120. Six Things to Know About Adverbs



Adverbs express typical kinds of meaning, occupy various sentence positions and combine with particular sentence parts



A general post on adverbs seems a good idea in view of the enthusiasm readers of this blog have shown for an equivalent post on prepositions (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). The aim here is similar: to present some key facts about a troublesome class of words in the hope of helping readers to avoid errors. Posts featuring specific adverbs can be found by clicking on “adverbs” in the CATEGORIES menu on the right. Two that are particularly rich in detail are 26. One Word or Two? and 85. Preposition Phrases and Corresponding Adverbs.

In traditional grammar, the class of adverbs was very varied, with numerous subclasses. Most of these subclasses are included below, but one important one that is not is words showing links between sentences – what I have elsewhere called “connectors”. These can be read about in the post 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors.



1. Communication of Particular Basic Meanings

Traditional grammar mostly defined word classes (“parts of speech”) in terms of fundamental meanings that they expressed – an approach that tended to create confusion. Meaning-based definitions of adverbs can certainly be confusing, but as a starting point they might help the concept of an adverb to be better appreciated.

A meaning-based description of adverbs that first helped me was that they “answer questions”. I later learned that they do not answer all types of question (for example, they do not tell us “who” or “what” – nouns and pronouns do that – nor what something “is like” – mostly the job of adjectives). However, information about how, when, where (and where to), how much, how often, how likely and how long is given by most adverbs, respective examples being carefully, already, everywhere, upwards, quite, often, perhaps and forever. Some of these categories are more likely than others to have the familiar adverb suffix -ly.

Many newer grammar descriptions refer to these categories as adverbs of manner, time, direction, position, degree, frequency, probability and duration. They also recognize “sentence” adverbs, which refer to the whole of their sentence rather than any part, e.g. fortunately. Manner adverbs are probably the most common. Interestingly, there seem to be two types. Consider this:

(a) Michelangelo finished the sculpture energetically.

The underlined adverb here is clearly about the action of the verb finished: we understand that the finishing – and by extension the subject of the verb Michelangelo – was energetic. For one interesting use that this property of manner adverbs allows, see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts.

In contrast, if (a) is given the adverb beautifully, the focus shifts to the object of the verb, the sculpture: it is this rather than the finishing that was beautiful. Perhaps the interpretation depends on the kind of adjective that the adverb is derived from: adjectives that most easily describe the subject of the sentence, like energetic after a human subject, make adverbs easily associated with that subject, while those that most easily describe the object make adverbs linked to that.

There is more about the concept of “manner” in the Guinlist post 101. Add-On Participles, more about probability adverbs in the post 107. The Language of Opinions, more about degree adverbs in the post 108. Formal & Informal Words, more about sentence adverbs in the post 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs, and more about adverbs of position and direction in the post 151. Ways of Using Compass Words.


2. Partnership with Particular Other Sentence Parts

Adverbs add detail to other meanings in their sentence, just as adjectives do. However, whereas adjectives generally add to the meaning of a noun or pronoun (see 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1), adverbs mostly link with verbs, adjectives, whole statements or other adverbs.

Not all adverbs have all of these uses, though. Many manner adverbs, such as hard, link only with verbs (work hard). Some degree adverbs, such as very, quite and too (= “excessively”), link mostly with adjectives or adverbs (see 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much” and 115. Surveying Numerical Data). An adverb with unrestricted possibilities is clearly:

(b) (+ STATEMENT) Clearly, people trafficking is a serious problem.

(c) (+ VERB) Write your name clearly in the box.

(d) (+ ADJECTIVE) Driving fast near schools is a clearly dangerous behaviour.

When an adverb is linked with a verb or statement, as in (b) and (c), it is also describable as an “adverbial” – an independent sentence component that is not a subject, object or complement. Note, though, that not all adverbials are adverbs: some, such as on the whole, are preposition phrases instead.

Most adverbs that can describe a whole statement can be used in at least one other way. Those that quite commonly combine with adjectives or other adverbs include apparently, incredibly, obviously, rather, seriously, surprisingly, truly and undoubtedly. Those that easily combine with a verb include certainly, frankly, happily, hopefully, importantly, personally, sadly, seriously and unfortunately.

Many adverbs that easily combine with adjectives or other adverbs can also be combined with a verb. Examples are a little, appreciably, completely, considerably, enough, fairly, moderately, noticeably, slightly, surprisingly, truly and visibly.

Knowing about adverb partners can make it easier to decide whether or not a word of variable grammatical class is being used as an adverb. Consider this:

(e) The bus company operates daily excursions.

The word daily is sometimes an adverb, sometimes an adjective. Which is it here? Its sentence position, between a verb and its object, is one reason why it is not an adverb (see next section). However, the fact that the next word (excursions) is a noun also helps to show an adjective use. Only if excursions was absent would daily be an adverb describing the verb operates.


3. Occupation of Various Sentence Positions

Unlike some other word classes, adverbs can be found practically anywhere in a sentence: at the start, before the verb, after the verb or at the end. However, some kinds of adverb cannot go in some of these positions, and no kind can go between a verb and its following object. The unlikelihood of an adverb between a verb and its object is quite specific to English – many other languages easily allow it. As a result, English speakers with a different mother tongue often place their adverbs incorrectly in this position.

In sentence (c) above, the manner adverb clearly could easily be moved to the beginning or the end. However, it could not be placed directly after the verb write because there is a following object your name. In sentence (b), on the other hand, where clearly is giving information about the whole of the sentence, it rarely occupies other positions than the start. Similarly, clearly in (d) cannot move from its position before the adjective it is describing, dangerous. It can move with the adjective to other adjective positions in a sentence, but it cannot occupy other adverb positions without changing the meaning.

