).

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.