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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 clause, sentence or utterance.  This is why they are sometimes called sentence adverbials.
Here, we will stick with the word disjunct but the terms are functionally synonymous.
In terms of the meanings they signal, semantically, in other words, disjuncts show the speaker / writer's comment on the clause of which they are a part.

You may also discover, alas, that disjuncts are sometimes referred to as something called 'opinion adverbs'.  While some of them do undoubtedly express the speakers opinion of a proposition, and many are, indeed, adverbs, that is only some of what disjuncts are and do and to call them by such a loose and vague name is to invite misunderstanding and confusion.  They aren't all adverbs although they are all adverbials.

Disjuncts form a class of adverbials, the other three being adjuncts, conjuncts and subjuncts.  If you need to place disjuncts in that context, you may find it helpful to look at the general guide to adjuncts, conjuncts, subjuncts and disjuncts on this site, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


What qualifies as a disjunct?

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

  1. Style disjuncts:
    express the speaker / writer's view of what is being expressed and how it should be understood.  In other words, comment is being made on how the speaker wishes the proposition to be understood by the hearer.
    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])
    Reference is not to the content of what it said but to the way the speaker should be understood.
    In the example above, Rhett Butler wants Scarlett O'Hara to understand that he is being honest and frank.
  2. Attitude disjuncts:
    express the speaker / writer's understanding of the likelihood of a proposition being true or desirable 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.
    (Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra (1925 – 2015), American baseball player)
    Reference is to the content of what is said, not to the speaker.  That is why these sorts of disjuncts are often called content disjuncts.  The terms attitude and content are, in this case, synonymous.
    Attitude disjuncts are also sometimes called angle disjuncts because they refer to the speaker's angle or 'take' on what is said.
    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.

To summarise briefly:
Disjuncts which express the way the speaker wants to be understood are style disjuncts.
Disjuncts which express the truth value of what is said or refer in other ways to the content of what is said are attitude or content disjuncts.

We can subdivide disjuncts somewhat more precisely and that is the focus of this guide.

You may find all disjuncts classified somewhat indiscriminately as stance adverbials and that's a legitimate approach to take because they all, in some way or another, identify the speaker / writer's stance or angle.

Whatever we call disjuncts, they are items which are external to the main clause.  Unlike adjuncts, then, which are optional but integral to the clause and serve usually to modify the verb phrase, disjuncts are external, optional features which refer to the whole utterance.  Both adjuncts and disjuncts are omissible constituents of a clause but their sense is, naturally, lost when they are ellipted.
In other words, disjuncts do not relate solely to the clause in which they are embedded, but can refer to other utterances and the whole context of the discourse.


Syntactical 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.
Many disjuncts are adverbs and adverbs may act in various ways, generally modifying verbs, adjectives, other adverbs and prepositional phrases.  When they do not refer to the whole clause in which they appear, they are not disjuncts.
Here are four examples of what happens with adverbs:

Example as an adverb of manner (an adjunct) 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 style disjunct 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
truthfully     She lied obviously     Obviously, she lied
This expresses how she lied: openly This is an attitudinal or content disjunct expressing the speaker's view of the truth of what is said

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.
What this means is that we have an example of categorical indeterminacy: we do not know, just by looking at it, whether the item in question is an adverb of manner or a disjunct.
It is not only adverbs that do this.  It is also possible to have a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial in the normal way, modifying only the verb, not the entire utterance, for example:

Prepositional-phrase as an adverbial of manner (an adjunct) Prepositional phrase as a disjunct
in person     She wrote to me in person In all honesty     In all honesty, I don't believe he wrote to me
This refers to the manner in which she wrote (in person) This style disjunct expresses how the speaker wants the statement to be understood (as an honest opinion) and applies to the entire following clause
with hope in her heart     She waited with hope in her heart For my part     For my part, I don't believe him
This expresses how she waited (hopefully) This expresses the attitude of the speaker (limiting the comment to a personal opinion only)

Some adverbials may act as conjuncts, too, in certain circumstances and as adjuncts in other circumstances and for more on that, see the guides to adverbials and conjuncts, linked in the list below.


