Understanding the Difference Between Adjectives and Adverbs: Usage Guidelines for ESL Students

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There’s a Difference


Adjectives are used to modify or describe nouns. Adjectives answer questions about nouns including which, what kind, and how many. Adjectives can occur before the noun they are modifying or after the noun.

Here are some examples of adjectives:

In the sentence “The flower is large,” if you ask what is the flower like, the answer is large – large, then, is the adjective.

In the sentence “Leila sang an old song,” old is the adjective modifying the noun song. It provides us with information about the age of the noun song.

In the sentence “I have a green hat and a mauve coat,”, green and mauve are adjectives describing the nouns hat and coat.


Adverbs are used to describe or modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs do not modify nouns and pronouns. Adverbs offer information about the questions how, why, where and when.

Adverbs are quite easily recognizable. They are usually made from adjectives, by adding -LY. If the adjective ending is just a -Y, the adverb is made by adding – ILY.

In some cases, however, -LY or -ILY are not used. Take the adjective “good” which becomes the adverb “well”. Some adjectives like “fast”, “late” or “hard” remain the same as adverbs.

Adverbs are often placed at the end of a sentence.

Here are some examples of adverbs -

In the sentence “He dances skillfully”, skillfully is the adverb that has been modified from the adjective skillful. It tells us how he dances. That is, the adverb skillfully modifies the verb dances.

Let’s take the sentence “The officer is extremely charming.” Here extremely is the adverb modifying the adjective charming.

In the phrase “A wonderfully cold drink,” wonderfully is the adverb that modifies the adjective cold.

Adjectives that are not adverbs:

Some adjectives end in -LY and are mistaken for adverbs, but they are not adverbs and cannot be used as such. Some of these are:

  • Lively
  • Lovely
  • Silly
  • Friendly
  • Beastly
  • Ghastly
  • Elderly
  • Worldly
  • Manly
  • Timely

However, some adjectives that end in -LY, like daily, weekly, monthly or yearly can also be adverbs.

The word near can be both an adjective and an adverb. In the sentence “The work will be completed near Easter,” near is an adjective modifying the noun Easter.

In the sentence “It came near and we nearly ran,” near is and adverb describing the verb came; while nearly is an adverb describing the verb ran.

Does all this sound confusing? Well, that’s just the charm of the English language.