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The Bridge: Adverbials

determinedly jogging down the road

On most initial training courses, the term adverb will have been discussed and on some, the term adverbial may have been mentioned.  The usual outcome is that graduates of such courses remain slightly unsure about the difference so we'll start with some simple definitions:

  1. An adverb is a member of an open word class (like noun, verb, adjective etc., meaning that we can invent new ones) which usually modifies a verb, another adverb or an adjective (although some can modify other items such as prepositional phrases).  They provide more information about the situation or event.  Here are some examples:
        She arrived yesterday
        She was very careful
        They did the work extremely thoroughly
        I went upstairs
        The car broke down
        He jogged frequently
        He carefully opened the envelope
        Stupidly, I forgot my keys
        I am dead against the idea
  2. An adverbial is any word or phrase which modifies the meaning of a verb or verb phrase.  Here are some examples of adverbials which are not adverbs:
        She arrived the day before yesterday
        I was going up the stairs
        She had spoken in Italian
        The car drove over his foot
        He jogged most mornings
        She arrived in a foul temper
        He opened the envelope because he wanted to read the letter
        Last night I watched television
        Despite the rain I went for a walk
        In general, that's a useful idea

Briefly, then:

? To make sure you have this clear before we go on, try a short matching test.

In that little test, there were two items which were neither adverbs nor adverbials.  They were:
    They hammered it flat
which is actually an adjective.  Although it looks like it is modifying the verb, it is actually modifying the pronoun it.  It refers to what it will look like when the hammering is finished.
    It was a timely interruption
in which the word is actually an adjective modifying the noun interruption, although, because it ends in -ly, it looks like an adverb.  There are plenty of adjectives in English which end in -ly and look like adverbs but aren't.  Other examples include:
    brotherly, costly, early, friendly, ghastly, leisurely, lively, lonely, motherly, silly and more.


Commonalities and differences

Because adverbs and adverbials do similar jobs in the language they resemble each other in many ways but there are also key differences.

  1. Most adverbs can take any of three positions:
        Obviously, she was working
    Mid or medial:
        She was obviously working
        She was working, obviously
    Most other adverbials come either in initial or final position:
        In the morning she was working
        She was working in the morning
    but not:
        *She in the morning was working
  2. Some adverbs can be particles combining with verbs to make a new meaning (a phrasal verb) so, for example:
    The verb look can combine with the adverb up to make:
        She looked the word up
    but other adverbials don't do this so, although we can have:
        She looked at the word
    we cannot have:
        *She looked the word at
    because the phrase at the word is an adverbial prepositional phrase telling us something more about the verb look.
  3. Adverbs and adverbials can do the same sorts of job in a sentence and can express:
    1. Place:
          He arrived here
          She arrived in the office
    2. Manner:
          The did it well
          They did it with great skill
    3. Time:
          She came early
          She came before lunch
    4. Frequency (a sub-set of time adverbials)
          The often argued
          They argued all the time
    5. Degree:
          They argued loudly
          They argued in loud voices
  4. Because adverbs constitute a word class in their own right, they can only be adverbs (obviously).
    However, adverbials are not a word class, they are a way of modifying verbs, and they are much more flexible.  They can be:
    1. Adverbs:
          She came here
    2. Prepositional phrases:
          They went over the road
    3. Clauses:
          I came so I could help
    4. Noun phrases:
          She worked most days
    5. Infinitives:
          I play to win


Three things adverbials do

There is a good deal more on this area in the in-service guide to adverbials (linked below) and that guide has links to the three areas considered more in detail.  Here, we will quickly summarise the three grammatical roles that adverbials (including adverbs) usually play.


Role 1: modifying the verb as part of the clause

These are called adjuncts and are the most common grammatical role of adverbials.  They form part of the clause in which they appear and serve only to provide more information about the event or situation.  For example:
    She opened the book again
    They came into the garden
    I stayed home in the evening
    They frequently go to the cinema


Role 2: modifying the rest of the clause

These are called disjuncts or, sometimes, sentence adverbials, and often come in initial or end position (but don't have to).  They can be called sentence adverbials because they modify not just the verb but the whole of the clause with which they are connected.  For example:
    Obviously, the weather was too awful to consider going for a walk
    That's a very silly thing to say in my opinion
    Money, it seems, will be in short supply
    Politically, that's not a good idea


Role 3: connecting clauses

These are called conjuncts (and should not be confused with conjunctions).  They act to link clauses together and, therefore, usually occur in the initial position of the second clause or sentence but can occur in medial and end position, too.  For example:
    The train was late.  Consequently, I missed the start of the meeting
    She lost her keys and therefore borrowed mine
    She was persuasive.  However, the meeting was still not convinced.
    We have to go now, otherwise, we'll miss the train
    It was expensive.  It was, however, well done
    She had very little money.  She dressed expensively, nevertheless.

This has been a short guide, for more, much more, you can consult the guides in these links which also contain links to other connected areas.


Guides in other areas
Initial plus essential guides In-service guides
adverb essentials adverbials
adverbials essentials adverbs
word class essentials prepositional phrases