Some English adverbs can be replaced by a preposition phrase and some cannot
ADVERBS VERSUS PREPOSITION PHRASES IN ENGLISH
Preposition phrases tend to act in English like either adjectives or adverbs (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). Sometimes, the kind that act like an adverb can even replace one without much apparent change of meaning. Consider the adverbs (underlined) in the following:
(a) Trained athletes can easily run 10 km.
(b) Motorbikes are dangerous if recklessly ridden.
Preposition phrases corresponding to these underlined adverbs are with ease and without caution. The first contains a word spelt similarly to the adverb (ease), the second another. The only difference involved in using preposition phrases like this seems to be a greater need to place them at the end of the sentence.
Two questions raised by equivalences like the above are how widespread they are in English, and when one of the choices is preferable to the other. In relation to the second, if English were like Spanish, we might answer that the preposition phrase was. According to my Spanish grammar book¹, Overuse of adverbs in -mente is considered clumsy in Spanish. In order to avoid this, use … (preposition) phrases.
In English, however, there are at least three reasons why preposition phrases may not be especially preferable to adverbs: (1) the main adverb ending (-ly) is shorter than in Spanish (making it useful when space is tight – see 158. Abbreviated Sentences); (2) sentence position seems to be a factor: the middle of a sentence may make some adverbs, like easily in (a), much more desirable than preposition phrases; and (3) there may not be such a strong parallelism between adverbs and preposition phrases: many adverbs seem to have no corresponding preposition phrase, and vice versa. In (a), for example, change easily run 10 km to speak loudly, and the adverb would be the norm (with loudness would be very unlikely).
This last point is perhaps the most important. It means that, in order to make the right choices between single adverbs and preposition phrases, one must have a good knowledge of adverbs lacking a partner preposition phrase, preposition phrases lacking a partner adverb, and interchangeable pairs. This post looks at all of these areas.
ADVERBS WITH A CORRESPONDING PREPOSITION PHRASE
As mentioned above, not all preposition phrases that correspond to an adverb contain a word spelt similarly to that adverb. However, most seemingly do. This section looks first at these, and then at the smaller number, like without caution, where there is no similarity to the adverb spelling.
The main problem with similar-spelling preposition phrases is variability of the preposition. It seems to be determined sometimes by the kind of adverb that the phrase corresponds to and sometimes simply by the next word (as considered in the Guinlist posts 111. Words with a Typical Preposition and 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases). One preposition that rarely makes adverb phrases is of (see 160. Uses of “of”).
The classification below is based on the different preposition possibilities. Note that some preposition phrases resembling an adverb are excluded because they actually correspond to an adjective instead. This is the case, for example, with in danger, which tends to mean endangered rather than dangerously.
Adverbs Whose Equivalent Phrases Contain A Similarly-Spelt Word
1. Preposition Phrases with “with”
This category seems especially large, so that the examples can only be a small sample. Most seem to express the “manner” meaning of “how” (see 73. Ways of Saying How).
Note that some of the preposition phrases have to include the word great, and so can only replace the adverb when the meaning of very is present. Others express only one of various meanings of the adverb. For example, with clarity can replace clearly when it means “in an easily understood way” (as in speaks clearly) but not when it means “obviously” (as in is clearly wrong).
EFFECTIVELY/WITH GREAT EFFECTIVENESS
EFFICIENTLY/WITH GREAT EFFICIENCY
FREQUENTLY/WITH GREAT FREQUENCY
RAPIDLY/WITH GREAT RAPIDITY
RUDELY/WITH GREAT RUDENESS
2. Preposition Phrases with “in”
A wider variety of adverbs is found in this category, including some, like briefly, that can comment on the whole sentence (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs), some, like additionally, that can act as connectors (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors) and some, like essentially, that show “hedging” (see 95. Hedging 1 and 96. Hedging 2).
An interesting feature is the use in some cases (marked *) of an adjective instead of a noun after the preposition (for additional examples, see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases).
FIRSTLY/IN THE FIRST PLACE
*MAINLY/IN THE MAIN
PROBABLY/IN ALL PROBABILITY
SIMILARLY/IN A SIMILAR WAY (or VEIN)
3. Preposition Phrases with “without”
AIMLESSLY/WITHOUT AN(Y) AIM
4. Preposition Phrases with “to”
APPARENTLY/TO ALL APPEARANCES
EFFECTIVELY/TO GREAT EFFECT
SATISFACTORILY/TO (SOMEONE’S) SATISFACTION
5. Preposition Phrases with “on”
IMPULSIVELY/ON (AN) IMPULSE
INSTINCTIVELY/ON (or BY) INSTINCT
A point to note here is that ON THE WHOLE and WHOLLY are not the same. They mean respectively “mostly” and “completely”.
