Need-to-know Grammar: Modifier Confusion

June 13, 2006

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.

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4 Responses to “Need-to-know Grammar: Modifier Confusion”

  1. Mahil Says:

    Hi I am a high school student. Thank you for your valuable information. I hope it will be helpful for my SAT

  2. Scott Says:

    I see the mistakes you’re trying to get rid of, but adjectives can be coupled with other adjectives in modifying the same noun. For example, “It was a hot, dusty day.”

  3. Satpreet Says:

    Is “I’m good” instead of “I’m fine” correct english ?

  4. lol Says:

    @Satpreet:

    I believe that both of those are really slang (unless, by “I’m good” you really mean “I’m not evil”).


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