The Modifying Parts of Speech: Adjectives, Adverbs and Prepositions
Among the various parts of English speech are those with the particular function to modify other parts of speech. Such elements of language are extremely useful for academic and scientific authors who need to describe methods, settings, problems, findings, analyses and so many other complex aspects of their research, and describe them both thoroughly and precisely. However, these modifying parts of speech can be challenging to use, especially for those scholars who are facing the extra challenge of learning to write in English as they prepare their work for examination or publication. The following notes offer a few practical tips on basic usage patterns for adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.
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• Adjectives are words that modify, qualify or otherwise describe or explain nouns. An adjective can be used either before or after the noun it modifies. ‘That is an excellent book’ and ‘What an enormous house!’ demonstrate the use of adjectives (‘excellent’ and ‘enormous’) before nouns (‘book’ and ‘house’). ‘That book is excellent,’ on the other hand, and ‘That house was enormous!’ show the same adjectives used after the same nouns, and in these situations notice that the adjectives are used in conjunction with a form of the verb ‘to be’ (‘is’ in the first example and ‘was’ in the second). Similar constructions are formed with verbs of appearance and sense, as in ‘He seems sad’ and ‘She felt cold.’ Remember that when two or more coordinate adjectives are placed before a noun, a comma is usually needed between the adjectives, as in ‘The third trial tested the long, slender sand shovel.’ To determine whether the adjectives are coordinate or not, ask yourself if they would make sense written in the reverse order (the sand slender long shovel) or if the word ‘and’ could be added between each pair (the long and slender and sand shovel). In both cases, ‘long’ and ‘slender’ still make sense, so they are coordinate, whereas ‘sand’ does not, so it is non-coordinate with ‘slender,’ meaning that a comma should appear between ‘long’ and ‘slender,’ but not between ‘slender’ and ‘sand.’
• Adverbs are words that modify or describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs and tend to tell the reader or listener how something was done. ‘Eve wrote the paper quickly’ uses the common adverb ‘quickly’ to describe how Eve wrote the paper. In ‘Eve wrote the extremely beautiful paper quickly’ another adverb enters the picture: ‘extremely’ and it modifies the adjective ‘beautiful’ that describes the ‘paper.’ Finally, in ‘Eve wrote the paper quickly and extremely beautifully,’ that adjective has been removed and a third adverb has been added: ‘beautifully,’ which describes how she wrote the paper, with the adverb ‘extremely’ modifying it to emphasise just how beautiful a job she did. Like adjectives, adverbs should not be overused. Beware of adverbs slipping between the two parts of an infinitive verb such as ‘to write’: ‘to write beautifully’ is better, especially for formal scholarly English, than ‘to beautifully write.’
• Prepositions are words used along with nouns and pronouns to create prepositional phrases. These phrases act in turn as adjectives or adverbs to modify nouns, adjectives and verbs. There are many prepositions in the English language, and many different prepositional phrases to express spatial, directional and temporal modifications and meanings. As this suggests, prepositional phrases can make up large portions of English sentences. In ‘The cursor ran across the page, halted at the error and replaced it with the correct spelling,’ for instance, there are three prepositional phrases: ‘across the page,’ ‘at the error’ and ‘with the correct spelling.’ Since prepositional use is often idiomatic and varies among English speakers, using prepositions effectively can be one of the great challenges of writing the language well.
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