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Concourse 2

Adverbs

adverbs

Note: if you have not yet followed the guide to adjectives, some of what follows may be more difficult to understand.


define

Definitions

Easy questions: What's an adverb?  What sorts of adverbs are there?  (Hint: see if you can identify four.)
Click here when you have answers.

So what's an adverb?

There are two fundamental sorts:

  1. adverbs functioning as adverbials (as in Sentence 1, above), for example, He spoke intelligibly
  2. adverbs modifying adjectives and other adverbs, e.g., It's an extremely beautiful house, He spoke barely intelligibly.

Adverbs sometimes modify other parts of a sentence, as we shall see.


form

Forming adverbs

It is often the case that a word can be identified by its form as an adverb because English has only three obvious ways to form adverbs:

  1. The most common by far is the addition of -ly to the adjective form (sometimes with a spelling change):
    happy - happily, nasty - nastily, wooden - woodenly, rare - rarely etc.
  2. Rarely we can add -wards to denote direction of movement:
    north - northwards, down - downwards etc.
  3. Even more rarely, we can add -wise or -ways to denote the manner of something:
    crabwise, edgeways, edgewise, coastwise etc.

Unfortunately, an adverb is sometimes not identifiable from its form at all and these words simply have to be learned individually because no reliable form test is available to identify them.  Examples include many short place adverbials such as out, in, over etc. as well as ones such as seldom, often, outside, soon and hard.


brightly

Type a – adverbs as adverbials modifying the verb

The sun shone brightly

When adverbs function as adverbials, modifying a verb or verb phrase, they are of three sorts:

Adjuncts
These are the most familiar ones to us because the adverb is integrated into the sentence.  We don't need any more information than the clause contains to understand them.  Some examples:
    She waited inside
    They told me quickly
    She rarely gets here on time
    I want to leave now
There are four adjunct adverbs in particular whose function is somewhat different from others.  They serve to link cause and effect but do so in a way which makes the utterance perform the act.  In other words, they are performative.  They are also quite formal, even archaic.
Here are four examples of the most common ones:
  • You are hereby elected as captain
  • The undersigned undertake herewith to transfer the money
  • She had studied the area and was thereby able to explain it to me
  • She sold the painting and therewith became quite wealthy

See the guide to cause and effect for a little more on this.

Disjuncts
These are not integrated into the clause (and are often separated by commas) and they express the speaker / writer's view of what is being said / written.  Some examples:
    They are certainly not in.
    Obviously, he's not coming
    Happily, I found my keys.
Because disjuncts are external to the clause structure and modify everything in the clause rather than a single element of it, they are sometimes called sentence adverbs and there is a guide to them on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end.
Many adverbs which appear as disjuncts are, in other contexts, adverbs of manner (see below).
Compare, for example:
    She waited happily, sitting in the sunshine and reading her novel
where happily is an adverb of manner describing how she waited and applicable to the verb only
and
    Happily, she waited for us and brought us home even though we were so late
where happily is a disjunct applicable to the whole of the rest of the utterance and which expresses the speaker's feeling.
Conjuncts
These connect two separate and potentially independent clauses (they are, in fact, discourse markers).  Some examples:
    If the beer runs out, then I'm going home
    He looked everywhere, yet he couldn't find her
    I missed my bus.  Consequently, I was late to work

Happily, this is not the place to discuss the technical difference between a conjunct and a conjunction.  Relax, again.
order

word order for Type a

Word order is sometimes problematic.
Almost all adverbs can be fronted for effect or emphasis:
    Suddenly, it started to rain
    Frequently, he tells lies
    Carefully, he opened the box
    Lately, I've been having nightmares
Adverbs of degree are not normally fronted.  We do not find,
    *Intensely, he enjoyed the film.
If you want to learn more, there's a guide to fronting on this site.  What follows applies to non-fronted adverbs.
Before you go on, stop for 5 minutes and decide where in the sentence the following adverbs can appear (apart from at the beginning):

carefully everywhere slightly tomorrow

Try putting the adverbs into sentences such as:

  • He drove the car.
  • He saw it.
  • She enjoyed the book.
  • I am leaving.
  • She plays the piano.
there eventually sometimes intensely
relentlessly often rarely frequently
soon seldom from time to time now and then/again

When you have done that, click here.


brightly

Type b – adverbs modifying adjectives, adverbs and other parts of a sentence

The sun shone increasingly brightly
Try putting these adverbs: very unusually enough

into these sentences:

  • He has a good brain.
  • He drove carefully.

