Grammatical modifiers add detail to sentences. There are two primary types: adjectives, which modify nouns and pronouns, and adverbs, which modify verbs or adjectives.
Modifiers can significantly improve your writing. They enhance the quality of information you provide, making your work more precise. However, you don't want to overwhelm your reader with unnecessary or excessive description. Try to strike a balance.
Adjectives describe, quantify, or identify pronouns and nouns. They also answer the following questions:
- What kind? - How many? - How much? - Which one?
Descriptions about “What kind?” add detail about the qualities of the noun or pronoun being described: the yellow dress, the sad clown, the smart pupil. This ranges from details regarding physical characteristics to emotional states.
Descriptions answering “How many?” and “How much?” specify the amount of whatever noun or pronoun you are modifying. Quantifying adjectives can be specific (ten candles, three hundred pages) or vague (several minutes, a few people, some candy).
Answering “Which one?” increases specificity by confirming exactly which object the writer is referring to. Examples include phrases such as “that novel,” “this writer,” or “those students.” Most adjectives that serve this purpose are called determiners or demonstrative pronouns.
Other Uses for Adjectives
Adjectives are also used to compare items. This usually involves using a combination of identifying and descriptive adjectives:
This year’s graduating class was smaller than last year’s class. These books are the best we’ve read so far.
Sometimes, pronouns can be used as adjectives. In addition to demonstrative pronouns, possessive pronouns 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 can be used as adjectives, normally modifying the noun that precedes them. Like pronouns, they normally act as identifiers:
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 perform a similar function to adjectives, but they modify verbs or, (less frequently) other adjectives or adverbs. Secondly, they answer different questions than adjectives do. You can easily identify many adverbs because they often end in "-ly." Adverbs are used to provide the following details:
- When did something happen? - How often did it occur? - How was the action performed? - Where did it take place?
Describing when: The last time I went shopping was a while ago. Describing how often: I visit my friends frequently. Describing how: He ran quickly in the race. Describing where: She sat down nearby.
You can also use adverbial prepositions, phrases that start with a preposition and modify a nearby verb. For example, in the sentence “You cannot judge a book by its cover,” the phrase “by its cover” describes the conditions under which you cannot judge a book.
Which Should You Use: Adjectives or Adverbs? (Figure 2)
One way to choose whether you need to use an adverb or an adjective is simply to figure out whether the word you want to modify is a noun or a verb. 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. Remember, adjectives and adverbs can be separated by which types of information they provide. Think about the details that are necessary enough to include, and then choose your modifiers accordingly.
Where to Place Adverbs and Adjectives
Writers should be careful where they place adjectives and adverbs in sentences, because most readers assume that modifiers refer to whichever word they are closest to. If you separate modifiers too far from the nouns and verbs they are supposed to modify, the reader may not understand what you mean.
Above all, it should always be clear to the reader which word an adjective or adverb is modifying. By paying attention to placement and making sure that if you want to modify a verb you use an adverb instead of an adjective, you will make it much easier for your reader to pick up on your intended meaning.