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Concourse 2

Adverbs: the essentials


Adverbs are deceptively simple.



An adverb is usually defined as something like

a word which modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb

Can you identify the adverbs in these examples?

  1. He came to the door quickly and I was soon enthusiastically welcomed.
  2. She frequently complains at length about things she thinks are really stupid.
  3. Please arrive early and put the food there.
  4. Wait outside until you are called.
  5. I can't go now but I'll go soon.

Click here when you have answers.


Recognising adverbs

There are literally thousands of adverbs which end in -ly and very often that is what students are told is the defining characteristic but that can be misleading.  If you see a word which ends in -ly, you may be tempted to classify it as an adverb.  That is the way to bet but be careful of adjectives like friendly or wrinkly, verbs like sully and so on.  If you want a long list of adjectives that look like adverbs, there is one here.

This works both ways.  Not all words which are adverbs end in -ly.
All of the following can be adverbs and not one ends in -ly.
now, yesterday, here, often, seldom, crabwise, afterwards, beforehand

If you want to identify an adverb, the only safe way is to look at what it is doing (see above).


What's the difference between an adverb and an adverbial?

The short answer is that all adverbs are adverbials but not all adverbials are adverbs.
This is what is meant:
The term adverb refers to a class of words in English which function as adverbials.  For example, all the words in black in these sentences are adverbs and they are all functioning as adverbials (because that's one of the things that adverbs do):

  1. She frequently contradicts me
  2. Mary went slowly into the room
  3. They greatly enjoyed the party
  4. He looked upwards
  5. He is coming soon
  6. They arrived late

Here are the same concepts but expressed using adverbials which are not adverbs:

  1. She contradicts me from time to time
  2. Mary went into the room without rushing
  3. They enjoyed the party a lot
  4. He looked to the sky
  5. He is coming in a moment
  6. They arrived after the dinner had started

In most of these cases, the adverbial is a prepositional phrase but in 3. it is a noun-phrase quantifier, a lot and in 6 it is an entire clause.

There is a separate guide to adverbials on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end which will tell you more about adverbials in general.  What follows here concerns adverbs only as a distinct word class (in English).
We have included in English in that sentence because some languages do not have adverbs as a separate word class signalled by the form of the word at all, allowing adjectives to perform that function.  That does not mean that they do not have adverbs, just that there is no way of identifying them by looking at the structure of the word.


What adverbs modify

It's fairly clear (the clue's in the name) that adverbs modify verbs.  What are they doing in these examples?

  1. He opened the box carefully.
  2. He is completely against the idea.
  3. That's a wonderfully simple solution.
  4. She speaks extremely intelligently.

Click here when you have an answer.


Adverb position

One of the most vexing phenomena for learners of English is that adverbs are placed in sentences in a rather complicated manner.  Look at the example sentences in this table and see if you can figure out some rules.  Sentences which are considered wrong are marked with '*'.  Then click on the table for some suggestions.


Look again at the examples.  There is one position where adverbs can never appear in English.  What is it?
Click here when you have the answer.


Adverbs of frequency

He frequently smokes a pipe  

This category, a sub-category of time adverbs, gets its own section because it is troublesome for learners.
There are two sorts of these adverbs:

  1. Adverbs of definite frequency:
    These refer to measurable amounts of time and include, for example:
        I get the newspaper daily
        She travels to London weekly
        We meet annually

    The normal position for these adverbs is at the end of a clause, after the verb, its object or any prepositional phrase.
    Placing the adverbs anywhere else usually results in non-English or special emphasis.
    Apart from annually and seasonally, these adverbs also functions as adjectives:
        a monthly meeting
        a yearly trip
        a daily news broadcast

  2. Adverbs of indefinite frequency:
    These refer to how often something happens but not in measurable terms.  For example:
        I seldom go to see her
        I often go to see her
    are comparably different but tell us nothing more than a rough idea of frequency.  We do not know if the speaker means daily, monthly, annually or seasonally.
    There are three issues with these adverbs:
    1. Strength:
      It is a traditional classroom practice to place these on a cline, like this:
      but that's only a guide because native speakers will often disagree about where on the cline the adverbs occur.
    2. Sentence type:
      1. Two of the adverbs do not usually occur in negative sentences:
        We accept:
            I sometimes see my sister
            Do you occasionally meet your brother in London?

        but not:
            *I don't sometimes see her
            *She does not occasionally meet her brother
      2. Four of these adverbs do not occur in questions or negative sentences:
        We accept
            I hardly ever go to London
            She scarcely ever asks for help
            We seldom eat before seven
            She rarely wants to eat out

        but not, usually:
            *Do you hardly ever go to London?
            *I don't scarcely see her
            *She didn't seldom eat out
            *Does she rarely eat out?

