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Concourse 2

Disjuncts or sentence adverbials


Disjuncts are a class of adverbials which, instead of applying only to verb or verb phrase, modify an entire sentence or utterance.  This is why they are sometimes called sentence adverbs or sentence adverbials.
Here, we will stick with the word disjunct but the terms are synonymous.
You may find it helpful to look at the general guide to adjuncts, conjuncts and disjuncts on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end, before you read on.


What qualifies as a disjunct?

Disjuncts are easier to identify than define precisely.  They perform two functions:

  1. Style:
    They express the speaker / writer's view of what is being expressed and how they want it understood as in, for example:
        Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn
    (Last words of Rhett Butler to Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind [1939 movie])
  2. Attitude:
    They express the speaker / writer's understanding of the likelihood of a proposition being true or the context or topic area in which the proposition should be set.  For example:
        In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.  In practice, there is.
    (Yogi Berra, American baseball player)

Disjuncts which express the way the speaker wants to be understood are called style disjuncts.  Comment is being made on how the speaker wishes the proposition to be understood by the hearer.  In the example above, Rhett Butler wants Scarlett O'Hara to understand that he is being honest and frank.

Disjuncts which express the truth value of what is said or refer to the content of what is said are called attitude disjuncts.
In the example above, Yogi Berra is signalling the fact that the first clause is a theoretical rather than practical proposition and in the second, he is reversing the comment.  Hence the joke.
Attitude disjuncts are sometimes called angle disjuncts because they refer to the speaker's angle or 'take' on what is said.


Syntactic homonymy

This horrible expression refers to the fact that words and phrases can slide between classes because they can perform different functions depending on the intended meaning.
Here are three examples of what happens:

Example as an adverb of manner as a disjunct
hopefully     She will be waiting hopefully     Hopefully, she will be waiting
This refers to the manner in which she will be waiting (with hope) This expresses the speaker's feeling (the speaker hopes) and applies to the entire following clause
personally     He wrote to me personally     Personally, I don't believe he wrote to me
This expresses how he wrote (personally rather than through an intermediary) This expresses the style in which the speaker wants to be understood (limiting the comment to a personal opinion only)
honestly     John responded honestly to the question     Honestly, John responded to the question
This expresses the fact that John's response was truthful This expresses the speaker's intention for it to be believed that John responded and makes no comment on how he responded

Many adverbials can do this and it can be confusing.  The trick, as always, is to look at what the word is doing, not what it looks like.
It is not only adverbs that do this.  It is also possible to have, for example:
    She wrote to me in person
    She waited with hope in her heart
in which there are prepositional phrases acting as adverbials, telling us how she wrote and how she waited.
But it also possible for such phrases to act as disjuncts in, for example:
    In all honesty, I don't believe he wrote to me
    For my part, I don't believe him
in which we have prepositional phrases in the function of disjuncts referring to the whole of the following clause (and possibly a whole following text).
When these words and phrases appear in different contexts, they usually refer to manner.


Style disjuncts

As we said, style disjuncts refer to the speaker's attitude and to how he or she wants to be understood.  They do not comment on what is being said directly but rather signal how the speaker wishes to be understood.
They come in a number of flavours but whatever structure is used, they signal the same thing: the speaker's style.
Here are a few examples of how they are used:


The form of style disjuncts

Although adverbs are the most common forms of style disjuncts, there are other options which are more or less synonymous.  Here's a short list with examples:

  1. Adverbs
        Seriously, I don't care.
  2. Non-finite infinitive to-clauses
        To be honest, I don't care
        To speak openly, I don't care
  3. -ing participles
        Speaking confidentially, I don't care
        Being honest, I don't care
  4. -ed participles
        Put frankly, I don't care
        Honestly said, I don't care
  5. Prepositional phrases
        In all honesty, I don't care
        In this instance, I don't care
  6. Finite if-clauses and other conditional structures
        If I may speak confidentially, I don't care
        If I am honest, I don't care
        Unless I am mistaken, that's his sister

Unfortunately, not all the forms can be used with all the lexemes.  The word honest, and derived words and expressions, for example, can appear in all the guises above:
    to be honest
    speaking honestly
    spoken honestly
    in all honesty
    if I may speak honestly

but others do not have all the equivalent forms so, for example, the adjective personal has an equivalent adverb but no noun to form the complement of a prepositional phrase is available because personality is semantically disallowed as a disjunct.  Additionally,
    To speak openly ...
is a possibility but
    *Openly, ...
    *If I am open
are not.