Style disjuncts

As we said, style disjuncts refer to how the speaker's wants to be understood.  They do not comment on the content of what is being said directly but rather signal how the speaker wishes it 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:


Indications of the truth of what I say

Examples and meanings:


Indications of how generally I want to be understood or what limitations apply

Examples and meanings:


Indications of how I am speaking

Examples and meanings:


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
    Other common style disjunct adverbs include bluntly, briefly, candidly, frankly, generally, genuinely, honestly, largely, mostly, personally, seriously, truthfully etc. and form a useful teaching set.
  2. Non-finite to-infinitive clauses
        To be honest, I don't care
        To speak openly, I don't care
        To tell you the truth, it's a bit of a mess
  3. Non-finite -ing clauses
        Speaking confidentially, I don't care
        Being honest, I don't care
        Taking a stab, it's about 300
  4. Non-finite -ed / -en clauses
        Put frankly, I don't care
        Honestly said, I don't care
        Expressed clearly, she is not up to the job
  5. Prepositional phrases
        In all honesty, I don't care
        In this instance, I don't agree
        From where I am standing, this seems sensible
    The last example here is of a nominalised clauses acting as the complement of the preposition and that's quite a common form in disjuncts.  Other examples are:
        From where I sit, the situation looks a bit grim
        According to what I've heard, he's retiring in the spring
    and so on.
  6. Finite if-clauses and other conditional / contingent 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
        If the rumours are to be believed, he's moving on

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, ...
is not because the adverb is confined to an expression of manner as in, e.g.:
    She was openly rude
    *If I am open
is also not possible because the word is confined mostly to its adjectival use.

There are two rules of thumb, however, worth teaching because they can add to learners' ability to sound quite natural and fluent.  They are learnable as language chunks:

  1. All adverbs may be rephrased with the participle speaking so, for example:
        Bluntly, this is going to be expensive = Speaking bluntly, this is going to be expensive
  2. All infinitive clauses may be rephrased with finite clauses so, for example:
        To be honest, I have no idea = If I may speak honestly, I have no idea


Attitude or content disjuncts

Attitude disjuncts (also called content disjuncts) are almost always adverbs and simpler, therefore, to analyse (and teach).  They have three 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 view of the desirability or necessity of an event or state.  This is a form of deontic modality, which refers to obligations and desirability.
  3. To express the speaker's reaction to an event or state.

Each of these categories forms a teaching unit (or series of units) and can be tackled independently of the other categories.  That's a sensible approach because it goes from meaning and intention to the selection of form rather than the other way round.


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
    Ideally, this should be the right figure
but in reality it isn't
    Nominally, she is in charge
but in reality that is not the case

A note on the position of these disjuncts and punctuation:
Most attitudinal or content 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 medial 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 medial 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 view of obligation or desirability (deontic modality)

This is a small group and quite an uncommon one.  Examples include:
    Surely, you don't believe that
(= you shouldn't believe that)
    Rightly, he returned the money
(= he had an obligation to return the money)
    Wisely, she turned down the offer
(= she had a duty to turn down the offer)
    Foolishly, she spent the money
(= she shouldn't have spent the money)

All the disjuncts in this group may be rephrased using a modal auxiliary verb, often should, to express the same sense of obligation as in, for example:
    You shouldn't believe that
    He ought to have returned the money
    She should have turned down the offer
    She oughtn't to have spent the money


Group 3: 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.



Comment clauses

Not all analyses of disjuncts accept comment clauses as a separate category.  Be that as it may, they are a teachable area in what is otherwise a rather complex and disjointed field.
Comment clauses contain finite verb clauses and serve to express the speaker's view of what follows, usually.  For example:
    I have to say that's not a good idea
    It seems to me that it would be better to wait and see
    I suppose we could do it that way
    I assume she won't come

and so on.
They are slightly unusual when written because they are not separated off conventionally with commas.  They are also slightly unusual anywhere except in informal writing and speech.  They can be used in formal writing where they serve to establish some kind of rapport between writer and reader because they sound almost personal (and they are).

In some analyses, not followed here, comment clauses may also be non-finite clauses such as:
    Speaking honestly, I don't have an answer
    To be fair, that's a good solution

but we are keeping these in the area of disjuncts proper in this analysis.


The form of attitude or content disjuncts

The usual choice is for attitudinal disjuncts (and the one to teach first) is to use adverbs, especially those ending in -ly.  See above for examples.  However:

The fact that relative pronoun clauses can only function anaphorically and what clauses only cataphorically is not a feature common to many languages that use disjunct clauses and is a source of some error and unnatural production.


A note on intonation

Disjuncts are frequently written rather than spoken but they are used in oral communication.
The intonation on the disjunct expression, whether a single word or a phrase, or even a finite clause, tends to be a rise-fall to indicate its importance.  Like this:

If you are going to practise using disjuncts in spoken language, this is worth some attention so that people are producing a natural intonation contour.