      3. Because never is a true negator, it cannot occur in a negative sentence so we do not allow:
            *We don't never arrive on time
        but is does occur in questions as in, e.g.:
            Do you never have breakfast?
    3. Position:
      1. All these frequency adverbs usually appear before the main verb and after any auxiliary verb so, we accept, e.g.:
            I have seldom been to his house
            We can scarcely ever take the early train
            They sometimes work late

        but not
            *I have been seldom to his house
            *We scarcely ever can take the early train
            *They work sometimes late
      2. They occur, however, before semi-modal auxiliary verbs
            She often has to come in early
            She is often able to help me
            They seldom used to entertain guests
            They seldom dare to go
      3. They always follow the verb be:
            I am always late
            She is never on time
            They are scarcely ever helpful
      4. The adverbs often, usually, sometimes and occasionally can occur at the end of clauses:
            They work late in the office sometimes
            She comes to the house occasionally
            He complains about having no money often

        Others in this category can occur at the end of clauses but only with some special emphasis.

Two adverbs of frequency are not in the lists above because they have special characteristics:

As you can see, these adverbs have special characteristics which are not parallelled in other languages and cause, in particular, word-ordering problems for learners.  Handle with care.


Fronting adverbs

Most adverbs can be placed at the beginning of clauses but doing so marks them for special emphasis in English.  In other languages, this is one of the normal positions for adverbs and does not signify a special meaning.
When learners mistakenly place adverbs at the front of clauses, therefore, they can give the wrong impression and a native speaker of English may be puzzled about the emphasis which that position implies.
Here are some examples of the four types of adverbs which can be placed in the initial position:
    Frequently, she works very late at the office
    Daily, the rubbish is collected
    Carefully, she climbed the ladder
    Outside, they sat in the sunshine

and all these examples, mark the adverb as particularly important.
They are also, you see, separated from the rest of the clause with a comma.
Adverbs of place, used this way often imply a whole clause so the last example may be equivalent to:
    When they got outside, they sat in the sunshine

However, we do not allow:
    *Greatly, I liked the exhibition
    *Slightly, she enjoyed the film


Adverbs of degree can never be fronted.

It is not usually a very good idea to present fronted adverbs to learners at lower levels because the special emphasis which is implied may not be apparent to them.


Comparing adverbs

Adjectives, as you know if you have followed the guide, can usually be modified two ways to show comparison or superlatives.

  1. By adding -er and -est:
        I'm older than her
        She's the youngest in the family
  2. By using more and most:
        The hotel was more expensive than I expected
        That's the most beautiful painting

Adverbs are a little different because they are almost always compared using more and most so we do not say, for example:
     *He drive slowlier than me
    *She came quicker than her brother
but say:
    He drove more slowly than me
    She came more quickly than her brother

However, there are two issues:

  1. Some short adverbs which do not end in -ly can be used with -er and -est:
        He worked harder than anyone else
        She drove faster than I did.

    The other common adverbs that take this form are: near, soon, late, early.
    The adverb often can be used both ways informally but some do not approve of oftener.
  2. In colloquial speech, we often hear short adverbs being modified like adjectives (but it is considered wrong by most people):
        The rain fell heavier
        The sun shone brighter and brighter

In the classroom, the safest rule is that, apart from fast, soon, near, late, early and hard, adverbs should not be modified with -er and -est.

There are some irregular forms:
    far > farther > farthest
    ill > worse > worst
    badly > worse > worst
    well > better > best
    little > less > least
    much > more > most

Related guides
word class map this link takes you to the index of guides to word classes on this site
adverbials essentials for a guide which considers how items other than adverbs themselves can change the way we see a verb
adverbs for a more advanced guide to this area which also considers the difference between adverbs and adverbials
adjective essentials for a parallel guide to a related word class