Attitude disjuncts

Attitude disjuncts are almost always adverbs and simpler, therefore, to analyse (and teach).  They have two functions:

  1. To express the speaker's view of the truth of a proposition.  This is a form of epistemic modality (to which, of course, there is a guide on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end).
  2. To express the speaker's reaction to an event or state.

Group 1: expressing the view of the truth of a proposition (epistemic modality)


and so on.


Two sorts of epistemic meaning are expressed with these disjuncts:

Meaning Examples Equivalents
Certainty He will definitely be late
That is undoubtedly her brother
Surely, you are joking
I'm sure he will be late
That must be her brother
You can't be serious
Doubt Conceivably, there will be a revolution
Probably, he is the best person for the job
Apparently, they are unhappy
There might be a revolution
He might well be the best person for the job
They could be unhappy

A few counterfactual disjuncts in this group express the fact that a proposition is not true.  They include these examples:
    Hypothetically, the train arrives at 6
but it won't
    Technically, he's still a student
but he isn't studying
    Theoretically, I should be at work today
but I'm not going

A note on the position of these disjuncts and punctuation:
Most attitudinal disjuncts expressing certainty or doubt are put in the initial position to add weight to the concepts they express but three, definitely, probably and possibly routinely appear in a mid position, following any auxiliary verb and before the main verb.  They may optionally be set off with commas but these are frequently omitted, especially informally.  For example:
    He has definitely got the job
    She has probably arrived by now

and so on.
Initial position disjuncts are conventionally followed by commas but can be placed in mid position where they are almost always separated by commas from the rest of the clause so, for example, we get:
    Unarguably, she is very clever
    She is, unarguably, very clever


Group 2: expressing the speaker's emotional reaction to an event or state

Emotions come in various flavours and the disjuncts used reflect the type of emotion being expressed:



The form of attitude disjuncts

There are fewer alternative ways to make attitude disjuncts and the usual choice is to use the adverb, especially those ending in -ly.  However, prepositional phrases are frequently used providing a noun form of the adverb is available to form the complement:
    To my surprise, he came on time
    To my astonishment, she turned it down
    With total predictability, the work is unfinished

Prepositional phrases are, however, rarer and often more formal.


Modifying disjuncts

There are three groups of modifiers routinely used with disjuncts, and they almost all act to amplify the strength of the disjunct:

very, quite, enough
    Very happily, the parcel arrived
    Quite honestly, I kept quiet
    Strangely enough, the letter never arrived
is often used to modify disjunct adverbs prefixed with un-, im- or in- and with the disjunct surprisingly in, for example:
    Not surprisingly, he was angry
    Not unexpectedly, she was delighted
    Not unfairly, he asked for more money
more, less
    Surprisingly, he turned down the pay rise.  More astonishingly, he actually took less money
    Predictably, she got quite angry.  Less predictably, so did he.

(The usual constraints with the modifier quite apply.
    Quite astonishingly ...
it acts as an amplifier because the adverb is generally ungradable, but in
    Quite fortunately ...
it tones the adverb down because the adverb is gradable.)


Teaching disjuncts

Conceptually, there is nothing particularly challenging about disjuncts because all languages have a way of making it clear how something is to be understood, what the speaker's reaction to the event is, how certain of the truth a speaker is or what limitations are being imposed on what is said.

However, the range of possible ways to form disjuncts is quite wide as we have seen so the area repays some attention in the classroom because mastery of style and attitude disjuncts allows speakers to be more precise, sound more natural and express their feelings better.