Modifying disjuncts

All disjuncts can be modified and style disjuncts in particular are often emphasised or toned down in spoken language.

very, quite, rather, enough
These modifiers are routinely used with disjuncts to amplify the strength of the disjunct:
    Very happily, the parcel arrived
    Quite honestly, I kept quiet
    Strangely enough, the letter never arrived
    Rather interestingly, the book was written in prison

The modifier enough displays its usual anomalous word-order behaviour by following rather than preceding the item it modifies.
(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.)
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
Some people deprecate the use of the double negative in expressions such as not unjustly and so on but they perform as useful modifying function because they tone down the meaning of the disjunct.  There is a difference in strength between, e.g.:
    not unhappily
more, less, most, least
The first two modifiers perform their usual function of making comparatives.
    Surprisingly, he turned down the pay rise.  More surprisingly, he actually took less money
    Predictably, she got quite angry.  Less predictably, so did he.
The superlatives, most and least, can also be used but are rarer:
    Unhappily, they were stopped at the border.  Most unhappily, they spent the night in prison
    Debatably, the meeting was a small success.  Least debatably, it was never intended to reach a conclusion
much, greatly
These two modifiers can amplify the strength of prepositional-phrase disjuncts like this:
    Much to her disappointment, the party was postponed
    Greatly to my surprise, the meeting was a success
are common modifications of disjuncts so we can have, e.g.:
    Wholly unexpectedly, the weather turned warm and dry
    Completely unfairly, the referee sent him off
are less common but exemplified by:
    Slightly unexpectedly, she arrived on time
    Somewhat unfairly, they raised the price

It is common for modifiers to be used ironically either as forms of hyperbole or litotes.  For example:
    Somewhat magically, the damage was repaired before the homeowners arrived
    Not wholly astonishingly, he accepted the money



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, how desirable the speakers sees an event or state 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 speakers' truthfulness signalling or any limitations they want 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 seriously
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, clauses 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 or content disjuncts are less challenging structurally (because they are so often -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 three 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 terms of duty or obligation:
What is the speaker saying?  Match the meaning to the adverb:
Wisely, he left that out of the report   I think he was stupid
Rightly, he's in London with his mother It is something I believe was not stupid
Idiotically, he carried all his money with him I think this was logical
Quite sensibly, she took her concern to the boss I think he is doing the correct thing

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.  As a first step, the modifiers quite, rather and very form a teachable unit and the anomalous behaviour of enough (which follows the adverbial) can be introduced in the same teaching slot.

Once mastery of -ly adverbs has been achieved, it is often possible to go on, with more advanced learners, to teach alternative formulations.  This can first be done with matching exercises such as:
Match the adverbs to alternative ways of saying the same thing:
Obviously, that's not true   Speaking for myself, I can't see the effectiveness
Unsurprisingly, he was late To be sure, that's not the way to fix the problem
That is definitely the wrong solution He didn't arrive on time which surprised nobody
Personally, I don't think it will be work What is certainly not unclear is that the statement is untrue

The next step might be to provide skeleton sentences or gap-fill tasks to complete before learners can safely be asked to produce their own alternatives to simple adverbs.  For example:
Complete the following:
__________ __________ predictability, she argued the point
They got married almost immediately __________ was __________ surprising __________ everyone
__________ to my __________, the work came in under budget
__________ was more __________, it was completed on time

To make this sort of exercise slightly less challenging, you can provide a list of possible items to fill the gaps:
    delight, more, much, pleasing, quite, to, total, what, which, with



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. We need to distinguish between attitude or content disjuncts and style disjuncts because they send very different messages.
    1. Attitudinal disjuncts or content in particular are personal to the speaker insofar as they express a view concerning the content of the following proposition so the materials need to be designed with the personalities and propensities of the class in mind.
    2. Style disjuncts refer to how the speaker's wishes to be understood rather than to the content of what is said or written and this needs to be made clear.
      There is a significant difference between:
          Honestly, I just didn't have time
      which is an example of a speaker referring the way he or she wants to be understood (as being truthful)
          Obviously, I just didn't have time
      which is an example of a speaker referring to the likely truth of the proposition, given the evidence (as being clear to both speaker and hearer).


Two summaries

  1. The big picture:

  2. A list of adverbs only (but other forms such as prepositional phrases and non-finite clauses are usually derivable):
    Style Attitudinal (truth) Attitudinal (duty) Attitudinal (emotional response)

    generality / limitation



If you would like the list as a PDF document you can get it here.
It is, however, not a list of disjuncts, it is a list of possible disjuncts.
The list is not complete because some rarer or more formal expressions are excluded and you should bear syntactical homonymy and categorical indeterminacy 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, subjuncts and conjuncts as well as disjuncts
adverbs for a general guide to adverbs classified by manner, degree, place, time etc.
types of modality for the guide if mention of epistemic and deontic modality 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