An adjective modifies a noun; that is, it provides more detail about a noun. This can be anything from color to size to temperature to personality. Adjectives usually occur just before the nouns they modify, but they can also follow a linking verb (in these instances, adjectives can modify pronouns as well):
- The generator is used to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy.
- The kids’ schoolhouse was red.
Numbers can also be adjectives in some cases. When you say “Seven is my lucky number,” seven is a noun, but when you say “There are seven cats in this painting,” seven is an adjective because it is modifying the noun cats.
Some adjectives are comparable: they exist on a scale. For example, a person may be polite, but another person may be more polite, and a third person may be the most polite of the three. The word more here modifies the adjective polite to indicate a comparison is being made (a comparative), and most modifies the adjective to indicate an absolute comparison (a superlative).
There is another way to compare adjectives in English. Many adjectives can take the suffixes –er and –est to indicate the comparative and superlative forms, respectively (e.g., great, greater, greatest). Some adjectives are irregular in this sense (good, better, best; bad, worse, worst).
There is no simple rule to decide which means is correct for any given adjective; however, the general tendency is for shorter adjectives to take the suffixes, while longer adjectives do not.
- hotter (not more hot)
- more beautiful (not beautifuller)
- more pretentious (not pretentiouser)
A Note about Fun
The adjective fun is one of the most notable exceptions to the rules. You might expect the comparative to be funner and the superlative to be funnest. However, for a long time, these words were considered non-standard, with more fun and most fun acting as the correct forms.
The reasoning behind this rule is now obsolete (it has a lot to do with the way fun became an adjective), but the stigma against funner and funnest remains. While the tides are beginning to change, it’s safest to stick to more fun and most fun in formal situations (such as in academic writing or in professional correspondence).
When you use comparative adjectives, the adjective is often accompanied by the word than (e.g., “He is taller than me”). When using than, there are two things you should keep in mind:
- You should use than, not the word then. Then indicates time, rather than comparison.
- When you’re trying to emphasize just how “adjective” a thing is, you shouldn’t follow than with a second instance of the comparative. “She is shorter than shorter,” is incorrect. The emphatic phrase “She is shorter than short,” would be correct.
Non-comparable adjectives, on the other hand, are not measured on a scale, but are binary. Either something is “adjective,” or it is not. For example, some English speakers would argue that it does not make sense to say that one thing is “more ultimate” than another, or that something is “most ultimate,” since the word ultimate is already an absolute. Other examples include dead, true, and unique.
Native speakers will frequently play with non-comparable adjectives. Although pregnant is logically non-comparable (someone is pregnant or she is not), you may hear a sentence like “She looks more and more pregnant each day.” Likewise extinct and equal appear to be non-comparable, but one might say that a language about which nothing is known is “more extinct” than a well-documented language with surviving literature but no speakers, and George Orwell once wrote “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Look at the following list of adjectives. Are they comparable or non-comparable? Explain your reasoning why. If the adjective is comparable, list its comparative and superlative forms. For example:
- Tall is a comparable adjective. Height exists on a scale: there are many different heights. The comparative is taller, and the superlative is tallest.
- Dead is a non-comparable. You are either dead or alive. However, this concept is played with in the movie The Princess Bride. Miracle Max says Wesley is “only mostly dead.” Max is expressing the fact that Wesley is still alive, despite being very close to death’s door.
|impossible||Impossible is a non-comparable adjective. Impossible is defined as something that can’t happen; this can’t be graded on a scale. However, people will play on this for emphasis: “That’s the most impossible idea I’ve ever heard.”||large||Large is a comparable adjective. Size exists on a scale. The comparative is larger, and the superlative is largest.|
|pretty||Pretty is a comparable adjective. Attractiveness exists on a scale. The comparative is prettier, and the superlative is prettiest.||nuclear||Nuclear is a non-comparable adjective. It is a classification, not a gradable quality. In phrases like “the most nuclear weapons” most is referring to how many weapons there are, not “how nuclear” the weapons are.|
Adverbs can perform a wide range of functions: they can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They can come either before or after the word they modify. An adverb may provide information about the manner, place, time, frequency, certainty, or other circumstances of the activity indicated by the verb:
- Suzanne sang loudly (loudly modifies the verb sang, indicating the manner of singing)
- We left it here (here modifies the verb phrase left it, indicating place)
- I worked yesterday (yesterday modifies the verb worked, indicating time)
- You often make mistakes (often modifies the verb phrase make mistakes, indicating frequency)
- He undoubtedly did it (undoubtedly modifies the verb phrase did it, indicating certainty)
They can also modify noun phrases, prepositional phrases, or whole clauses or sentences, as in the following examples. Once again the adverbs are in bold, while the words they modify are in italics.
