Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Parts of Speech: Adjectives and Adverbs

This is the second post in a series on parts of speech. Most of you already know this kind of stuff, but a little refresher now and then can be useful. Last week, we looked at nouns and verbs. Today, we are going to cover adjectives and adverbs. 

Adjectives and adverbs both fall into a classification known as “Words that start with ‘ad.’”  


Oh, right.  Adjectives and adverbs both fall into the classification of “modifiers.” In a future post, I will touch on the subject of how to use modifiers well.  I will also go over all of the grammatical rules associated with using them.  Today, however, we are just going to look at how they function as parts of speech.

Adjectives (describe nouns)

Adjectives modify nouns or other adjectives.  Actually, ‘adjective’ and ‘object’ share a common root; both words are ultimately derived from the Latin word jacere, which means “to throw.”  Adjacere meant specifically “to throw at,” and from this verb, the word adjectivus was derived.  Adjectivus literally means ‘adjective.’ 

The origin of the word ‘object’ is a little more backwards and actually has to do with ancient Roman politics, so I’m not going to get into all of that.  Suffice it to say that ‘object’ was derived from ‘to throw’ because an object is something which you can throw.  

Knowing that ‘adjective’ and ‘object’ have a common root can help you to remember that adjectives modify nouns.  Since nouns are, in a way, objects, you can see the connection. Ad- means ‘to’ or ‘at,’ so think of ‘adjective’ as “to the object.”

Adjectives are descriptors.  They describe things.  They modify nouns by tying a separate concept to the noun.  Last week, I likened nouns to bones.  Adjectives are sort of like ligaments.  The function of ligaments is to tie two bones together; the function of an adjective is to tie a concept to a noun (or other adjective). 

There are so many different words that are adjectives, and actually, many of them are derived from nouns.   You get beautiful from ‘beauty,’ angry from ‘anger,’ dusty from dust, and so on.  Certain adjectives are derived from proper nouns, such as Elizabethan from ‘Elizabeth,’ Shakespearean from ‘Shakespeare,’ and Marxist from ‘Marxism.’  If the noun is proper, then you should capitalize the adjective.  

Some nouns can act as adjectives, too.  Soda is a noun, but if you say “soda can,” then soda becomes an adjective.  In this case, the adjective quite literally ties two nouns together, the same way that ligaments tie bones together. Colors can act as adjectives.  Numbers can act as adjectives.  If you are using it to describe something else, to modify it, then it is an adjective.

Adjectives also modify other adjectives.  Say we have a pink shirt.  We can further modify ‘pink’ with another adjective, such as pale, bright, obnoxious, or sparkly.  ‘Pale’ modifies ‘pink,’ which then modifies ‘shirt.’ 

Adverbs (describe verbs)

Adverbs modify verbs.  As in ‘adjective,’ the ad- in ‘adverb’ means ‘to’ or ‘at.’  You can think of ‘adverb’ as ‘to the verb.’  They are descriptive words that tell you how something is being done.  Last week, I compared verbs to muscles.  Adverbs are like tendons.  Tendons connect the muscles to the bones; they are the way that the muscles move the bones.  Likewise, adverbs tell you in what way a verb is acting on a noun.  

Adverbs are usually derived from adjectives.  You get beautifully from ‘beautiful,’  angrily from ‘angry,’ and dustily from ‘dusty.’  Most adverbs are marked by the suffix -ly­ at the end, but it’s not a fixed rule. Lovely and surly are adjectives, not adverbs.  However, if you can use it to modify a verb, then it is an adverb.  You can hurt yourself painfully, or you can paint a house quickly.  In both of these cases, the adverb shows how you were hurt or how you painted the house. 

Adverbs can also modify adjectives.  Bob can see Jill’s beautiful face, or he can see her incredibly beautiful face.  In this case, ‘incredibly’ is not modifying ‘see,’ but it is modifying ‘beautiful.’ Adverbs can also modify other adverbs.  You could run quickly, or you could run extremely quickly. In this case, extremely modifies ‘quickly,’ not ‘run.’ (I’m not really sure what it would mean to run extremely.  What would that look like?  Some kind of extreme sports?)

Very well...

Then…there is the word ‘very.’  ‘Very’ is a bizarre modifier that can be either an adjective or an adverb—but only in certain capacities. 

As an adjective, ‘very’ means ‘exact’ or ‘actual.’  You will hear it used this way in a lot of campfire ghost stories. 

20 years ago, on this very campground, a man was killed by hyena demons on that very spot.  The very sight of it alone was enough to make grown men cry. 

As an adverb, it means ‘extremely.’ 

The hyena demons were very savage. 

However, the adverbial form of ‘very’ actually can’t be used to modify verbs; it can only modify adjectives.  Think about it.  Can you say that “I walked very”?  Immediately, you wonder, “’I walked very’ what?  Very quickly?  Very slowly?  Very painfully?”

So, how often should you use the word ‘very’? 

Not very often.

‘Very’ has suffered a huge amount of overuse, and in many cases, the meaning of the sentence does not change if you omit it.  Mark Twain actually once said, “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” There might be some cases where you cannot omit it, but they are few and far between.  
Adjectives and adverbs are great, but unlike ligaments and tendons, modifiers are not absolutely necessary.  Sometimes, they can bog your writing down if not used properly.  Other times, they can make your writing twice as awesome, bringing life to the dull bones and muscles of nouns and verbs. 

Next week: Conjunctions and Prepositions
After that: Articles and Demonstratives, then Interjections, Etc.

Did you find this interesting, or were you bored to tears? Do you have any questions about adjectives and adverbs that I didn't answer? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image credits: Image courtesy of samuiblue at, modified by me.

Never miss a Word-Craft Wednesday! Use the form in the sidebar to subscribe.

No comments:

Post a Comment