Why don't good writers write good? Why can motorists drive slowly but not fastly? Why is it okay that I badly want to eat a sleeve of Oreos, but it wouldn't make sense to say I feel badly about it?
These questions highlight some idiosyncrasies of adjectives and adverbs. Both add flair and specificity to communication, but some modifiers can trip us up.
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or a pronoun. Adjectives answer “What kind?” or “Which?” or “How many?”
The bleak weather ended the annual charity outing. Tricia was mad.
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs tell “how,” “when,” “where,” “why,” “how often,” or “how much.” Most adverbs are formed by adding “-ly” to the end of an adjective.
The business was sold quickly.
(Quickly modifies the verb was sold.)
The staff was extremely concerned.
(Extremely modifies the adjective concerned.)
Management moved very quickly to reassign employees.
(Very modifies the adverb quickly, which modifies the verb moved.)
You just read about how most adverbs are formed by adding ly to the end of an adjective. But that practice doesn’t work for plenty of adverbs. For instance, you wouldn’t say, I ran fastly. You ran fast.
Fast is an example of a flat adverb—a word whose adverb form can be spelled the same as its related adjective form.
Flat adverbs come in one of three categories:
- Those that don't have an -ly form, like fast, long, and far.
- Those that have an -ly form with which they share meanings, like quick/quickly and slow/slowly. When choosing between these, select the version that sounds more natural in speech. If you're still not sure, refer to a dictionary.
- Those that have an ly form with which they don't share all meanings, like hard/hardly and fine/finely.
- She pushed the door hard.
- She hardly pushed the door.
However, in some circumstances, what people think sounds natural is grammatically incorrect.
Let’s look at some common misuses.
At the beginning of this post, we posed this question:
“Why is it okay that I badly want to eat a sleeve of Oreos, but it wouldn't make sense to say I feel badly about it?”
The first use of the adverb badly is correct because it modifies the verb want. However, the second use of badly is problematic. To feel badly would imply my literal sense of touch is no good. Instead, the adjective bad is needed to describe (or modify) the subject's state of mind.
The key word in this scenario is feel, which is used as a linking verb. Linking verbs connect or "link" a subject with its complement—the word or words that complete the description of the subject.
I badly want to eat a sleeve of Oreos, but I feel bad about it. (Feel links the pronoun subject I with the adjective bad.)
Some sensory verbs, such as appear, look, feel, smell, and taste, are sometimes used as linking verbs and other times as action verbs. If the modifier tells about the subject, use an adjective. If the modifier tells about the action of the verb, not the subject, use an adverb.
Good is an adjective, never an adverb. Well is nearly always an adverb; however, when used to indicate state of health, well is an adjective.
Good writers write well. (Good modifies the noun writers, and well modifies the verb write.)
Please go home if you are not well.
On a related note, when someone asks you "How are you?" both "I'm well" and "I'm good" are perfectly acceptable answers, depending on whether you feel healthy (well) or happy (good).
real, very, really
Real is usually used as an adjective meaning “authentic.” Do not use it in place of the adverbs very or really which refer to the frequency or degree of something.
Our personal coaching delivers real results.
She worked very hard for the promotion.
He did not really comprehend the seriousness of the accident.