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I recently discovered that cowardly, which looks like an adverb, is actually also an adjective. So far so good. Then what is the difference between cowardly and coward, and is there any preferential usage of either?

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The difference is that cowardly is usually an adjective, while coward is almost always a noun. Hence:

That dog is a coward.
That cowardly dog runs at the sound of hooves.

In the rare cases that coward is an adjective, it is always prepositive (directly before the noun):

That coward dog just turned tail.

Not:

That dog is coward. (Coward is not prepositive - before the noun - hence this is wrong)

As to meaning differences (I've been dealing with usage), you would use cowardly if you weren't necessarily name-calling or venting; the term sounds more objective. You could quietly use it, without strong feelings. Coward, on the other hand, always connotes strong feelings. If you use coward as an adjective, I'm more likely to think you are name-calling or venting.

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Dictionary.com at dictionary.reference.com/browse/coward offers as an example: "a coward cry". This would seem to violate your rule that coward is never to be used before an action. –  Fraser Orr Oct 7 '11 at 14:21
    
+1 @Fraser; I'm inclined to agree with you, though I still think it sounds more natural when used with a person or animal. I don't think it's a rule. I edited the answer. –  Daniel Oct 7 '11 at 14:53
    
In heraldry, "coward" is generally used as an adjective for a critter with its tail between its legs. In this context, "That dog is coward" is perfectly grammatical. –  JPmiaou Oct 7 '11 at 16:02
    
In modern usage, "coward" in "coward dog" would be a noun adjunct. –  Ed Staub Oct 7 '11 at 20:03
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