An idiom that often appears on college entrance examinations is "different from." Do not use the incorrect "different than."

This idiom can be remembered by changing the syntax of the sentence: in place of a linking verb and the adjective "different," use a form of "to differ."

  1. Bob is different from Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.
  2. Bob differs from Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.
  3. Bob is different than Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.
  4. Bob differs than Sam in that the former is funny and the latter is not.

While colloquial speech may have made the third sentence sound acceptable, the last sentence simply does not make sense. Just as "differs than" sounds silly, so should "different than."

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The types of questions on college entrance examinations that test knowledge of adjectives include items that require the ability to:

  1. identify adjectives that incorrectly modify verbs or other adjectives and replace them with adverbs
  2. differentiate between adjectives and other parts of speech in parallelism errors
  3. identify and correct dangling participles, which are adjective forms of verbs that do not clearly and correctly modify any word in a sentence
  4. identify and correct errors in the use of comparative, superlative, and absolute adjectives

An adjective is a word or group of words used to describe a noun.

The red apple was in a glass bowl.

The adjectives in this sentence are "red" and "glass." "Red" modifies the noun "apple" and "glass" modifies the noun "bowl."

A prepositional phrase can act as an adjective.

The apple was in a bowl on the table.

The prepositional phrase "on the table" acts as an adjective to describe the noun "bowl."

A linking verb links a subject with a predicate. When a subject is linked to an adjective, the modifier is called a predicate adjective.

The apple tastes sweet.

The verb "tastes" links the subject, "apple," with the predicate adjective, "sweet."

Adjectives used for comparison are either comparative or superlative.

  • A comparative adjective is used to compare two people or things. Comparative adjectives generally end in "-er" or are themselves modified by "more" or "less."

An apple is sweeter than a lemon.

I think that apples are more delicious than bananas.

  • A superlative adjective is used to compare more than two people or things. Superlative adjectives generally end in "-est" or are themselves modified by "most" or "least."

Apples, bananas, and peaches are all sweet, but peaches are sweetest.

Apples, bananas, and peaches are all tasty, but I think peaches are the most delicious.

Do not confuse comparative and superlative adjectives. Comparative adjectives can only be used to compare two people or things, and superlative adjectives can only be used to compare more than two people or things.

Apples and peaches are delicious, but I like peaches best.

"Best" is a superlative adjective that means "surpassing all others." Since this sentence contains a comparison of only two things, use the comparative "better."

Apples and peaches are delicious, but I like peaches better.

Do not use a comparative adjective when comparing more than two people or things, as in the following sentence:

After eating an apple, a banana, and a peach, I decided that I liked the peach better.

"Better" is a comparative adjective incorrectly used in this sentence to compare three things. Use the superlative "best" in this context.

After eating an apple, a banana, and a peach, I decided that I liked the peach best.

An absolute adjective describes a quality that has no degree. Absolute adjectives should not be used in comparisons and should only be modified by adverbs such as "nearly" or "almost." These are examples of absolute adjectives:

  • dead (Someone or something that is no longer living is dead; a person cannot be more dead than someone else, and a plant cannot be very dead. However, a plant that has not been watered in a long time can be described as "almost dead.")
  • square (Something is either square or it is not square. A drawing of a box made without a ruler can be described as "nearly square.")
  • perfect ("Perfect" is not relative. A grade can be almost perfect, but your perfect score cannot be more perfect than my perfect score.)

"Unique" is a word that means "unlike any other." Someone or something can either be incomparable (unique) or like someone or something else (not unique). People and things cannot be "very unique" or "more unique" than others. Colloquial speech has developed an alternate meaning of "unique" – "unusual," which is not absolute and can therefore be modified in a comparative manner. However, this usage is not acceptable in standard written English and formal speech. If you encounter "unique" on a standardized test, make sure that it has not been comparatively modified. Do not use a comparatively modified form of "unique" in your writing.