- I bought only the fruit (only modifies the noun phrase the fruit)
- Roberto drove us almost to the station (almost modifies the prepositional phrase to the station)
- Certainly we need to act (certainly modifies the sentence as a whole)
Intensifiers and Adverbs of Degree
Adverbs can also be used as modifiers of adjectives, and of other adverbs, often to indicate degree. Here are a few examples:
- You are quite right (the adverb quite modifies the adjective right)
- Milagros is exceptionally pretty (the adverb exceptionally modifies the adjective pretty)
- She sang very loudly (the adverb very modifies another adverb—loudly)
- Wow! You ran really quickly! (the adverb really modifies another adverb—quickly)
Adverbs may also undergo comparison, taking comparative and superlative forms. This is usually done by adding more and most before the adverb (more slowly, most slowly). However, there are a few adverbs that take non-standard forms, such as well, for which better and best are used (i.e., “He did well, she did better, and I did best“).
Some people are of the opinion that the words very and really indicate weak writing. You’ve probably seen lists of adjectives to use instead of these adverbs (along with an adjective). While this can be true in some cases (enormous or gigantic would probably serve better than “really big”), very and really aren’t terrible words. As in most cases, you just need to be conscious of your choices. When you use these adverbs, pause and see if there’s a better way to word what you’re saying.
Read the following passage and identify the adverbs. Are the intensifiers and adverbs or degree being used well? Or would you suggest revision? The sentences have been numbered to aid you in your comments.
(1) Wojtek (usually spelled Voytek in English) was a Syrian brown bear found in Iran and literally adopted by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. (2) Wojtek initially had problems swallowing and was fed with condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. (3) Later in life, he was oftenly rewarded with beer, which became his favorite drink. (4) He really also enjoyed smoking (or eating) cigarettes.
(5) To get him onto a British transport ship when the unit sailed from Egypt, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a Private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. (6) As an enlisted soldier of the company, with his own paybook, rank, and serial number, he lived either with the other soldiers in tents or by himself in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. (7) According to numerous accounts, Wojtek helped by carrying ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino—he never dropped a single crate. (8) In recognition of the bear’s immensely popularity, the HQ approved a depiction of a bear carrying an artillery shell as the official emblem of the 22nd Company.
- The adverb literally is misused here. The soldiers did not actually adopt the bear (filling out papers), they simply took the bear in. The best solution is to omit the adverb entirely.
- The adverb initially is used correctly.
- The adverb later is correct; oftenly is not a word; the correct word is often.
- Should be also really, not really also. Also is modifying the phrase “really enjoyed smoking,” so it should come before the phrase, not in the middle of it.
- The adverb officially is used correctly.
- There are no adverbs in this sentence.
- The adverb never is used correctly.
- Immensely should be the adjective immense. Popularity is a noun.
Relative adverbs are a subclass of adverbs that deal with space, time, and reason. In this video, David gives a quick intro to the three most common relative adverbs: when, where, and why.
As we just learned, we can use these adverbs to connect ideas about where, when, and why things happen.
Read the following questions and turn them into statements using relative adverbs:
- Where did Nina last see her keys?
- When are the repairmen going to get here?
- Why did the desk just collapse?
- I don’t know where Nina last saw her keys.
- I don’t know when the repairmen are going to get here.
- I don’t know why the desk just collapsed.
Have you ever noticed the effect the word only can have on a sentence, especially depending on where it’s placed? Let’s look at a simple sentence:
- She loves horses.
Let’s see how only can influence the meaning of this sentence:
- Only she loves horses.
- No one loves horses but her.
- She only loves horses.
- The one thing she does is love horses.
- She loves only horses.
- She loves horses and nothing else.
Only modifies the word that directly follows it. Whenever you use the word only make sure you’ve placed it correctly in your sentence.
A linguistic phenomenon is sweeping the nation: people are using literally as an intensifier. How many times have you heard things like “It was literally the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” or “His head literally exploded when I told him I was going to be late again”?
So what’s the problem with this? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the actual definition of literal is as follows:
- involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
- giving the meaning of each individual word
- completely true and accurate : not exaggerated
According to this definition, literally should be used only when something actually happened. Our cultural usage may be slowly shifting to allow literally as an intensifier, but it’s best to avoid using literally in any way other than its dictionary definition, especially in formal writing.
Identify and correct any errors in adverb usage in each sentence.
- Presilah literally died when she heard the news.
- Teddy is literally the best person on the planet.
- Daveed often takes things too literally.
- A pirate only sails the seas.
- In their vows, they promised to love only each other.
- This sentence is incorrect (hopefully). Try replacing literally with practically or nearly.
- Presilah practically died when she heard the news.
- Presilah nearly died when she heard the news.
- This sentence may or may not be true; it’s something that would be very hard to verify. When you’re being purposefully hyperbolic, this may be okay in a non-formal setting, but you may want to consider replacing literally with an intensifier like actually or omitting the adverb altogether, since literally has such a stigma around it.
- Teddy is actually the best person on the planet.
- Teddy is the best person on the planet.
- This sentence is correct.
- This sentence is probably not true. It implies that a pirate sails the seas, and does nothing else. It may be an acceptable sentence if you’re exaggerating on purpose, but a more likely sentence would be “A pirate sails only the seas.” (A pirate sails the seas, and nowhere else.)
- This sentence is correct.