Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun?

Writers know that an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. They likewise understand it can enhance an infinitive, a gerund, a participle, a phrase, a clause, a preposition or the rest of the sentence in which it appears.

The question that remains is whether the agile adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun as well. Some observers say yes; others disagree.

Those in the “yea” will cite usage such as almost everybody went to the party and hardly anyone took the test as proving an adverb can augment a noun or a pronoun.

Those in the “nay” will point out that, by definition, a word that modifies a noun or a pronoun is an adjective; therefore, if an adverb is describing a noun or a pronoun, it qualifies as an adjective and needs to be categorized as such.

The Yeas will then counter with two points. First, they will refer to a sentence such as even these numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adverbial modifier of the phrase these numbers.

Compare that usage with these even numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adjectival modifier of numbers.

Second, the Yeas will refer to usage in which an adverb follows a noun to describe it, as in the opportunities here are endless. The word here, an adverb, modifies the preceding opportunities. Similar usage appears in let’s discuss this in the room upstairs.

The Yeas might add to their counterpoints with a sentence such as where are my keys? A purist beholden to definition might argue that where as an adverb modifies the verb, are. In turn, the Yea team could argue that where adverbially modifies the subject keys after the linking verb to be.

Further clouding the issue is that dictionaries vary in their classifications of certain words. For example, ninjawords.com and dictionary.com categorize ahead as an adverb only; merriam-webster.com includes it as both an adverb and an adjective. How then would we label it in the phrase the road ahead?

For the word forward, both dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com seemingly treat it as an adjective when it precedes a noun and an adverb when it follows one. Ninjawords.com likewise identifies forward as both an adverb and an adjective, although its stance on whether it can be an adverb for a noun is less clear.

Though leaving room for uncertainty, this possible accord on forward could unite the Yeas and Nays in allowing that the word adverbially describes a noun in a phrase such as from that moment forward. However, here again the Nays see an obvious opening: forward can also be interpreted as an adverb modifying a prepositional phrase.

In sum, the grammatical house remains divided over whether an adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun. Where disparity appears to erode the most is when the adverb follows the noun, as in the opportunities here and the room upstairs. Here we may someday see usage and classification become common enough to achieve consensus.

Until then, we’ll continue to watch and wait for when, where and how majorities may or may not form on this issue as American English further evolves.

Arranging Multiple Adjectives

We know an adjective is a word that describes or modifies a noun. We also know that in English adjectives almost always precede their noun, unlike languages such as Spanish and French, in which adjectives more commonly can be placed either before or after a noun depending on their function or emphasis.

Understanding adjectives’ position in a sentence, how then do we order them when several are strung together?

If working with only two adjectives, many of us will follow our instincts and preferences. For example, if we write a phrase such as the black, round talisman, we lead with the color to emphasize it. If we write the round, black talisman, we aim to stress its shape.

When we move up to three adjectives before a noun, descriptions start to either lose or seek their place in line. For instance, would we write the Swedish, square, delicious dessert or the delicious, square, Swedish dessert?

The good news is English offers direction on adjective sequencing from multiple sources. They are not uniform in their suggested order of adjectives, but they provide almost the same components with only a few variances in arrangement and labeling.

For our current discussion, we will refer mainly to the preferred guidelines from perhaps the most recognized source, the online Cambridge Dictionary. According to Cambridge, if we are writing several adjectives before a noun without a preferred order for emphasis, we can arrange them as follows based on their function:

1 quantity (one, two, four)

2 opinion (talented, pretty, boring)

3 size (big, small, tall)

4 condition or quality (lean, easy, cold)

5 shape (square, round, flat)

6 age (old, young, ancient)

7 color (black, white, red)

8 pattern (striped, spotted, checked)

9 origin (Swedish, African, Cuban)

10 material (glass, wood, brick)

11 type (boxed, exposed, all-inclusive)

12 purpose (cooking, sleeping, teaching)

(Note that the list was modified by adding quantity [1] and pattern [8], which appeared among other resources but not with Cambridge.)

Whether in writing or speaking, in daily use we will often not read or hear descriptive words strictly in this order; these guidelines are not fixed. Rather, they serve as a road map for communication that sounds more sequentially natural when needed. In addition, using more than three adjectives before a noun is rare and generally not recommended.

With that being said, using the list above, we can form descriptive expressions with some direction.

Examples:
I would like a piece of the delicious [opinion], square [shape], Swedish [origin] dessert.
Do you still wear those old [age] white [color] shoes?
Those two [quantity] tall [size], lean [physical quality] men work for the firm.
The professor’s four [quantity] old [age], boxed [type] teaching [purpose] files are sure to aid the defense.

For many of us, our ear for language and our intentions for emphasis will continue to inform how we arrange descriptive words. Should we be in doubt, we can simply refer to the list and help our adjectives find a sense of proper place.

Are We Hyphenating Well?

The proper use of good and well in writing is a common grammatical topic. For many, the distinction can be uncertain.

An equally slippery subject is whether to hyphenate well when it helps describe a noun. For example, do we write a well-dressed man or a well dressed man?

Because well here is an adverb that modifies dressed, some might say not to punctuate the compound description; this would align with the guideline that omits punctuation from adverbial modifiers ending in -ly: a thoroughly informed spokesperson. Some might also believe that only compounded adjectives would be hyphenated: bluish-green eyes.

As a general rule, a compound adjective can include an adverb. The compound is often hyphenated before a noun but not after a noun (a well-dressed man, the man is well dressed). Well also would not be hyphenated when compounded with other adverbial modifiers, such as very (a very well dressed man).

At the same time, further investigation reveals that not all style authorities agree on this subject. The Associated Press Stylebook advises us to hyphenate well in a compound modifier both when it precedes a noun and when the compound follows the verb to be: a well-dressed man, the man is well-dressed.

AP’s rationale is that retaining the hyphen in compound modifiers after the noun helps avoid confusion. For example, if the hyphen is omitted in a statement such as he is a little known man, the reader might interpret it as meaning he is a known man who is little. Adding the hyphen clarifies: little-known man tells us he is one few people know. Writing the man is well-dressed remains consistent with AP’s chosen style.

The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, doesn’t concur with this stance. Its editors find hyphenation unnecessary when a compound modifier with well follows a noun, including compounds that might be hyphenated in dictionaries. It would therefore encourage us to write the man is well dressed.

Other style hawks assert that certain compounds with well should retain their hyphens in all positions because they are single concepts or standard expressions. These individuals would cite examples such as well-appointed, well-founded, well-connected, and well-intentioned; to them, each compound’s meaning differs from its unmodified adjective (appointed, founded, connected, intentioned), making well vital to clarity.

By this reasoning, these compound concepts or expressions would retain their hyphen even when well is modified by another adverb such as very: a very well-appointed man.

With all this considered, we still might ask ourselves: When do we truly need to hyphenate? The experts don’t agree and even seemingly reliable guidelines can have exceptions. The answer is that rules of hyphenation for well are not engraved in stone.

As with anything else in our writing, clarity is king. If a hyphen makes our meanings clearer, we keep it; otherwise, we leave it out as nonessential. Consistency matters as well. As long as we choose a style and stick to it, our usage will help sustain our writing rather than distract from it.