Click here when you have done that.

modify

Other modifications

  1. Some adverbs can modify prepositions or prepositional phrases.  E.g.:
        She's dead against the idea
        The bullet went completely through the metal
        The wind blew clean through my thin jacket
  2. Adverbs modify determiners and numerals.  E.g.:
        Almost everyone came back safely
        More than 20 people came late
        Nearly 600 guests were invited
  3. A few adverbs (such, rather, quite) can modify nouns and noun phrases.  E.g.:
        That's quite a job.
        It was such idiocy
        The kitchen's rather a slum

2

Making a distinction: two types of adverbs

There is another way to classify adverbs on a less structural and more functional basis.  There is a guide to circumstances linked in the list of related guides at the end and the analysis is akin to what you will find there.

Circumstantial adverbs:
    Where?
    When?
    How?
An adverb which answers any of these questions is a circumstantial adverb.  For example:
    I stayed there (a place adverb)
    He came early (a time adverbial)
    He walked fast (a manner adverb)
As you can see, this classification applies to type-a adverbs analysed above.
Circumstantial adverbs generally modify verb phrases.
Additives, Exclusives, and Particularisers:
    Including what?
    Excluding what?
    Focused on what?
These adverbs perform one of three functions:
  1. As additives, they act to join items together and signal that they are equally important.  In this way, they often function as conjuncts.  For example:
    1. John's ideas are very important.  Mary also has a good point, I believe.
      Here, the adverb also functions to alert the hearer / reader to the fact that both ideas are to be considered on a par and of equal standing
    2. I went to London.  I met Mary, too.
      Here, the adverb too signals that both events are of equal importance.  There is no sense of subordination.
    3. Mary is both a brilliant cook and a wonderful dancer.
      Here the adverb both plays the same equalising and additive role.
  2. As exclusives, they serve to signal that some events or states are not to be considered.  These are also called restrictive adverbs because they function to limit what it is we are saying to a particular context.  For example:
    1. This meeting is called solely to consider the future of the library.
      Here, the adverb solely signals that no other discussion is appropriate.
    2. This is just a question of knowing how to work the machine.
      Here, the adverb just signals that no other information is necessary, thus excluding, e.g., guesswork and trial and error.
    3. I am merely at this meeting to take notes and report back.
      Here, the adverb merely excludes any other possible role for attending the meeting.  The adverbs simply or only could be substituted with little change to the meaning.
  3. As particularisers, adverbs can signal the speaker / writer's focus.  They are often to be found in the initial position for emphasis and are frequently viewpoint adjuncts signalling the angle from which the speaker is working.  They can also be disjuncts signalling the speaker's view concerning how a whole statement should be understood.  For example:
    1. These birds are mostly found near fresh water.
      Here, the adverb mostly, in contrast to an exclusive such as only, serves to focus on water in particular but also signals that other habitats are possible.
    2. She is generally good at liaising with customers.
      Here, the adverb generally signals the fact that there are other possibilities but the focus is on the fact that she is good at liaison.
      As a disjunct, the word can signal the limitations the speaker is placing on how one should understand what is said.  For example:
      Generally, this is a good piece of work with much to recommend it
      where the disjunct signals the speaker's wish to be understood as commenting with the restriction that what is said does not apply to the whole piece of work.
    3. Predominately, the course will focus on English for Academic Purposes.
      Here, the adverb predominately serves a similar focusing function without excluding other elements of the course.

