ESL Corner: Adjectives and Adverbs – What’s the difference?

English language writers use adjectives and adverbs to describe things. Unfortunately, the words are not interchangeable and can pose some problems for ESL writers. Unlike many other languages, English places adjectives before nouns – not after. And ESL writers can struggle with irregular adverbs as well as punctuation with adjectives. So here’s some guidance for ESL writers using adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives are pretty straightforward – adjectives modify nouns.  Some common adjectives include:

  • color (red, blue, green, yellow)
  • size (small, medium, large, short, tall, low, high, narrow, wide)
  • material (wooden, metallic, hard, soft)
  • quality (bad, so-so, OK, good, great, excellent)

Adjectives modify people places and things.

Adjectives appear before the noun, as in “red car,” “fancy house,” and “bright sunlight.”  There are a couple of rules for punctuation to keep in mind when you use multiple adjectives.

Rule 1:  If you have multiple words acting as a single descriptor, use a hyphen to connect those words into a single adjective.

The door-to-door salesman

Rule 2:  For multiple adjectives, test for a comma by mentally inserting the word “and” in between the adjectives.  If everything still makes sense, then a comma belongs there.  If the word “and” sounds weird between the adjectives, then there should be no comma between them.

Comma:  The rich, powerful business tycoon

No comma:  The giant man-eating monster

One more point on adjectives:  when a verb references what we call “state of being”—to be, to seem, to look, to feel—English uses adjectives for the description.  This is because the description still relates to the noun/pronoun and its characteristics.

  • I feel sick.
  • You seem distracted.
  • The dog is excited!
  • The weather looks nice (outside).

If adjectives modify nouns, what do adverbs do?

Well, adverbs modify just about everything else (verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs).  Adverbs can describe how something is being done.

  • quickly
  • easily
  • frequently
  • mysteriously
  • intelligently
  • badly

Notice that many adverbs are easily identified with the –ly ending.  Here are a few common exceptions, and you will read more below:

  • fast
  • hard*
  • well

*Hardly is an adverb, but we use it to mean something quite different.

There are also adverbs of frequency to indicate “how often.”

  • never
  • once
  • rarely
  • occasionally, sometimes, seldom
  • frequently, usually, often
  • almost always
  • always

(Did you notice a few more adverbs that do not end in –ly?)


Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. They’re EXTREMELY versatile words!

Adverbs can also help describe a situation:

  • coincidentally
  • interestingly
  • strangely
  • ironically

Adverbs can also modify adjectives.  This often happens with degrees of intensity or scale:

  • a hotly debated topic
  • a very tall building
  • an intensely motivated salesperson

English also uses adverbs as time references, that is, to indicate when something happens:

  • yesterday
  • today
  • tomorrow

There are also “adverbial phrases,” which are groups of words that act as a single adverb.  English commonly uses adverbial phrases as time references:

  • two hours ago
  • next week
  • once in a while

You will continue to run into adjectives, adverbs, and adverbial phrases throughout your English studies.  Keep asking your teachers those questions, and keep studying!

Liam HickeyLiam Hickey currently teaches ESL with Corporate English in Guadalajara, Mexico.  Via Willpower Careers, Liam also works as a career coach, teaching people how to write effective résumés, research companies, interview and negotiate salary, network, and more.  His clients also benefit from his ten years of technical writing and consulting experience.

He can be reached at or


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