Some questions on college entrance examinations might test your ability to distinguish between an adjective and an adverb. Remember the basics:

  • an adjective modifies a noun
  • an adverb modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb
  • linking verbs can connect a noun with a predicate adjective, making the syntax of the sentence subject-verb-adjective even though the adjective is not modifying the verb

An adjective modifies a noun. An adjective cannot modify another adjective. Only an adverb can modify an adjective.

Bob gave Sam a cake special baked for him.

"Baked" is an adjective. "Special" is an adjective describing "baked." Change "special" to the adverb "specially" to correct the sentence.

Bob gave Sam a cake specially baked for him.

An adverb cannot be used as a predicate adjective. Linking verbs cannot link a noun with an adverb. This type of error is commonly found when the linking verb is a sense verb (look, smell, sound, taste, feel). When an adverb is used as a predicate adjective, it does not describe how the subject looks, smells, sounds, tastes, or feels; rather, the adverb describes the quality of the action of using ones eyes, nose, ears, taste buds, and hands.

My hair is a mess; I look badly. (This means "I am having a hard time looking at things." Change the sentence to "My hair is a mess; I look bad.")

I just ran a marathon; I smell badly. (This means something like "My nose is stuffed." Change the sentence to "I just ran a marathon; I smell bad.")

My nose is stuffed; I sound badly. (This means something like "I am having trouble banging this gong." Change the sentence to "My nose is stuffed; I sound bad.")

I think this milk is sour; it tastes badly. (This means that the milk has the ability to taste and is not performing that task well. Change the sentence to "I think this milk is sour; it tastes bad.")

I think I hurt her feelings; I feel badly. (This means that my ability to touch things is poor. Change the sentence to "I think I hurt her feelings; I feel bad.")

A common mistake is the use of the adjective "good" as an adverb.

I did good on my test.

"Good" is an adjective used to modify the verb "did." An adjective cannot modify an adverb. The phrase "to do good" means "to perform charitable acts" and in this context, "good" is a noun. The correct word to modify "good" is "well."

I did well on my test.

Grammar Basics: Nouns

June 6, 2006

Standardized examinations test knowledge of nouns using several methods:

  1. collective nouns in subject/verb agreement errors
  2. countable and uncountable nouns in subject/verb agreement errors
  3. nouns as antecedents in errors in pronoun/antecedent agreement
  4. consistency of noun forms in errors of parallelism
  5. errors in pronoun choice with gerunds

A noun is a person, place, or thing.

  • musician
  • New York
  • guitar

Nouns may be common (musician, city, guitar) or proper (Elvis, New York, Stratocaster).

Nouns can be subjects or objects.

Bob ate the cookie.

  • "Bob" is the subject: he ate.
  • "Cookie" is the object: it was eaten.

Bob gave the cake to Sam.

  • "Bob" is the subject: he gave.
  • "Cake" is the direct object: it was given.
  • "Sam" is the indirect object: the cake was given to him.

A linking verb links a subject with a predicate that describes the subject. When a subject is linked to a noun, the noun is called a predicate nominative.

Bob is a man.

  • "Bob" is the subject.
  • "Man" corresponds to the subject: it is the predicate nominative.

Some nouns are countable (one guitar, two guitars, three guitars), and others are uncountable (one music? two musics? No.) The difference between countable and uncountable nouns is important in distinguishing between the usage of "number" and "amount."

Collective nouns describe groups and some can take singular or plural verbs and pronouns depending on context. These are a few common collective nouns:

  • team
  • jury
  • class
  • flock
  • police
  • herd

When a collective noun is performing an action as a single unit, use singular verbs and singular pronouns to refer back to the noun.

The class is going on a field trip with its teacher.

The class is going as a unit. The whole class has a teacher.

When the individual members of a collective noun are acting individually within the group, use plural verbs and pronouns to refer back to the noun.

The class are taking their books with them.

The individual members are taking individual books.

Certain forms of verbs can act as nouns. A gerund is a verb ending in "-ing" that acts as a noun.

I like swimming, hiking, and dancing.

An infinitive is the base form of a verb combined with "to." An infinitive can act as a noun.