Style disjuncts are the smallest group and the least varied so it makes sense to start with them.
The easiest way to practise is to get learners to amend a statement by the application of a style disjunct to modify what is said in terms of the speaker's truthfulness signalling or the limitation he/she wants to impose.  A simple noticing exercise is a good place to start.  For example:
What is the speaker saying?  Match the meaning to the adverb:
Frankly, that's nonsense   I am not joking
Confidentially, I don't want the job I'm not certain that I'm exactly right
Seriously, this is quite a difficult job I am being honest
Roughly, I think half of the population want it Please don't tell anyone

Step 2 can require learners to insert the disjuncts to express the meanings.  This may be a free choice or involve selection from a limited list (i.e., with or without the right-hand column).
For example:
Insert expressions to make the sentence match the meaning on the right. Choose from:
_____________, I can't do this now I am not joking in fact
between you and me
quite likely
to be frank
_____________, I don't want the job I am being honest
_____________, this will be a long job I am not sure but it's possible
_____________, I think he will resign Keep this a secret
Once the learners' awareness of what style disjuncts do has been raised, they can go on to apply them in free speech through exercises which require the expression of opinion.  The topic should be one in which the use of style disjuncts is appropriate and might include, for example: political and social views, artistic judgements, personal information and so on.
The next step, once a range of style disjuncts is available to the learners, is to look at the alternative structures (see above concerning finite and non-finite verb forms and prepositional phrases) and then re-do the exercise, with, perhaps, a different topic so the prepositional phrases and other forms can be practised.
Attitude disjuncts are less challenging structurally (because they are almost always -ly adverbs) but more challenging semantically because of the shades of meaning and types of concepts they signal.
Again, a matching exercise may be helpful to raise awareness of meaning and speaker intention.  It pays to treat the two sorts of attitudinal disjuncts separately because they carry such different meanings.
In terms of certainty:
What is the speaker saying?  Match the meaning to the adverb:
Obviously, that's not true   It is something I think may be true
Conceivably, he's in London I am very sure
Arguably, he is a great painter I am guessing but reasonably sure 
Presumably, she speaks French I'm not at all sure

In relation to the speaker's emotional reaction:
How does the speaker feel?  Match the meaning to the adverb:
Astonishingly, that's true relieved
Unfortunately, we lost very surprised
Happily, she is feeling better miserable
Tragically, we lost everything disappointed

Then learners can express a fact and add a disjunct to it to make it clear what their reactions are to the facts.
You can supply the facts, then the learners can add the appropriate disjunct.  For example:
Add an adverb to the beginning of these statements to express how you feel.
_______________ USA TV is very influential in Europe
_______________  the teacher has won the lottery
_______________  the teacher has set a lot of homework
_______________  I don't do much housework at home
Once that is done, learners can then challenge each other to respond to facts they provide.  A useful homework task is to come up with a list of ten facts to present to their classmates in the following lesson.
Modification is, in fact, quite straightforward because the number of possible, or, at least, likely, modifiers is quite limited.  They can be introduced and practised once the main forms have been acquired and revision and extension is needed.

You are likely to have to do a good deal of preparation is this area for two reasons:

  1. Coursebooks and published materials rarely focus on disjuncts despite their obvious usefulness.
  2. Attitudinal disjuncts in particular are personal to the speaker so the materials need to be designed with the personalities and propensities of the class in mind.


Two summaries

  1. The big picture:
    disjunct summary
  2. A list of adverbs only (but other forms such as prepositional phrases are usually derivable):
    Style Attitudinal (truth) Attitudinal (emotion)
If you would like the list as a PDF document you can get it here.
The list is not complete because some rarer or more formal expressions are excluded and you should bear syntactic homonymy in mind (as must we all).

Click here to try a very short matching test to see if you can recall most or any of this.

Related guides
adverbials for a general guide to the area covering adjuncts and conjuncts as well as disjuncts
adverbs for a general guide to adverbs classified by manner, degree, place, time etc.
epistemic modality for the guide if mention of this has bemused or intrigued
expressing opinion for the guide to this functional area
syntax: clauses and phrases for the index to allied areas

Chalker, S, 1984, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman