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Adjectives Versus Adverbs


Adjectives and adverbs are describing words; the former describes a noun or pronoun; the latter, a verb, adjective, or other adverb. Here, you learn how to use these words with skill and confidence so you'll never again face the dreaded bad/well dilemma.

Both adjectives and adverbs are modifiers—words that describe other words. For example:

Adjective: The quick fox jumped.
Adverb: The fox jumped quickly.

Ah ha! you say. Adverbs end in -ly; adjectives don't, so that's how I can tell these suckers apart. Not so fast, kemosabe. Some adverbs end in -ly, but not all. Further, some adjectives also end in -ly, such as lovely and friendly. As a result, the -ly test doesn't cut the mustard. Instead, the key to telling the difference between adjectives and adverbs is understanding how they work:

  • Adjectives describe a noun or pronoun.

  • Adverbs describe a verb, adjective, or other adverb.

As you learned in Parts of Speech, the only dependable way to tell whether you should use an adjective or an adverb is to see how the word functions in the sentence. If a noun or pronoun is being described, use an adjective. If a verb, adjective, or other adverb is being described, use an adverb. Here's an example to refresh your memory:

  • He is a skillful driver.

(The adjective skillful describes the noun driver.)
  • The cabby drove skillfully.

(The adverb skillfully describes the verb drove.)

Graphic Proof

Use the following table to keep adjectives and adverbs straight. That way, we'll all be reading from the same sheet music as we play together in the rest of this section.

In the Know: Adjective or Adverb?

Modifier ___________ Function ______________ Example

Adjectives ___________ Describe nouns ___________ The busy bee never rests.
(The noun is bee.)
Adjectives ___________ Describe pronouns ___________ She felt disappointed.
(The pronoun is she.)
Adverbs ___________ Describe verbs ___________ The child cried bitterly.
(The verb is cried.)
Adverbs ___________ Describe adverbs ___________ The child cried very bitterly.
(The adverb is bitterly.)
Adverbs ___________ Describe adjectives ___________ The child was truly annoyed.
(The adjective is annoyed.)

Three Degrees of Separation

Often, you'll want to compare things rather than just describe them. Not to worry; English has this covered. Adjectives and adverbs have different forms to show degrees of comparison. We even have a name for each of these forms of degree: positive, comparative, and superlative. Let's meet the whole gang.

Positive degree: the base form of the adjective or adverb. It does not show comparison.

Comparative degree: the form an adjective or adverb takes to compare two things.

Superlative degree: the form an adjective or adverb takes to compare three or more things.

The following table shows the three degrees of comparison with some sample adjectives and adverbs

Comparative Levels of Adjectives and Adverbs

Part of Speech ______ Positive _______ Comparative ______ Superlative

Adjective ______ low ______ lower ______ lowest
Adjective ______ big ______ bigger ______ biggest
Adjective ______ fat ______ fatter ______ fattest
Adverb ______ highly ______ more highly ______ most highly
Adverb ______ widely ______ more widely ______ most widely
Adverb ______ easily ______ more easily ______ most easily

As you can see from this table, the comparative and superlative degrees of adjectives and adverbs are formed differently. Here's how:

1. All adverbs that end in -ly form their comparative and superlative degree with more and most.

quickly, more quickly, most quickly
slowly, more slowly, most slowly

2. Avoid using more or most when they sound awkward, as in “more soon than I expected.” In general, use -er/-est with one- and two-syllable modifiers.

fast, faster, fastest
high, higher, highest

3. When a word has three or more syllables, use more and most to form the comparative and superlative degree.

beloved, more beloved, most beloved
detested, more detested, most detested

Size Does Matter

Now that you know how to form comparisons with adjectives and adverbs, follow these guidelines to make these comparisons correct.

1. Use the comparative degree (-er or more form) to compare two things.
Your memory is better than mine.

Donald Trump is more successful than Donald Duck, Don Ameche, or Don Ho.

2. Use the superlative form (-est or most) to compare three or more things.

This is the largest room in the house.
This is the most awful meeting.

3. Never use -er and more or -est and most together. One or the other will do the trick nicely.

No: This is the more heavier brother.
Yes: This is the heavier brother.
No: He is the most heaviest brother.
Yes: He is the heaviest brother.

Irregular Adjectives and Adverbs

Of course, life can't be that easy in the land of adjectives and adverbs. And so it isn't. A few adjectives and adverbs don't follow these rules. They sneer at them, going their own separate ways. Like errant congressmen, there's just no predicting what these adjectives and adverbs will do next.

The following table shows the most common irregular adjectives and adverbs. Tap the noggin and memorize these forms.