6. Preposition Phrases with “by”
INSTINCTIVELY/BY (or ON) INSTINCT
REPUTEDLY/BY REPUTE (also BY ALL ACCOUNTS)
7. Preposition Phrases with “at”
MOMENTARILY (AmE)/AT THE MOMENT
PRESENTLY (AmE)/AT PRESENT
Adverbs whose Equivalent Phrases Contain No Similarly-Spelt Word
Some adverbs (I am not sure how many!) can be paraphrased by a preposition phrase based on a different word altogether. You have to be careful, though, that the paraphrase is a true one. For example, at the moment and now are not proper synonyms (see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #2). Possible equivalences are:
FRUITLESSLY/TO NO AVAIL
VERY HARD/WITH ALL (ONE’S) MIGHT
INITIALLY/AT THE BEGINNING or AT FIRST
OUTWARDLY/ON THE OUTSIDE
VERY PROBABLY/IN ALL LIKELIHOOD
QUICKLY/AT SPEED or WITHOUT DELAY
SOMETIMES/AT TIMES (or FROM TIME TO TIME)
SOMEWHAT/TO A DEGREE
SUPERFICIALLY/ON THE SURFACE (or AT FIRST SIGHT)
TOTALLY/IN EVERY WAY
USUALLY/ON THE WHOLE
VIRTUALLY (or PRACTICALLY)/TO ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES
ADVERBS WITH NO EQUIVALENT PREPOSITION PHRASE
The main value of looking at adverbs like this is that it warns against thinking every adverb has an equivalent preposition phrase. The following adverbs are just a few of those that do not seem to have one (or make one only with in a … way):
ARGUABLY, COMPLETELY, CONVINCINGLY, COMPARATIVELY, CORRECTLY, DANGEROUSLY, DEFINITELY, EARLY, INADEQUATELY, LABORIOUSLY, LASTLY, LUCKILY, MAXIMALLY, NOTICEABLY, POWERFULLY, RARELY, READILY, SCARCELY, SUBSEQUENTLY, TYPICALLY, UNNECESSARILY, UNAVOIDABLY, VISIBLY, WEAKLY, WHOLLY, WIDELY.
PREPOSITION PHRASES WITH NO EQUIVALENT ADVERB
There are a huge number of phrases like this – hardly surprisingly when the number of possible preposition phrases in English is almost infinite. There are two types of phrases, however, that it may be useful to list. One is phrases involving a -ly adjective, such as lovely, seemly and ugly (for a fuller list see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs). Adjectives of this kind cannot be made into adverbs with -ly because they already have this ending, and as a result they form preposition phrases with the words in a … way (or manner or fashion).
The other group of list-worthy phrases with no adverb equivalent is those that occur with such frequency that they fall into the class of “collocations” (as defined in 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). They have to be distinguished from similar phrases that do have an adverb equivalent (of the phrases listed above alongside adverbs, those that do not start with in, with or without are especially likely to be collocations, e.g. at times, the alternative to sometimes).
To give a flavour of the possibilities, here is a short list (more are in 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases).
AT ANY RATE, AT INTERVALS, AT LAST, AT LEAST, AT THE MOST, AT WILL, IN ANSWER, IN CONTRAST, IN CONCLUSION, IN DETAIL, IN SUM, IN THE END, IN TIME, IN TOTAL, IN TURN, ON AVERAGE, TO SOME EXTENT, UNDER CONSIDERATION, WITH DIFFICULTY, WITH INTEREST, WITHOUT EXCEPTION.
Some of these are a common source of error in writing:
(i) At last does not mean the same as lastly. It introduces not the last item in a list but a long-awaited desirable event, e.g. At last the war ended (see 20. Problem Connectors, #7).
(ii) In conclusion does not mean the same as conclusively. This latter, rather than introducing a conclusion, means “removing all doubt”.
(iii) In the end needs to be distinguished from at the end and at last (see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #7).
¹Kattan-Ibarra, J. & Hawkins, A. (2003). Spanish Grammar in Context. London, Arnold.