One possible adverb position not illustrated above is what some coursebooks call the “never” position, as in this example:

(f) Adverbs are rarely found between a verb and its object in English.

The adverb here is between a verb found and its auxiliary are. This is a particularly common position for frequency adverbs (never, always, sometimes, usually etc) and many manner adverbs. It is the only possible position for the adverb not accompanying a verb.

Adverbs of time and place, like yesterday and there, can also stand alone after both prepositions (e.g. from here) and link verbs like BE (see, for example, 154. Lone Prepositions after BE).


4. Relatedness to Preposition Phrases

Various other Guinlist posts show how adverb roles can also be performed by a preposition and its noun (see, for example, 56. Comparing with “Like” and “Unlike” and 72. Causal Prepositions). The proof of this correspondence is the possibility of substitution. Consider this:

(g) Powders can be sterilized effectively.

The grammar here remains correct and similar (though with different meaning) if the adverb effectively is replaced by the preposition phrase with dry heat. It is even possible to find preposition phrases that mean practically the same as particular adverbs, e.g. in general = generally. A detailed analysis of this area is in the post 85. Preposition Phrases & Corresponding Adverbs.

One potential source of confusion is the ability of preposition phrases to act like adjectives as well as adverbs. Details of this phenomenon are in the posts 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions and 124. Structures with a Double Meaning.


5. Shared Spelling with Some Prepositions

Some adverbs look like prepositions – they are words acting like adverbs but elsewhere mostly thought of as prepositions. Here is an example:

(h) Dictionaries have much useful information inside.

Inside here cannot be a preposition because it has no partner noun. Many prepositions can easily become adverbs in this way, but not all. Of seems particularly unable (see 160. Uses of “of”); others include by, for, from, to, until, upon and with.

Another way in which prepositions become adverbs is within so-called “phrasal” verbs – special combinations of a verb and a preposition-like adverb that often carry a single, idiomatic meaning (see 139. Phrasal Verbs). Examples are TAKE AWAY, PICK UP, SWITCH ON and MAKE OUT. Again, there is a limit on the prepositions that can become an adverb in this way. The most common ones seem to be up, down, in, out, on and off; others include through, along and over. Interestingly, these same adverbs can also be used by themselves directly after BE (see 154. Lone Prepositions after BE).

The main proof that phrasal verb adverbs are not prepositions (like in “prepositional” verbs such as DEPEND ON) is their ability to be used after a noun or pronoun that is the object of their verb, like this:

(i) Young children pick grammar up completely.

The object of the verb pick here is grammar. The adverb up is placed after it, just as most adverbs can be (it could also go before – unlike most other adverbs). Prepositional verbs cannot be used with the object before the preposition like this – if the verb here had been depend on, on would have had to precede grammar.

Another difference between phrasal and prepositional verbs involves the very possibility of having of an object. Some phrasal verbs lack this possibility, e.g. GO AWAY, SET OUT, but no prepositional verbs do, since the need for an object is a defining feature of prepositions. More about prepositional verbs is in the Guinlist posts 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs,  84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions and 108. Formal and Informal Words.


6. Shared Spelling with Some Adjectives

The last section showed how the same spelling is sometimes possessed by both an adverb and a preposition. In fact, a single spelling can sometimes be shared by more than two words: near and round, for example, can be an adjective or verb as well as a preposition or adverb. However, it is adjectives that most commonly share the spelling of adverbs.

One especially confusing adjective/adverb spelling has the familiar adverb ending -ly. Daily has already been shown to be usable as either an adjective or adverb. Similar words are early, only and poorly. These are not the same as the equally confusing -ly words that are only adjectives, such as comely, curly, deathly, earthly, elderly, heavenly, hilly, holy, jolly, lively, lovely, lowly, (gentle)manly, silly, slovenly, sprightly, stately, surly, timely, ugly and womanly. To use any of these in an adverb position, you have to say in a … way/fashion. For more on ambiguous endings, see 172. Multi-Use Suffixes.

In spoken English, some adverbs that otherwise have -ly drop it so that they look the same as the adjectives they are related to, as in come here quick. To discover when such a spelling is an adverb, you need to check that it has the right kind of partner word – a verb (come) in the above example. Other adjective spellings commonly shared by informal adverbs include bad, easy, fast, good, proper, slow, true and wrong.

Finally, there are many ordinary spellings without -ly that could be either an adverb or an adjective. For example, hard is an adverb in works hard but an adjective in does hard work. Common other examples are clockwise, deep, enough, far, fast, high, just, late, low, much, right and well.


2 thoughts on “120. Six Things to Know About Adverbs

  1. After a long while,I am commenting.Sir,I read the last post that helped me a lot because it was the most confusing topic for me.This post made me more interested to learn English.
    While I was reading the blog,I found a sentence”they begin with a capital letter regardless of where in a sentence they are placed.”I would like to ask that could I use “in a sentence” at the end of the sentence.How to decide it is adjectival or adverbial or could I know the reason why this prepositional phrase is placed directly after “where” and not after “they are placed”,the end of the sentence.
    Thank for such appreciating contributions.

    • Thanks for your feedback again. In answer to your questions, preposition phrases like “in a sentence” are adjectival if they follow a noun that they are obviously giving information about (see 53. “As”, “Like” and “Such As”). Otherwise they are adverbial. The use that you are asking about is adverbial because the word before (“where”) is not a noun. You are right in thinking that “in a sentence” could be placed at the end of the sentence above instead of after “where”. Can any prepositional phrase be placed after a question word like this? I think not – the preposition commonly seems to be “in”. My advice is to avoid preposition phrases after a question word unless you are sure that they are right.

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