I like to swim, to hike, and to dance.

When a noun or pronoun precedes a gerund in a sentence, the noun or pronoun must be in the possessive form. A common error in colloquial speech, and one that is commonly seen on standardized examinations, is the use of the objective form of a noun or pronoun that precedes a gerund in a sentence.

A gerund is a verb ending in "-ing" that acts as a noun.

Eating cake is the best part of my birthday.

I like to visit my friend, but driving to her house can take a long time.

He enjoys listening to music.

When a noun or pronoun precedes a gerund in a sentence, it must take the possessive form. The possessive form of a noun includes an apostrophe and the letter "s" and the possessive forms of pronouns are my, your, his, her, its, our, their and whose.

My eating all that cake made me sick to my stomach.

Bob's driving is rather reckless.

His listening to loud music all night drove me crazy.

Examination questions may present a gerund preceded by a noun or pronoun in the objective form. Objective forms of nouns do not have an apostrophe and an "s" and the objective forms of pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, them, and whom. (Notice that the third person feminine pronoun is "her" in both the possessive and objective form.)

I attributed his stomach ache to him eating all that cake.

We appreciate Bob driving us to her house.

I cannot take him listening to loud music anymore.

These sentences are all incorrect because the noun and pronouns preceding the gerunds are in the objective case. Remember that gerunds are nouns and think of possessive pronouns as adjectives since they describe "whose [noun]."

  • my cake (or "my eating")
  • Bob's car (or "Bob's driving")
  • his music (or "his listening")

Objective pronouns act as objects or objects of prepositions; they are never adjectives. Look at how silly the use of objective forms can be:

  • me cake (so it should never be "me eating")
  • Bob car (so it should never be "Bob driving")
  • him music (so it should never be "him listening")

These are the corrected versions of the above sentences:

I attributed his stomach ache to his eating all that cake.

We appreciate Bob's driving us to her house.

I can't take his listening to loud music anymore.

There are several ways to improve your writing for the college entrance examinations and your college application essays.

This sentence features a form of weak syntax known as "expletive construction." Phrases that begin with "there" or "it" and a form of "to be" are often unnecessarily wordy and should generally be avoided. (The word "expletive," when used as an adjective, can mean "serving to fill a vacancy" and refers to the lack of meaning offered by these phrases.)

Notice the impact made by restructuring the sentence to avoid the expletive construction:

You can improve your writing for the college entrance examinations and your college application essays in several ways.

Removing the expletive phrase "There are" places more emphasis on the subject ("you") and the object ("writing"). Furthermore, every word in the sentence now serves a purpose in conveying the meaning of the sentence. "There are" is an empty phrase that did not add anything to the original sentence.

Review the following pairs of sentences and notice the difference that removing an expletive construction can make:

  1. There is a dog sitting on my bed.
  2. A dog is sitting on my bed.

  1. There are three things that you need to remember: close the window, lock the door, and bring the cake.
  2. Remember these three things: close the window, lock the door, and bring the cake.

  1. There was a glass pitcher, which was full of lemonade, on the table.
  2. A glass pitcher of lemonade sat on the table.

These are adjectives that are similar to "firm in one's beliefs" in meaning. Sentence completion questions may test your knowledge of such words directly, or they may set up a contrast with such words as "gave in" or "acquiesced." Familiarize yourself with these words and their definitions so that you will be able to recognize them and remember their "firm" connotations.

adamant – not likely to change one's mind

She was adamant in her desire to become an actress despite her parents' pleading that she attend college to study law.

implacable – not capable of being appeased or significantly changed

The baby was implacable despite his mother's soothing coos, and he cried for the duration of the trip.

intransigent holding firmly to one's beliefs and refusing to change

Cult members are intransigent in their dedication to their leader.

obdurate – stubborn (especially with respect to morals); hard-hearted

The obdurate old man refused to buy the Girl Scout's cookies and slammed the door in her face.

resolute – fixed in belief, determined in pursuing a purpose

Despite her exhaustion, she was resolute in her determination to finish the marathon.