• Adjectives vs. Adverbs

    Adjectives describe nouns. They tell what kind, how many, and which one.

    Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They tell how, why, where, and to what extent.

    The Writing Section of the PSAT or SAT usually involves at least one question in which an adjective is used where an adverb should be or vice versa. Often, since the sentence reads well, the error is difficult to diagnose.

    Please read the explanation below pertaining to the differences between adverbs and adjectives from Purdue University's English Department. Examples taken directly from released SAT/PSAT's will follow.


    The following is taken from Purdue University's English Department: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/536/01/

    What is the Difference between Adjectives and Adverbs?

    The Basic Rules: Adjectives

    Adjectives modify nouns. To modify means to change in some way. For example:

    • "I ate a meal." Meal is a noun. We don't know what kind of meal; all we know is that someone ate a meal.
    • "I ate an enormous lunch." Lunch is a noun, and enormous is an adjective that modifies it. It tells us what kind of meal the person ate.

    Adjectives usually answer one of a few different questions: "What kind?" or "Which?" or "How many?" For example:

    • "The tall girl is riding a new bike." Tall tells us which girl we're talking about. New tells us what kind of bike we're talking about.
    • "The tough professor gave us the final exam." Tough tells us what kind of professor we're talking about. Final tells us which exam we're talking about.
    • "Fifteen students passed the midterm exam; twelve students passed the final exam." Fifteen and twelve both tell us how many students; midterm and final both tell us which exam.

    So, generally speaking, adjectives answer the following questions:

    • Which?
    • What kind of?
    • How many?

    The Basic Rules: Adverbs

    Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. (You can recognize adverbs easily because many of them are formed by adding -ly to an adjective, though that is not always the case.) The most common question that adverbs answer is how.

    Let's look at verbs first.

    • "She sang beautifully." Beautifully is an adverb that modifies sang. It tells us how she sang.
    • "The cellist played carelessly." Carelessly is an adverb that modifies played. It tells us how the cellist played.

    Adverbs also modify adjectives and other adverbs.

    • "That woman is extremely nice." Nice is an adjective that modifies the noun woman. Extremely is an adverb that modifies nice; it tells us how nice she is. How nice is she? She's extremely nice.
    • "It was a terribly hot afternoon." Hot is an adjective that modifies the noun afternoon. Terribly is an adverb that modifies the adjective hot. How hot is it? Terribly hot.

    So, generally speaking, adverbs answer the question how. (They can also answer the questions when, where, and why.)

    Some other rules:

    Most of the time, adjectives come before nouns. However, they come after the nouns they modify, most often when the verb is a form of the following:

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

    Some examples:

    • "The dog is black." Black is an adjective that modifies the noun dog, but it comes after the verb. (Remember that "is" is a form of the verb "be.")
    • "Brian seems sad." Sad is an adjective that modifies the noun Brian.
    • "The milk smells rotten." Rotten is an adjective that modifies the noun milk.
    • "The speaker sounds hoarse." Hoarse is an adjective that modifies the noun speaker.

    Be sure to understand the differences between the following two examples:

    "The dog smells carefully." Here, carefully describes how the dog is smelling. We imagine him sniffing very cautiously.


    "The dog smells clean." Here, clean describes the dog itself. It's not that he's smelling clean things or something; it's that he's had a bath and does not stink.

    Good or Well

    Good is an adjective and well is an adverb. Many people, including many native speakers, incorrectly use the adjective form good, rather than the adverb well.


    I did good on the test. INCORRECT! - Correct form: I did well on the test.
    She played the game good. INCORRECT! - Correct form: She played the game well.

    Use the adjective form good when describing something or someone. In other words, use good when stating how something or someone is.


    She is a good tennis player.
    Tom thinks he is a good listener.

    Use the adverb form well when describing how something or someone does something.


    She did extremely well on the exam.
    Our parents think we speak English well.

    Do you understand the rules? Test your knowledge with this good vs. well quiz.



    (Note: The errant word has been highlighted blue.)


    Although the new device was the most clever designed bird feeder that Ms. Rodriquez had ever owned, it could not keep squirrels from stealing the birdseed. (clever describes the adjective "designed" and tells how; it should be written as "cleverly")

    The research study reveals startling proof of a constant changing seafloor that comprises the major part of the underwater landscape. (constant describes the adjective "changing" and tells how; it should be written as "constantly")

    If I am reading the editorial correct, the mayor is deliberately avoiding any discussion of the tax-reform bill until after the November elections. (correct describes the verb phrase "am reading" and tells how; it should be written as "correctly")

    It was fortunate that Ms. Seward attended the committee meeting, for only she was able to examine the problem calm and thoughtfully. (A rare obvious one: "calm" should be "calmly," describing how she examined the problem.)