I’ve noticed recently that certain constructions with present active participles (meaning, -ing forms acting adjectivally) prefer to be modified by adjectives rather than by adverbs.

For example, it sounds better to say:

  • a rough-looking neighborhood

than it does to say:

  • a *roughly looking neighborhood

even though rough, an adjective, is clearly modifying looking, another adjectival word.

Is there any rule that explains this? Or is this just a strange corner case of English?


3 Answers 3


It’s because sense verbs like look, sounds, tastes, smells, and feels customarily take adjectives rather than adverbs. Notice how normally it is good that goes with each of them, and how using well there would mean something altogether different.

  • She really looks good in that new outfit.
  • That only sounds good over the headphones.
  • Boy does this ever taste good!
  • Last week’s garbage doesn’t smell so good.
  • A good night’s sleep always feels good.

Now go back and swap in well for each good in the five example sentences above. In all cases it changes the meaning significantly, and in most cases it is sheer nonsense.

This is even more apparent if you try it with poorly.

  • My pet peeve is when someone says "I felt badly for him." I usually respond with something like "And if things had gone differently, would you have felt goodly for him?"
    – Robusto
    Dec 4, 2012 at 19:30
  • She fell badly for him...? Dec 4, 2012 at 20:16
  • Are there instances of other groups of verbs taking adjectives over adverbs?
    – tylerharms
    Dec 4, 2012 at 20:17
  • 1
    @tylerharms Certainly: copulative or stative verbs like be, remain, seem, become, appear.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2012 at 20:20
  • 1
    It's not so much an arbitrary rule as a logical decision - this is where the semantic requirements have to be considered. In he grew cold, cold refers to a latter state rather than the carrying out of the process. We can also add an adverb: he slowly grew cold. This tells us more information about the process rather than the initial / final / prevailing / hoped-for state / s of the referent. In the centre-forward shot wide, wide's word-class cannot be pinned down. Dec 4, 2012 at 20:58

It's impossible to divorce syntax from meaning here, though some try to. I've seen the word 'modify' given very strange and forced shades of meaning to ensure that the definition of a central adverb as a word that modifies a verb 'works'.

However, let's start with a couple of easy cases:


The teacher marked the question wrong.

The teacher marked the question wrongly.

In the first example, wrong is used in secondary predication, and is an adjective addressing (I'm happy with modifying here) the (teacher's assessment of) the accuracy of the answer.

In the second example, wrongly is used as an adverb modifying marked.

Now, in the example rough-looking neighbourhood (used prenominally, a hyphen is often inserted) the neighbourhood is described as rough looking; it may or may not deserve the first impression it invokes. Rough looking or rough-looking is unitary, a compound adjective modifying the noun neighbourhood.

  • Actually, in marked the question wrong, the last word describes the question, not the marking, as is otherwise the case with wrongly.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2012 at 19:44
  • 1
    Yes - the accuracy of the answer - I added the parenthesis because the teacher may have 'marked the question' (ie answer) 'wrong' wrongly. It's accepted metonymy to say 'you've got question 3 wrong' referring to the answer. Dec 4, 2012 at 19:47

Look has two related but different senses.

On the one hand it aligns with verbs like gaze and stare, intransitive verbs denoting the action of an animate subject.

Jack stared nervously at the girl.
Jack looked nervously at the girl.

In these cases nervous is an Adjunct which modifies the verb stare and thus must be cast in adverbial form. If you to transform the predicate into an adjunct modifying Jack it retains this form:

Looking nervously at the girl, Jack shuffled his feet.

On the other hand, look aligns with verbs like be and appear, copulas which attribute a particular character to the subject.

The girl was nervous.
The girl looked nervous.

In these cases nervous is an Argument of the sentence; it is attributed to the subject, the girl, and is therefore cast in adjectival form. When you transform this predicate you employ a different structure but retain the adjectival form:

The nervous-looking girl licked her lips.

Other verbs of sensation have similar but not always identical properties. Taste for instance is a transitive verb in its agentive use:

Amy tasted the candy. — The candy tasted sweet. — sweet-tasting candy

With hear, the distinction between agentive and copular is expressed lexically, with a different word — and that word has its own copular and agentive senses:

Bob heard the bell. — The bell sounded loud. — the loud-sounding bell ... BUT ALSO
Frank heaved on the bellrope and the bell sounded loudly, waking the entire quarter. — the loudly sounding bell.

So the rule governing adjective vs adverb depends on how the verb is used; but how any given verb may be used is a matter of historical contingency.

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