Positive _______ Comparative _______ Superlative

good _______ better _______ best
well _______ better _______ best
bad _______ worse _______ worst
badly _______ worse _______ worst
far _______ farther _______ farthest
far _______ further _______ furthest
late _______ later _______ later or latest
little (amount) _______ less _______ least
many _______ more _______ most
much _______ more _______ most
some _______ more _______ most

Keep Your Balance

In most cases, the comparative and superlative degree shouldn't present any more difficulty than doing pick-up brain surgery with a screw driver or dealing with your two-year-old. Upon occasion, however, the way the sentence is phrased may make your comparison unclear. You balance your tires and your checkbook, so balance your sentences. Here's how:

Compare similar items.
Finish the comparison.

No: Nick's feet are bigger than Charles's. (Charles's what?)
Yes: Nick's feet are bigger than Charles's feet.
No: My wife's CD collection is larger than my son's.
Yes: My wife's CD collection is larger than my son's CD collection.

Other and Else

Another common error is illogical comparisons. Why bother creating new illogical situations, when the world is filled with existing ones that fit the bill so nicely?

Because the thing you're comparing is part of a group, you have to differentiate it from the group by using the word other or else before you can set it apart in a comparison. Therefore, to avoid adding to the world's existing stock of stupidity, when you compare one item in a group with the rest of the group, be sure to include the word other or else. Then, your comparison will make sense.

Dopey: The Godfather was greater than any modern American movie.

Sensible: The Godfather was greater than any other modern American movie.

Dopey: Francis Ford Coppola won more awards than anyone at the ceremony.

Sensible: Francis Ford Coppola won more awards than anyone else at the ceremony.

Using Adjectives After Linking Verbs

Remember that linking verbs describe a state of being or a condition. They include all forms of to be (such as am, is, are, were, was) and verbs related to the senses (look, smell, sound, feel). Linking verbs connect the subject of a sentence to a word that renames or describes it.

Sticky situations arise with verbs that sometimes function as linking verbs but other times function as action verbs. Life just isn't fair sometimes. As linking verbs, these verbs use adjectives as complements. As action verbs, these verbs use adverbs. For example:

Charlie looks cheerful.
(looks is a linking verb; cheerful is an adjective)

Charlie looks cheerfully at the buffet table.
(looks is an action verb; cheerfully is an adverb)

The Badlands

The adjective bad and the adverb badly are especially prone to such abuse. For instance:

No-No: The guest felt badly.
Yes-Yes: The guest felt bad.
No-No: The food tasted badly.
Yes-Yes: The food tasted bad.

Good News; Well News

Good and well are as dicey as bad and badly. That's because well functions both as an adverb and as an adjective:

1. Good is always an adjective.

You did a good job.
You're a good egg.

2. Well is an adjective used to describe good health.

You look well.
You sound well after your recent bout with pneumonia.

3. Well is an adverb when it's used for anything else.

You cook well.
They eat well


When you make comparisons using adjectives and adverbs, pay attention to elements that can be counted and those that cannot. As you read earlier, remember that less and fewer cannot be interchanged. Less refers to amounts that form a whole or can't be counted (less money, less filling), while fewer refers to items that can be counted (fewer coins, fewer calories).

1. For nouns that can be counted, use few, fewer, or fewest rather than little, less, or least to count down.

Incorrect: Carrot sticks have less calories than chocolate.
Correct: Carrot sticks have fewer calories than chocolate.
Because calories can be counted, use the adjective fewer rather than the adjective less.

2. For mass nouns (which cannot be counted) use little, less, or least rather than few, fewer, or fewest to count down.

Incorrect: There's fewer water in this bucket than I expected.
Correct: There's less water in this bucket than I expected.
Because water is a mass noun that cannot be counted, use the adjective less rather than the adjective fewer.

3. For nouns that can be counted, use the adjective many, not much.

Incorrect: Foi gras has much calories.
Correct: Foi gras has many calories.
Because calories can be counted, use the adjective many rather than the adjective much.

No Double Negatives

A double negative is a statement that contains two negative describing words. For instance:

Double negative: The shopper did not have no money left over after the binge.

Correct: The shopper did not have any money left over after the binge.


The shopper had no money left over after the binge.

To avoid this grammatical faux pas, use only one negative word to express a negative idea. Here are the most frequently used negative words:


Double negatives are sneaky little critters. They are especially likely to cause problems with contractions. When the word not is used in a contraction—such as isn't, doesn't, wouldn't, couldn't, don't—the negative tends to slip by. As a result, writers and speakers may add another negative.

Double negative: He didn't say nothing.

Correct: He didn't say anything.


He said nothing.

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