How can we confirm the word modifying an adjective is an adverb which may well be adjective sometimes?

In this sentence, what are the parts of speech of 'bright' and 'red'?

She wore a bright red beautiful dress.

Could someone please come up with an example that clearly identifies adjective vs. adverb which is really confusing for me to decide?

  • 2
    If you want to learn how to use English (as opposed to learning grammatical terminology) you should check out this earlier question. In almost all contexts, almost all native speakers would say She wore a beautiful bright red dress, because adjectives of judgement/attitude come before those of colour, and the "secondary adjective" bright specifically modifies red , so it has to come before it to make the "compound" adjective bright red. Apr 21, 2015 at 13:28
  • @prakashesl Suggested reading (about bright red): lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/PayHudPulAdv.pdf. Check out its section 6 Adjectives modifying adjectives. Apr 21, 2015 at 13:44
  • er, "She wore a bright red dress made of the finest and shiniest tinfoil." :)
    – F.E.
    Aug 4, 2015 at 4:36

5 Answers 5


Phrase-oriented grammar

There is no simple rule. But here is the key: in English, you must learn to recognize phrases, not just individual words. In English, phrases are often indivisible units of grammar.

In your example, "bright red" is an adjectival phrase. The two words together function as a single adjective. You think of them as one unit:

She wore a bright red beautiful dress.

If you re-ordered it, you would say:

She wore a beautiful bright red dress.

If you re-ordered it like this:

She wore a bright beautiful red dress.

that would change the meaning, since "bright" would now be an adjective modifying "beautiful red dress".

A phrasal adverb

Here is a phrase that functions as an adverb:

Paul quit smoking cold turkey.

"Cold turkey" is an adverb meaning "to quit suddenly, not gradually". How do you know? The same way you know the meaning of any individual word. "Cold turkey" is itself an element of English vocabulary, even though it's two words long.

The adverbial phrase "cold turkey" is mainly used to describe quitting smoking. In a different context, the same two words would be interpreted as an adjective modifying a noun:

There is some cold turkey in the refrigerator.

Here, "turkey" is the simple subject of the sentence, modified by "cold".

This doesn't mean that you couldn't use "cold turkey" as an adverb to describe quitting something other than smoking. But if you say something like "I'm giving up potato chips cold turkey", people will understand that you are drawing an analogy with quitting smoking. It wouldn't make sense to say "I'm quitting my job cold turkey" because there is no analogy between quitting a job and quitting smoking. Then again, if, for some strange reason, your job was a bad habit or perhaps caused lung damage, and it was possible to gradually reduce your number of working hours, then "cold turkey" would make sense in that sentence.

Are you terrified yet?

Now that you know that there is no systematic way to tell an adjective from an adverb, because phrases in English can function like words and there are no grammatical cues in the sentence to tell you when that's happening, is learning English starting to seem hopelessly difficult? Well, the situation is even worse than what I've told you so far. Here are three more difficulties.

First, the phrases are not necessarily contiguous in a sentence. Look at this:

I'll pick you and your friends up from the airport.

"Pick up" is a phrasal verb. If you're not used to this, you can easily think that the verb in this sentence is "pick". But "pick" means something completely different than "pick up", "pick out", "pick apart", "pick over", etc. You have to train your ear to recognize the phrase even when it's interrupted by other words. You have to be able to do that even though "pick" can be a verb on its own, as in "I'll pick a new flight for you and your friends."

Second, the indivisible phrases are not completely indivisible. It's still possible to modify individual words within them to modify the meaning of the phrase, though this is somewhat uncommon. For example, a person could say "Well, I'm sort of quitting warm turkey. My last cigarette is scheduled for Sunday." (By the way, "sort of" is another phrasal adverb.) What's happening is that people simultaneously perceive the phrase as an indivisible unit and as individual words modifying each other ("turkey": noun; "cold": adjective). Inside "bright red", "red" is perceived as a noun, modified by the adjective "bright"—even though "bright red" is itself an adjective.* That's why "bright pink", "bright yellow-green", etc., also make phrasal adjectives, and not "bright pinkish", etc.

Third, English pedagogy rarely acknowledges the way English grammar depends on phrases and analogies. For centuries, the teaching of English grammar has focused on rules, which were thought to govern individual words and how they combine to form sentences. This originated when English grammarians got their terminology and concepts from Latin, which is genuinely word- and rule-oriented. More recent work by linguists has started to take the phrasal orientation of English more seriously, but it's still usually explained as a system of strict rules rather than the analogy-oriented way that it works in real life; and few teachers have even heard of these new systems for describing English grammar.