no

Negating adverbs

In English, negation begins with the negator and continues to the end of the clause so what comes before the negator is left in peace.  For example:
    He didn't frequently go = He went sometimes
but
    He frequently didn't go = He often failed to go
Where the adverb is positioned in a negative sentence is, therefore, critical to how it is understood.
The same consideration applies when the adverb is modifying other elements.  For example:
    Not only Mary will be late = Other people will also be late
but
    Mary will not only be late = She will also do something else (such as complain about something)

For the special structural characteristics of fronted negative adverbs, see the guide to negation linked in the list of related guides at the end.


compare

Comparatives and superlatives of adverbs

Not all adverbs can be modified to form comparatives and superlatives.
There are, for example, no comparative forms of adverbs of place
    *I waited inside but he stayed more inside
and not all adverbs of time can be modified so while we can have, for example:
    She frequently works late but her boss more frequently does so
    She came late but I came even later
We cannot make comparatives or superlatives with adverbs of absolute time as in
    She's working tomorrow
    John arrived eventually
    I have started already

because more tomorrow, more eventually and more already are not available.

There are exceptions but for other adverbs the rule generally is that we use the periphrastic constructions with more and most or less and least to make these forms with adverbs, especially those ending in -ly, so we have:
    I go more often than I used to not (usually) ?oftener
    I go less often than I used to
    She was more deeply affected
not *deeplier
    Her sister was the least deeply affected
and so on.
For a longer discussion of inflexion vs. periphrastic forms, see the section on adjectives.

In very informal (wrong?) uses, we also find adjectives taking the place of two-syllable (disyllabic) adverbs in clauses such as
    ?He drove quicker
This really should be more quickly, of course.  Would you accept any of these?
    He spoke slower
    He dressed scruffier
    She answered happier

It is, in fact, not always 'wrong' to use an adjective where an adverb would be expected although some might object.  Would you accept these?
    He played the music loud
    I heard it loud and clear
    I got it cheap in the market

The issue is often one of speaker perception.  In these sentences, it seems that the speaker is paraphrasing something like:
    He played loud music
    I heard it and it was loud and clear
    I bought it and it was cheap.

An alternative explanation involves what is called the proleptic use of an adjective and for an explanation of that, see the guide to adjectives linked in the list of related guides at the end.

exception

Exceptions

  1. Some adverbs retain the same form as the adjective and for these we use the same rules as the adjectives follow so we have:
        He drove fast – She drove faster
        He worked hard – She worked harder
        She arrived early – He arrived earlier
        He came late – She came later
  2. Some adverbs are irregular so we have:
        He drove well – She drove better
        He drove far – She drove further/farther
        He drove badly – She drove worse
  3. The adverb soon has no adjective form and we get: soon-sooner-soonest.
2

Two oddities

There are two adverbs, hardly and scarcely, which differ in meaning from the adjectives from which it appears they are derived.  Both these are commonly post-modified with another adverb, ever, only if the sense is habitual.  For example:
    We hardly (ever) go to the cinema
    I can scarcely believe it
    I can scarcely (ever) trust him

These two adverbs have no corresponding comparative and superlative forms at all so expressions such as:
    *We more hardly go there these days
    *I can more scarcely understand that

are not available.

Both adverbs are negative in sense and therefore associated with non-assertive forms of pronouns, determiners and other adverbs so we get, for example:
    We hardly have any whisky
not
    *We hardly have some whisky
and
    I've scarcely started yet
not
    *I've scarcely started already

If you would like to see / do an exercise on emphasising adverbs (things like outright, completely, quite, absolutely, simply etc.), there is one here.


