Modifiers: Adjectives and Adverbs

Similar to an adjective, an adverb describes a verb and offers the reader more information about an action. As a writer, adjectives and adverbs let you give your reader more information so your ideas are clearer. This article discusses how adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, and how adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.


A modifier is a word or phrase that describes another word or phrase. Two common types of modifiers are the adverb (a word that describes an adjective, a verb, or another adverb) and the adjective (a word that describes a noun or pronoun). However, though all adjectives and adverbs are modifiers, not all modifiers are adjectives and adverbs. Many modifiers are entire phrases. For example: Responsible for representing students to the faculty and overseeing student organizations, the Student Council plays an important role in campus life. The modifying phrase (in italics) provides additional information about the subject of the sentence: the Student Council.

Key terms:

  • adjectives: A part of speech that describes, quantifies, or identifies a noun or pronoun.
  • adverb: A part of speech that describes, quantifies, or identifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb.
great wall of china
Have you ever seen a photo of the Great Wall of China? If not, look at the picture on your left. It's simply enormous. It's incredibly long, snaking its stony way across the mountains and valleys of Asia, with beautiful towers standing tall every couple of hundred feet. But without modifiers, "the Great Wall" would simply be "the Wall". We need adverbs and adjectives in order to be descriptive in our writing. Adjectives, like "great", "enormous", "stony", "long", and "beautiful" modify nouns and pronouns. Adverbs, like "simply" and "incredibly" modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.


Adjectives describe, quantify, or identify pronouns and nouns. Remember, a noun is a person, place, or thing. Pronouns, such as I, me, we, he, she, it, you, and they, take the place of nouns. Adjectives also answer the following questions: What kind? How many? How much? Which one?

Descriptions concerning What kind? offer descriptive details about the noun or pronoun. It may describe physical characteristics or emotions. Here are a few examples: the black car, the angry customer, the fashionable teen.

The questions How many? and How much? refer to quantity of the noun or pronoun being described by the adjective. Quantity can be specific (four ducks) or general (some ducks). Here are some more examples: fourteen cents, a few puppies, several kittens, a dozen books.

Which one? specifically describes which object is being referred to. These are workhorse words like "this", "that", "these", and other words like "them": that car, this letter, those volunteers.

Adjectives are helpful when additional description is needed for a noun or pronoun. Like adjectives, adverbs can also help add details to your writing.

  • Compound Adjectives

In some situations, two adjectives may be used to describe a noun. Sometimes these two adjectives remain separate, as two distinctive words describing the noun. But other times, the adjectives combine to become one adjective joined by a hyphen.

    • The phrase a heavy metal detector refers to a metal detector that is heavy in weight. Heavy and metal are separate adjectives describing the detector in this situation.
    • The phrase a heavy-metal detector refers to a detector of heavy metals. Heavy-metal is the compound adjective describing the detector.

As you can see, the hyphen completely changes the meaning of the phrase by combining two words into one. Here's another example:

    • The phrase man eating shark refers to a man who is eating a shark.
    • The phrase man-eating shark refers to a shark that eats men.
  • Adjectives for Comparison
Adjectives are also used to compare items:
    • This year's graduating class was smaller than last year's class.
    • This book is the best one we've read so far.

The standard form for using adjectives for comparison is to add -er to the end of an adjective being used to compare two items (brighter, cooler) and -est to the end of an adjective used to compare more than two items (brightest, coolest). However, some adjectives, such as ones that are three or more syllables like beautiful, are changed to say "more beautiful" and "most beautiful" rather than adding these endings.

  • Pronouns as Adjectives

Sometimes, pronouns can be used as adjectives. In addition to demonstrative pronouns, possessive pronouns like "his" or "their" can also identify specific objects within a set. For example:

    • Which car should we drive? We should drive her car.
    • Whose house is closest? Your house is closest.
  • Prepositional Phrases as Adjectival Phrases

Prepositional phrases can act as adjectives, normally modifying the noun that precedes them.

    • Which books should we read? The books on the curriculum.
    • Whose stories did we listen to in class? Those of the teacher.

Lastly, in addition to single words, you can use adjectival phrases. These are phrases that begin with an adjective but then have a noun that adds further detail, such as "full of toys" instead of just "full". They are most frequently used as a modifier placed right after a noun or as a predicate to a verb. For example, you could say "The child loved his bin full of toys" or "That bin is full of toys".



Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They commonly describe how, when, or where the action of a verb took place. How refers to the manner in which an action occurred. When addresses the time of the action. Where investigates the place or location the action took place. Here are some examples:

  • The boys ran loudly down the stairs. [How did the boys run? Loudly.]
  • We went down later. [When did we go? Later.]
  • He delivered pizza locally. [Where did he deliver? Locally.]

Adverbs can also be used to modify adjectives and other adverbs.

  • The train leaves at a reasonably early hour. [The adverb reasonably modifies the adjective early.]
  • She spoke quite passionately about politics. [The adverb quite modifies the adverb passionately.]

Prepositional Phrases as Adverbs

You can use prepositional phrases as adverbs if they modify a verb, adjective, or adverb. For example:

  • Don't judge a book by its cover. [The phrase "by its cover" describes the verb "judge".]
  • I am tired of this diet. ["Of this diet" describes the adjective "tired".]

 The Hyphenated Adverb

Hyphens can be used to combine an adverb and adjective to describe a noun. In this situation, the adverb is describing the adjective, and the adjective is describing the noun. However, when the adverb ends with -ly, a hyphen should not be used. Let's review some examples.

  • beautiful-looking flowers
  • best-known author
  • well-rounded student
  • best-paid job

If the hyphen was removed from any of these examples the phrase would take on a different meaning. For example, "best-known author" describes the author who is known the best, whereas "best known author" would describe an author who is, separately, both best and known. The hyphen is what makes sure that "best" describes "known" rather than "author".

Which Should You Use: Adjectives or Adverbs?

Writers often have a choice in wording a sentence to use either an adjective or an adverb:

  • Adjective: We had a quick lunch.
  • Adverb: We ate lunch quickly.

So, how do you choose when to use an adjective and when to use an adverb? One way to choose is simply to figure out whether the word you want to modify is a noun or a verb. In the first sentence, you are describing the lunch; in the second sentence, you are describing the manner of eating.

A better approach, though, is not to think about the words you could modify but the information you want to convey. You do not need to describe every noun or verb, just the ones whose details are important to the sentence. If you want to emphasize the meal, you would pick the first sentence; if you want to emphasize the act of eating, you would pick the second.

Remember, adjectives and adverbs can be separated by which types of information they provide. Think about the details that are necessary to include, and then choose your modifiers accordingly.


Source: Lumen Learning,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2019, 12:02 PM