So, most teachers, especially teachers who are not native speakers of English, will mislead you about English grammar. They were "taught" that it's all rules, operating on individual words, and they'll pass that misinformation on to you. And many native speakers, having been mistaught English grammar in elementary school, will "helpfully" try to answer questions about English by telling you word-oriented rules, never saying a word about phrasal units or the role of loose analogy in combining and varying them.

Reason for hope

OK, now you know the worst of it. Now here are a few reasons why you can expect to eventually master the "unruly" phrasal grammar of English.

First, English also has a word-oriented, rule-oriented grammar. In "She wore a red dress", there are no indivisible phrases: "red" is an adjective modifying the noun "dress". This is the backbone of the grammar. The phrasal stuff combines and modifies the basic elements. After you've mastered the basic grammar, you start to perceive phrasal units like "bright red", "cold turkey", and "sort of".

Second, now you know about phrasal units in English. That's a huge advantage. Now you know to learn "pick up" as a phrasal verb. Now you know not to think that "up" in "pick up" introduces a prepositional phrase—a common mistake for people whose first language is a Romance language. Just knowing that these phrases exist helps you "tune your ear" to hear them.

Third, the potential for chaos is limited by the fact that people really do communicate in English. While unruly phrasal grammar could theoretically make the language hopelessly irregular and complex, the use of indivisible phrasal units is kept in check by common patterns and customs. With experience, you'll pick up those patterns and customs intuitively, just like a native. It's mostly hard at first, before you've mastered the basic grammar and before you know that these phrases exist.

Also, while most of the world's languages do not have a phrasal grammar like English, some do. If you're starting from another language with this kind of grammar, like Mandarin, this aspect of English won't be an obstacle for you. (In fact, Mandarin grammar is much more phrasal than English grammar.)

*Actually, "bright red" is only an adjective if you use it as an adjective, as in your example sentence. "Bright red" can also be an ordinary noun phrase, with "red" as the noun, if you use it that way, as in "Bright red is my favorite color." "Bright red" as an indivisible adjectival phrase is formed by analogy with "bright red" as an ordinary noun phrase, drawing on the fact that "red" ordinarily serves as both an adjective and a noun.

  • I read "Paul quit smoking cold turkey" initially as "Paul stopped preparing cooled-down bird flesh in a smoking oven". Maybe I should cut down on cookery as well as smoking tobacco :D
    – oerkelens
    May 22, 2015 at 9:34
  • @oerkelens Wow, are you two kinds of smoker at once? :) Seriously, had you not come across "cold turkey" as an adverb before? Indeed it can be read with the cooking interpretation. The fact that English is filled with these ambiguities, which often must be "salted" with redundant cues to discourage incorrect readings, is a huge barrier for learners whose languages adhere to the principle of compositionality. But Dutch has plenty of phrasal stuff, too, no?
    – Ben Kovitz
    May 22, 2015 at 13:38
  • I certainly knew cold turkey, but my cooking-craze precluded immediate correct parsing (only momentarily). I like to see how language works on those levels, I merely found this an interesting example. Dutch is indeed full of phrasal stuff - complete verb tenses depend on it :)
    – oerkelens
    May 23, 2015 at 8:23

An adjective modifies a noun. An adverb can modify a verb, or it can modify an adjective.

In this sentence, we have "bright red beautiful dress". Clearly "beautiful" is an adjective describing "dress". "Red" is also describing "dress", so it is also an adjective. In context, "bright" is modifying "red", not directly modifying "dress". That is, the dress is probably not red and also bright: it is a shade of red that is bright. So "bright" is acting as an adverb modifying "red".

When there's an ambiguity like this, we typically insert commas to indicate that all the words are adjectives, and leave them out to indicate that one or more are adverbs. In this case, if we wanted to say that the dress was red and also that the dress was bright, we would right "the bright, red dress". But if we want to say that it is red and the red is bright, we write "the bright red dress". As it doesn't make sense for "red" to modify "beautiful", without the word "bright" commas would not be necessary regardless.

"Beautiful" could modify "red", so if you wrote "the beautiful red dress" that could be taken to mean that the dress is red and it is a beautiful shade of red. But readers would probably generally assume that you mean the dress is red and it is beautiful. The sentence would be ambiguous.



The biggest clue is going to be word order. An adjective is almost always going to be right in front of a noun, as in "the large box". The big exception I can think of to that is if the noun is the subject, and the adjectives take the form of a direct object. For instance:

The box was very large

In that case the box is the subject, and the adjective phrase "very large" describes the box, but is also the direct object of the predicate. A more complicated example:

The box, being very large, would not fit in the door.