mwv

Adverbs in multi-word verbs

Multi-word verbs come in a variety of flavours and shades but one essential way to classify them is to consider whether the particle is an adverb or a preposition.  In the first case, they are classifiable as phrasal verbs and the second as prepositional verbs.  This matters because the structures of the clauses in which they occur varies considerably depending on the grammatical function of the particle.
There is a good deal more about this in the guide to multi-word verbs, linked in the list at the end.  Here is will suffice to consider how the adverbs work when paired with a verb.  Adverbs, as we know, modify verbs but prepositions can act to link the verb with its object.  So, for example, in
    She is looking at the sky
the particle at is a preposition as it usually is and it acts to link the verb look with the object, the sky.
The preposition does not affect the meaning of the verb look is any way and we can also have, for example:
    She is looking through the window
    She is looking towards the door
    She is looking under the newspaper

    She is looking in the fridge
and so on.  Equally, we can change the verb to a close synonym while keeping the preposition and the verb meaning remains unchanged so we can have, e.g.:
    She is staring at the sky
    She is gazing at the sky
    She is peering at the sky

and so on.

However, other particles are more frequently found both as prepositions and as adverbs with no change in form.  For example:
The word up can be a preposition as in, e.g.:
    She walked up the stairs
and it can be an adverb, as in:
    She woke up the cat
The test is to see what happens when we change the word so, we allow:
    She walked down the stairs
    She walked through the park
    She walked over the bridge
    She walked in the village

etc. but, if we change up to anything else in the second example, we get nonsense:
    *She woke down the cat
    *She woke through the cat
    *She woke over the cat
    *She woke in the cat

etc.
Other words which can function as both prepositions and adverbs include: around, down, in, off, on, out, over, round.  The name for the phenomenon of words sliding between classes is categorical indeterminacy, by the way.

The distinguishing point is that adverbial particles combine with the verb to make a new meaning but prepositional particles simple link the verb with its object although the meaning of the verb may be a metaphorical use such as:
    He stuck at his work
    They talked around the main issue
etc.
Because the combination of verb + adverb results in a new and often unpredictable meaning, the item is best learned and produced as a single lexeme which can often be separated with the object interposed as in, e.g.:
    She looked the word up on the internet.

A second test for whether a word is acting as a preposition or an adverb is to give it a complement (or object, if you prefer).  Prepositions take complements (or objects), adverbs do not.  So, for example:
    She passed by the church on her way
is a case of a preposition, by, taking the complement (or object) the church to form a prepositional phrase and the preposition on taking as its complement the noun phrase her way.  We could also have:
    She passed in front of my house during her journey
    She passed along the riverside on her tour

Here the structure is:
verb + prepositional phrase(s).
However, when we consider:
    She passed up the chance
we have up functioning as an adverb, changing the meaning of the verb from go by to deny oneself, because the structure is:
phrasal verb + direct object
and in this case, the verb is not pass, it is pass up as can immediately be seen if one replaces the adverb with another:
    She passed over her ID card
where the adverb is combining with the verb to make new meanings (surrender or transfer).

The temptation is, however, to categorise all verbs which are followed by adverbs as phrasal verbs and encourage learners to commit them to memory as single concepts.  This is mistaken because in many cases, the adverb is simply functioning to modify the verb rather than combining with it to make a new meaning.
In some sources, then, one finds such expressions as: call back, get on, get off, go ahead, run after, walk around and a host of others described as phrasal verbs.  They are in fact no such thing; they are just verbs followed by modifying adverbs and that becomes clear when we replace the verb with a near synonym or replace the adverb with another.  So we can have, for example:
    I called him back
    I phoned him back
    I texted him back

just as we can have
    I called him later
    I phoned him again
    I texted him frequently

and so on.  The sense of the verb in all cases is unchanged by the choice of adverb.
A notorious case concerns the expressions get on and get off (e.g. a bus) which are often described as phrasal verbs.  They aren't really because we can apply the same test and replace the adverb or the verb so we can have:
    She got off
    She stepped off
    She jumped off
    She hopped off
or
    She got on
    She got in
    She got out

    She got away
So, asking learners to consider learning these as fixed expressions is not a good use of their time.  A better use is to take the time to learn the meaning of the adverbs and that is often parallel to the meaning the word has when it is used as a preposition.  It is a short step from understanding
    She took the paper off the table
where off is a preposition, to understanding
    She got off near her house
because both refer to movement away from.

