121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs


Adverbs that link with a whole sentence are of different kinds and are usually able to link with part of a sentence too



One of the adverb characteristics highlighted in the post before this (120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs) is that some can give information about a complete sentence rather than any particular part of one, their position in such cases usually being at the start. The difference between these so-called sentence adverbs and other adverb types is clearly illustrated in sentences like the following:

(a) Children will happily eat some healthy foods.

(b) Happily, children will eat some healthy foods.

The sentence adverb here is happily in (b). It shows happiness felt by the speaker about the entire sentence message. In (a), on the other hand, happily is an ordinary manner adverb, giving information about the verb will eat, and expressing the feeling of the subject of the verb, children.

Sentence position is a major differentiator of these two adverb uses, but not a complete one. This is because sentence adverbs can occupy other positions than the start, including even that shown in (a). The punctuation can then be the main clue, since many sentence adverbs need to be inside bracket-like commas (see 50. Right & Wrong Comma Places). However, even special punctuation is not always present.

In this post I wish to further explore the characteristics of sentence adverbs, to indicate their importance in academic writing, and to illustrate a wide range of them.



Sentence adverbs can be classified into various types according to the kind of meaning they express.

1. Connectors

Connectors are words or phrases that show how two neighbouring sentences are related to each other. They are a major topic elsewhere within this blog (see especially 18. Relations between Sentences and 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors), and are mentioned here only because it has been traditional to see them as a type of adverb. They may be illustrated with consequently in the following example:

(c) People are living longer. Consequently, more doctors are needed.

The connector here shows the information in the second sentence to be a result of that in the first.


2. Communication-Describing Adverbs

Sentence adverbs in this quite small group mostly say something about the way in which the speaker is communicating. They include bluntly, briefly, frankly, generally, honestly, personally, practically, seriously and technically. They correspond to parenthetical statements made with a to or -ing verb, such as to be brief or speaking personally (see 183. Parenthetical Statements). Indeed, some of them, such as impartially, roughly, scientifically and strictly, are more commonly used with an -ing verb than without one.

Another type of communication-describing adverb indicates a new topic that the communication is about. It is usually made by adding the suffix -wise to a noun (see 106. Word-Like Suffixes). Examples are costwise, workwise and weatherwise. They cannot be used with speaking.


3. Judgement Adverbs

Sentence (b) above illustrates this very large category of sentence adverbs. They allow the speaker to express a judgement about what is being said. Thus, in (b) happily expresses the speaker’s positive judgement of children’s willingness to eat some healthy foods.

Various subdivisions of judgement adverbs seem to exist. Happily is of a kind that might be labelled “speaker-focussed”, since it says something about the speaker of the sentence (that s/he is “happy”). It corresponds to I am happy that… . Many of the adverbs in this category are similarly emotive, expressing emotions like anger, surprise, interest and sympathy. Examples are alas, amazingly, annoyingly, confusingly, curiously, disappointingly, hopefully, incredibly, intriguingly, mercifully, regrettably, sadly, shockingly, (un)surprisingly and understandably.

Another subgroup of judgement adverbs focuses less on the speaker and more on the accompanying message, and may hence be labelled “message-focussed”. Some indicate the truth of the message:

(d) Obviously, the villagers refused to provide any help.

There is no questioning here of the truth of the refusal. Other adverbs that have the same effect include actually, admittedly, certainly, clearly, definitely, evidently, naturally, of course, plainly, undeniably and undoubtedly. Care has to be taken with the underlined words in this list because they can be combined with a following but (or synonym) to undermine the importance of the truth being expressed (see 51. Making Concessions with “May”). For more on of course, see 156. Mentioning what the Reader Knows Already.

Some other adverbs that suggest a message is true also cater for the possible existence of exceptions (a type of “hedging” – see 95. Hedging 1). Common examples are generally, mostly, normally, often, on the whole, ordinarily, typically and usually. Here is one of them in a sentence:

(e) Typically, younger children are looked after by their siblings.

Yet more message-focussed judgement adverbs mark a message not as a fact but as an opinion. They may  indicate a level of probability (e.g. conceivably, perhaps, possibly, probably), or a way of speaking (arguably), or a misleading appearance (e.g. apparently, nominally, plausibly, seemingly) or, paradoxically, absolute certainty (e.g. certainly, definitely, no doubt). For more details, see 96. Hedging 2 and 107. The Language of Opinions. For more on no doubt, see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #1. For more on possibly, see 181. Expressing Possibility.

