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Lucas Fink

Adverbs vs. Adjectives on the SAT

The SAT doesn’t test the parts of speech—by which I mean you don’t need to be able to define “adverb”—but using them correctly and spotting errors will earn you points in the writing sections. If you did many Madlibs as a kid, you know your parts of speech already. But in case you didn’t, let’s make the distinction between adjectives and adverbs clear.

Adjective: Modifies a noun. “Big,” “white,” “noxious,” and “friendly” are adjectives. (Putting those words together makes me think of a guy I used to sit next to in chemistry.)

Adverb: Modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb. Some examples are “completely,” “carefully,” and “soon.” (Those ones, on the other hand, describe how students say they’ll do their homework.)


How to tell the difference between adjectives and adverbs

The easiest difference to spot is the –ly construction. Adverbs end in –ly, and adjectives don’t. But wait a minute…looking back at those examples above, you see that’s not always true. “Friendly” is an adjective; at the same time, “soon” is an adverb. Use –ly just as a rule of thumb. To be certain, you have to check what the words modify.

If you can do that, the problem is usually pretty easy to spot. But they can be tricky, sometimes—the test makers always have a trick up their sleeves.


Adjectives with sensation words

The SAT uses adverbs after sensation verbs to make modifier problems that aren’t so blatant. If I say, “She put her hand on mine because she felt badly,” there’s a problem, however subtle.

In this case, “badly” doesn’t describe the action of feeling. Instead, it describes her emotions. Or at least, it should. But if we want that to be the case, we have to change it to “bad.”

If you used the words “feel” and “badly” together, it would describe an action the action of physically feeling something, i.e. touching.

If the words “smell,” “feel,” “taste,” and “look” are followed by an adverb, think twice. Is the verb supposed to be an action or not?

Allen looked quick. = Allen seemed fast.

Allen looked quickly. = Allen glanced at something.


Subconscious error correction

Sometimes these problems are hard to see not because of anything so tricky as sensation words but because of our own reading habits. Because the difference between a correct and incorrect answer is often just two letters (-ly), we sometimes read the sentence wrong, substituting the correct word for the error.

You may know that “heavy loaded” is wrong, but if you read quickly, you might think it says “heavily loaded” and miss the problem.

This is why you should always read SAT writing questions again if you don’t see a problem the first time around. Go through systematically, checking each word for the problems it could create.

If, while going through piece by piece, you come to an adverb or adjective, link it to the word it should modify and check whether or not you want the –ly.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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