There is more about this fallacy in the guide to multi-word verbs.


language

Adverbs in other languages

All languages have ways to modify verbs and adjectives but how they do it and how recognisably different an adverb is from an adjective is very variable.  No list of this kind is likely to get close to being exhaustive but here are some of the most obvious variations.

suffixation
English frequently forms adverbs by suffixation, usually with -ly, as we saw, but there are other possibilities such as -wards.
Many, especially European, languages do the same kind of thing:
Italic languages, such as Spanish, Romanian, French and Italian, often add a suffix like -ment or -mente to the adjective form, from the Latin mentis [mind].  For example, the English adverb comfortably translates as:
cómodamente (Spanish), comodamente (Italian), confortablement (French), confortavelmente (Portuguese) and so on.
Scandinavian languages also use a suffix, -t, to make the adverb from the adjectives but, unfortunately, this sometimes makes it identical to a form of the adjective.  For example, comfortable translates as:
bekvämt (Swedish), komfortabelt (Danish and Norwegian).
Japanese, too, has a range of suffixes to denote the change in word class, for example, the addition of /ku/ to the stem so we get:
haya (quick) and hayaku (quickly).
Hungarian works similarly with four possible suffixes.
Standard Arabic also has a suffix to denote an adverb (-an).  Other varieties may differ.
Once learners with these backgrounds are alert to the parallel suffixation phenomenon, it is usually reasonably easy for them to form English adverbs naturally.
replacing the suffix
In some languages, an adjective may be recognisable from its suffix and in some of these, the suffix denoting an adjective is removed and replaced by one denoting an adverb.
Greek, for example, replaces an inflexional suffix on an adjective to make it an adverb (usually by inserting -os or -a)so comfortable translates as:
άνετος (ahnetos)
but comfortably translates as
άνετα (ahneta).
In Russian, and some other Slavic languages, including Latvian, adverbs can be formed by removing the adjectival suffixes from the adjective and replacing it with the adverb suffix (often -o in Russian).
In Korean, adverbs are often in a similar way, replacing endings rather than simply adding them.
In these languages, the normal inflexions that the adjectives take to agree with the nouns they modify are dropped when the adverb is formed.
using the adjective forms
Dutch and German can use the same form as the adjective but make it operate, invariably, as an adverb.  Both the adjective comfortable and the adverb comfortably then translate simply as:
bequem (German) and comfortabel (Dutch and Afrikaans).
Turkish, Farsi (except on words derived from Arabic), Bosnian, Croatian and Slovenian, too, make adjective forms stand equally well as adverbs.
Learners from these language backgrounds may not see the necessity to change the form of an adjective when it is converted into an adverb and that leads to error such as:
    He drove quick
    I sat comfortable
non-inflecting or isolating languages
The classic example here is the Chinese languages in which a new word is inserted to denote the adverbial use of an attribute and distinguish it from the adjective.


Related guides
adverbials for more on adverbials which are not adverbs and distinctions between adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts
adverb modifiers for a guide to intensifiers: amplifiers, emphasisers, downtoners and approximators
multi-word verbs for the guide which distinguishes an adverb from a preposition and much else
disjuncts for a dedicated guide to adverbials acting to modify all the following text
circumstances for an alternative functional view of this area
fronting for a discussion of how elements (often adverbs) can be moved out of their normal position for effect
prepositional phrases for more on how these may act as adverbials
place adjuncts which considers both adverbs and prepositional phrases of place only (i.e., position and direction)
time adjuncts which considers the complicated and difficult area of adverbs and prepositional phrases of time
assertion and non-assertion for more on these two concepts and how they apply to adverbs such as yet and already
negation for much more in this area, including inversion after negative adverbs
cause and effect for more on how some adverbs and other adverbials can link cause and effect
adjectives for more on inflexional and periphrastic comparison and proleptic uses


There is, of course, a test on this.