On Friday nights, after I’ve watched the local television news, I usually sit in my recliner and flip between the late-night talk shows. What drives me crazy about these shows, however, is the guests who don’t know the difference between an adjective and an adverb.
For example, I once heard a famous singer say that his voice sounded “poorly.” I also heard a Hollywood actress say she felt “badly” when her cat died. I even heard an ice-cream manufacturer say that he often had to sample his product to make sure that it tasted “well.” In each case, the speakers used adverbs when they should have used adjectives.
The basic difference between an adjective and an adverb is that an adjective describes a noun (a person, a place, a thing, or an idea) while an adverb describes a verb (an action word), an adjective, or another adverb.
To see the difference between the two, look at the following sentences:
“The careful woman tip-toed through the tulips.”
“The woman walked carefully through the rose bushes.”
In the first sentence, the word “careful” is an adjective that describes the woman, and in the second sentence, the word “carefully” is an adverb that describes how the woman walked.
In these examples — and in most sentences — the adjectives precede the nouns they describe (“careful” precedes and describes “woman”), and the adverbs follow the words they describe (“carefully” follows and describes “walked”). In addition, adverbs often end in the letters “ly,” but adjectives generally do not. Unfortunately, as a speaker or as a writer, you may get confused when you form sentences that don’t follow the normal patterns. Fortunately, you can avoid mistakes if you remember these two rules.
1. If the verb you’re using pertains to one of the five senses (I feel, I look, I sound, I smell, or it tastes), you should use an adjective instead of an adverb.
2. If the verb you’re using refers to a state of being (I am, you were, he will be), then, you should also use an adjective rather than an adverb. These verbs pertaining to the five senses and to a state of being are called “linking verbs” because they typically connect nouns and adjectives. Other linking verbs include words such as the following: seem, become, appear, and remain. Example: Adam seemed calm (not calmly), and Eve appeared nervous (not nervously).
Thus, the famous singer referred to earlier should have said his voice sounded “poor” (an adjective) rather than “poorly” (an adverb) because he was describing his voice, which is a noun. The Hollywood actress should have said she felt “bad” instead of “badly” because she was describing her emotional state and not her sense of touch. (If she really “felt badly,” she might reach for her drink and spill it all over herself.) And the ice-cream manufacturer should have said his ice cream tasted “good” or “delicious” or even “horrible.” He, too, needed an adjective.
Actually, the ice-cream manufacturer was closer to being correct than either the singer or the actress because the word “well” can be used as both an adjective and an adverb. However, as an adjective, the word “well” usually refers to one’s health. Thus, the ice-cream manufacturer was mistakenly describing the health of the ice cream when he wanted to describe the ice cream’s taste.
Why do I care about the language problems of the rich and famous? I care because many students listen to these celebrities, assume the superstars know what they’re talking about, and, then, repeat the mistakes as they speak and write. Don’t fall into that trap. You now know the difference between an adjective and an adverb. And if you forget, just remember the title of this article.