In this case, a subordinate predicate clause is introduced that takes "very large" as a direct object. There is a catch here: some words like "something" and "someone" are placeholder words, used when we don't know what the subject was. These words can be considered to have an implied predicate clause, like so

I found something red.

This is identical to saying

I found something that was red.

except the verb "was" is implied and not explicitly stated. We'll see below where that can cause problems.

So with these two constructions and a dictionary it is pretty easy to figure out what is an adjective. However, it can be trickier to determine what an adjective modifies, because adjectives can modify other adjectives. Now let's look at your example:

She wore a bright red, beautiful dress.

In this case, "bright" is an adjective modifying "red", which in turn modifies "dress". "Bright red" is a compound adjective clause which modifies "dress", and "beautiful" is a simple adjective that modifies "dress". In my sentence, I've clarified this by adding a comma, which is more correct. You could also say

She wore a bright red and beautiful dress.

Again this separates the adjective clause "bright red" from the simple adjective "beautiful" and makes the sentence more clear.


Adverbs are much trickier. While any word ending in "-ly" is probably an adverb, the reverse is not true. For instance:

I hit him hard.


I hardly hit him.

In both cases, "hard" and "hardly" are adverbs, modifying the word "hit". However, they have completely opposite meanings, where "hard" means "with great force" and "hardly" means "barely".

Word order is not a good clue either. Let's consider some examples:

I quickly ran up to the door.

I ran quickly up to the door.

I ran up to the door very quickly.

Quickly, I ran up to the door.

In all of these sentences, "quickly" is an adverb modifying "ran", but it appears either before the verb, after the verb, after the entire predicate clause, or at the very beginning of the sentence. Notice that in the last case, it appears directly before the noun. Without the comma, it could be mistaken for an adjective based on my rules in the first section. However, in this construction it is considered an adverbial clause, which is a type of dependent clause, and therefore must be separated by a comma.

So ultimately the only true way to determine if something is an adverb is to determine what it modifies. In some cases, this can trip up even native English speakers, and writing sentences where it is very clear what an adverb modifies is part of learning to write well. I'm going to combine two examples above to give a case where this can be ambiguous even for a native speaker:

I hit something very hard.

Is "hard" an adjective modifying "something", or an adverb modifying "hit"? There is no way for the reader to know. It is an ambiguous construction that, while grammatically valid, the writer should have avoided.

Adjectives ending in -ly

As I was reminded in the comments, not every word that ends in "-ly" is an adverb. "Friendly", "jolly", "comely" and "homely" all end in "-ly" and are all adjectives. I'm sure there are others. The rule here, which clearly applies to the first two, is that if its root is a noun, it is an adjective. "Friend- -ly" and "jo(y)- -ly" clearly follow this, but the more archaic "comely" does not appear to. Although perhaps its root is simply not clear to me.

On the other hand, if the root is already an adjective, then when -ly is added it becomes an adverb. These two rules can be useful parsing sentences such as

The dress was a beautifully bright red.

In this case, the dress was bright red (the adjective clause), and it was so in a beautiful manner. "Beautifully", despite being placed in with the adjectives, is actually an adverb describing the way in which it was those things. This construction may or may not be technically correct, but it is in common usage in the parts of America I've lived.

The bottom line on words ending in -ly? Look it up in your dictionary. It will tell you if it is an adjective or an adverb. (Or a noun, like "butterfly", but those should be easier to spot.)

  • Good post, although there are a couple details I think aren't quite right. Not every word ending in -ly is an adverb. For example, friendly is an adjective. The -ly suffix that derives adverbs typically attaches to adjectives; the -ly suffix that derives adjectives typically attaches to nouns. We can use this trait to tell them apart. (Also, I think you made a typo and wrote "adjective" when you meant "adverb" when you were talking about this point.)
    – user230
    Aug 10, 2015 at 17:03

With colours you have combinations such as light red, dark red, bright red and similar structures. I would see such structures as compound adjectives.


Irrespective of the context, if I give my opinion merely by looking at 'words', only the word 'bright' is both -adjective and adverb. Rest all are adjectives.

So, how can you figure out adverb and adjective? Probably by their placement in the sentence. However, it is a big question in itself!

If we talk about the sentence in concern, 'bright' is definitely serving as an adjective. Because, if it is to be used as an adverb, its placement could have been different (I cannot think this in the present sentence). WordWeb has an entry for this adverb:

"the windows glowed jewel bright" - check the placement.

So, IMO, all serve as adjectives looking at the placement of the words.

However, if you follow the order of adjectives, it should read - "She wore a beautiful bright red dress"

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