Parts Of Speech: The Building Blocks Of Sentences (Part 2)

Jan 03, 14 Parts Of Speech: The Building Blocks Of Sentences (Part 2)

Recently, I wrote about the two most important building blocks of sentences: nouns and verbs. These are important because without both of them, a sentence cannot be. A sentence must have both a subject (i.e. a noun) and a predicate (i.e. a verb); otherwise, it is a fragment, an incomplete sentence. Since I started this series with the noun and verb, it only seemed appropriate to continue with the articles, adjectives, and adverbs. Each of these parts of speech modify either the noun, verb, and possibly each other. In other words, they provide detail and description. They are the flare, if you will.

So let’s get started.


In the English language, we only have three articles: a, an, and the. A, an, and the all precede nouns or noun phrases. A and an are words that modify general nouns:

Example 1: She wants a farm.

Example 2: He saw an explosion through his telescope.

Farm and explosion are general. She could want any farm and he could have seen any explosion.

On the other hand, the is a word that means a specific noun.

Example 1: The doctor wants to live on the farm up the hill.

Example 2: The astronomer saw the explosion of a star from light years away through his telescope.

If referencing a specific person, place, or thing, always use the.


Adjectives modify nouns or pronouns. They describe these to create a vivid impression.  Adjectives tend to answer the questions what kind, which, and how many? According to the Purdue OWL, adjectives have three basic rules:

Rule 1: Adjectives modify nouns.

Example 1: The healthy dog played in the large, foamy ocean waves.

In this example healthy modifies dog just as large and foamy modify ocean waves.

Example 2: The blue car uses only natural sunlight for power.

Blue and natural are the adjectives in this sentence.

Rule 2: An adjective always follows a form of the verb to be when it modifies the noun or pronoun before the verb.

Example 1: She is happy.

Example 2: They were interesting.

Example 3: All dogs play a lot.

Rule 3: Likewise an adjective always follows a sense verb or a verb of appearance — feel, taste, smell, sound, look, appear, and seem — when it modifies the noun or pronoun before the verb.

Example 1: The ocean sounds soothing, and the ocean air tastes salty.

Example 2: He smells nice.

Adjectives provide the descriptions for nouns and pronouns.


Like adjectives, adverbs modify only they modify verbs and adjectives as well as other adverbs. Adverbs tend to end in -ly although that is not always the case. They tend to answer the question how. Here is an example of an adverb with a verb.

Example 1: The scientist measured carefully.

In this, if you ask how did the scientist measure, then the answer is carefully thus carefully is the adverb. The following is an example of an adverb modifying an adjective:

Example 1: Traveling is incredibly enjoyable.

Here, the adjective enjoyable modifies the noun traveling and incredibly modifies the adjective. If you ask how enjoyable is traveling, the answer is incredibly. Finally, let’s look at an example of an adverb modifying another adverb.

Example 1: I work really well.

Well is the adverb modifying the verb work and really modifies well.

The Purdue OWL provides some great advice about common adjective and adverb errors:

Avoiding Common Errors

Bad or Badly?

When you want to describe how you feel, you should use an adjective (Why?        Feel is a sense verb;see rule #3 above). So you’d say, “I feel bad.” Saying you feel badly would be like saying you play football badly. It would mean that you are unable to feel, as though your hands were partially numb.

Good or Well?

Good is an adjective, so you do not do good or live good, but you do well and live well. Remember, though, that an adjective follows sense-verbs and be-verbs, so you also feel good, look good, smell good, are good, have been good, etc. (Refer to rule #3 above for more information about sense verbs and verbs of appearance.)

Confusion can occur because well can function either as an adverb or an adjective. When well is used as an adjective, it means “not sick” or “in good health.” For this specific sense of well, it’s OK to say you feel well or are well — for example, after recovering from an illness. When not used in this health-related sense, however, well functions as an adverb; for example, “I did well on my exam.”


Scarcely and hardly are already negative adverbs. To add another negative term is redundant, because in English only one negative is ever used at a time

They found scarcely any animals on the island. (not scarcely no…)

Hardly anyone came to the party. (not hardly no one…)

Sure or Surely?

Sure is an adjective, and surely is an adverb. Sure is also used in the idiomatic expression sure to be. Surely can be used as a sentence-adverb. Here are some examples that show different uses of sure and surely. Adjectives are in blue and adverbs are in red.

I am sure that you were there.

Here sure is an adjective that modifies the pronoun I.

He is surely ready to take on the project.

Here surely is an adverb that modifies the adjective ready.

She is sure to be a great leader.

Here sure to be is an idiomatic phrase that functions as an adjective that modifies the pronoun she.

Surely, environmental destruction has been one of the worst catastrophes brought about by industrial production.

Here surely is an adverb that modifies the verb has been.

Real or Really?

Real is an adjective, and really is an adverb. Here are some examples that demonstrate the difference between real and really.

She did really well on that test.

Here really is an adverb that modifies the adverb well.

Is she really going out with him?

Here really is an adverb that modifies the verb phrase going out.

Popular culture proposes imaginary solutions to real problems.

Here real is an adjective that modifies the noun problems.

Near or Nearly?

Near can function as a verb, adverb, adjective, or preposition. Nearly is used as an adverb to mean “in a close manner” or “almost but not quite.” Here are some examples that demonstrate the differences between various uses of near and nearly.

The moment of truth neared.

Here neared is a verb in the past tense.

We are nearly finished with this project.

Here nearly is an adverb that modifies the verb finished.

The cat crept near.

Here near is an adverb of place that modifies the verb crept.

First cousins are more nearly related than second cousins.

Here nearly is an adverb that modifies the verb related.

The detective solves the mystery in a scene near the end of the movie.

Here near is a preposition. The prepositional phrase near the end of the movie modifies the noun scene.

Articles, adjectives, and adverbs all have their purposes; however, be sure to use them because they are appropriate ways of describing. Often we rely far too much on these to paint a picture without really doing any of the work ourselves. These three provide much power when used correctly.

Stay tuned for more articles on parts of speech. 

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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