Finally, there are some message-focussed judgement adverbs that convey other perspectives. Some are concerned with the importance or otherwise of the message, regardless of whether it is a fact or opinion. Common examples are basically, critically, crucially, essentially, famously, importantly, remarkably and significantly. Other adverbs convey some other description of the message, e.g. improbably, strangely and unfortunately.

The third main group of judgement adverbs might be called “subject-focussed”, since they express a judgement about the subject of the sentence, as in this example:

(f) Foolishly, the coach relied on talent without tactics.

This means the coach was foolish to do what s/he did. Other adverbs that can be used like this include blindly, effectively (= “successfully”), (un)luckily, notoriously, rightly, stupidly, typically, unusually, wrongly and wisely.

Typically is included here because it can be used in a different way from that shown in sentence (e), where it merely says that the described behaviour is common. If it is placed in sentence (d) instead of obviously, it takes on the meaning of “characteristically”: the villagers acted as they normally do.


4. Adverbs of Time and Place

Not all grammarians consider adverbs like already, here, now, occasionally, regularly, there, today and tomorrow to be usable as sentence adverbs. However, when used at the start of a sentence they are very similar to sentence adverbs. Some, like afterwards, next and then, can be classified as connectors because they show a link with earlier information.



A major question posed by the existence of sentence adverbs is how one can learn and remember them. In particular, can any adverb be used as a sentence adverb, or only some, and how many sentence adverbs cannot be used in other adverb ways? Unfortunately, I am not able to give a definite answer to these questions – but perhaps I can make some useful observations.

Most sentence adverbs can, it seems, also be ordinary adverbs. This is even true of connectors, though not all of them. “Pure” connectors perhaps include therefore, consequently, alternatively and moreover. Those with an alternative use include anyway (non-connector meaning = “regardless”), equally, hence (= “from here), however (= “in whatever way”), otherwise (= “differently”), similarly and thus (= “in this way”). Here is otherwise used in the two different ways:

(g) (ORDINARY ADVERB) Scoring at least 60% is required. Those who perform otherwise will be rejected.

(h) (SENTENCE ADVERB) Scoring at least 60% is required. Otherwise, candidates will be rejected.

Communication-describing adverbs seem generally usable as ordinary adverbs, unless they have the -wise ending. Emotive sentence adverbs like happily also seem very flexible.

Ordinary adverbs, on the other hand, are not as likely to be usable as sentence adverbs. They generally need to be able to express one of the four meanings listed above. Moreover, although many emotion-expressing adjectives like happy can be made into emotive sentence adverbs by the addition of -ly, some cannot. For example, angrily, jealously, joyfully and speechlessly are only adverbs of manner, not sentence adverbs.

In addition, most adverbs with the same spelling as an adjective cannot be sentence adverbs, e.g. enough, far, fast, hard, just, late, much, right and well (interestingly, though, early can be a sentence adverb, but only in phrases like early on). Adverbs showing the strength of an accompanying adjective or other adverb – such as enough, fairly, quite, rather, so, too and very – similarly tend not to be used as sentence adverbs (rather, it is true, can be a sentence adverb – a connector – but only with the radically different meaning of “instead”).


3 thoughts on “121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs

  1. Can a sentence adverb qualify as a clause and thus determine the classification of a sentence? For example, if I say, “I walked my dog after school; hopefully, she will sleep and not wake me up tonight.” Would this sentence be considered compound or compound/complex? “Hopefully” means I am hopeful for, or it is hoped” so does that make it a suggested/implied clause even though it doesn’t have a subject and a verb?

    • Thanks for this interesting question. It seems to me to be more relevant in Linguistics than language learning, but I will attempt an answer. Adverbs like “hopefully” – which I have labelled “emotive” – do, I agree, resemble clauses, but I would hesitate to say that they “qualify” as them. To my mind they are still adverbs, so that a sentence containing one alongside a single finite verb would just be a simple sentence. As a result, I would call your example sentence “compound” rather than “compound-complex”.

      • That’s the way I was leaning, but a colleague of mine was suggesting otherwise. I appreciate the prompt response.

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