24) Adverbs

Adverbs

Adverbs function to modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. As with adjectives, the difficult question to explore is exactly how they modify them. This can be done by breaking adverbs down into two broad categories: simple and conjunctive.

1) Simple adverbs

Simple adverbs answer questions like:

When?

Where?

How?

How much?

Why?

They answer these questions by modifying a single word, phrase, or clause. Let’s look at some of the ways this occurs:

1.1 Adverbs of time

Adverbs of time modify a single word, phrase or clause by answering the question:

When?

Let’s look at some examples of them modifying a verb, adjective and adverb, starting with a verb:

She will arrive today.

Here the adverb ‘today’ is modifying the verb ‘arrive’ thus answering the question of ‘when will she arrive?’

Now for an adjective:

She is happy today.

Here the adverb ‘today’ is modifying the adjective ‘happy’ to answer the question ‘when is she happy?’

Now for an adverb:

She will arrive quickly today.

Here the adverb ‘today’ is modifying the adverb ‘quickly’ to answer the question ‘when will she arrive quickly?’ To recognise this we need to see that ‘quickly’ is an adverb. One way of doing this is to realise that ‘arrive’ is a verb, and that ‘quickly’ is modifying the verb ‘arrive’ to answer the question ‘how will she arrive today?’ ‘Quickly’ can be described as an adverb of manner which answers the question ‘how’, and we will look at this adverb type soon. It can also be argued this is an adverb of degree, or measure, which answers the question ‘how much?’ or ‘to what degree?’

Let’s look at this again, in more detail, because it can be quite hard to get to that conclusion. The first thing to do is to figure out the subject, which is the pronoun ‘She’. We know this is a pronoun because it replaces a noun, such as the proper noun ‘Mary’. We then need to figure out what the other words are doing in the sentence. ‘Will’ is an auxiliary verb, which are verbs which support other verbs in their function of describing an action, condition or state of being. So what other verb is ‘will’ supporting? This would be ‘arrive’. We know ‘arrive’ is a verb because it is describing an action that is happening to the subject ‘She’. So we combine the auxiliary verb ‘will’ and the verb ‘arrive’ giving us a verb phrase ‘will arrive’.

Now we need to ask how ‘quickly’ is interacting with the subject and verb. Well, ‘quickly’ is modifying the verb phrase ‘will arrive’ by answering the question ‘how will she arrive?’ The fact it is modifying the verb phrase means it is an adverb. Finally, we have to ask what the word ‘today’ is doing here. Well, it is letting us know when ‘she will arrive quickly’. Therefore, it is an adverb because it is modifying the adverb ‘quickly’. There is a lot to work through even in a simple sentence like that isn’t there? If you are struggling, don’t worry; I am too!

1.2 Adverbs of place

Adverbs of place modify a single word, phrase or clause by answering the question:

Where?

Let’s look at some examples of them modifying a verb, adjective and adverb, starting with a verb:

John lives nearby.

Here the adverb ‘nearby’ is modifying the verb ‘lives’ to answer the question ‘Where does John live?’

Now for an adjective:

John is miserable there.

Here the adverb ‘there’ is modifying the adjective ‘miserable’ to answer the question ‘Where is John miserable?’

Now for an adverb:

John can concentrate sufficiently here.

Here the adverb ‘here’ is modifying the adverb ‘sufficiently’ to answer the question ‘Where can John concentrate sufficiently?; To recognise this we need to see that ‘sufficiently’ is an adverb. This can be done by finding the verb phrase ‘can concentrate’ then seeing that ‘sufficiently’ is modifying it, making it an adverb. As a side note, ‘sufficiently’ is an adverb of manner, which answers the question ‘how?’ (how can John concentrate?), or an adverb of measure/degree, which answers the question ‘how much?’ (how much can John concentrate?). We will look at adverbs of manner next.

1.3 Adverbs of manner

Adverbs of manner modify a single word, phrase or clause by answering the question:

How?

Let’s look at some examples of them modifying a verb, adjective and adverb, starting with a verb:

Mary writes lucidly.

Here the adverb ‘lucidly’ is modifying the verb ‘writes’ by answering the question ‘how does Mary write?’

Now for an adjective:

Mary is aggressive silently.

Here the adverb ‘silently’ is modifying the adjective ‘aggressive’ by answering the question ‘how is Mary aggressive?’

Now for an adverb:

Mary argues exceptionally poorly.

Here the adverb ‘exceptionally’ is modifying the adverb ‘poorly’ to answer the question ‘how does Mary argue?’ To recognise this we need to see that ‘poorly’ is an adverb modifying ‘argues’ and that ‘exceptionally’ is modifying ‘poorly in turn. ‘Exceptionally’ can be thought of as an adverb of manner, which answers the question ‘how?’ (how does Mary argue poorly?) or of measure/degree which answers the question how much?’ (how much does Mary argue poorly?/how poorly does Mary argue?) We will deal with adverbs of measure/degree next.

1.4 Adverbs of degree/measure

Adverbs of degree, or measure, modify a single word, phrase or clause by answering the question:

How much?

Let’s now look at some examples of adverbs of measure or degree modifying a verb, adjective and adverb.

Here is a verb example:

Jake barely drank anything.

Here the adverb ‘barely’ is modifying the verb ‘drank’ to answer the question ‘How much had Jake drunk?’

Now for an adjective:

Jake was quite poor.

Here the adverb ‘quite’ is modifying the adjective ‘poor’ to answer the question ‘How much was Jake poor?’

Now for an adverb:

Jake was dancing very joyfully.

Here the adverb ‘very’ is modifying the adverb ‘joyfully’ to answer the question ‘How much is Jake dancing joyfully?’ To recognise this we need to know that ‘joyfully’ is an adverb. This can be done by finding the present participle ‘dancing’, realising it is being used to form a verb tense, then noticing that ‘joyfully’ is modifying it, by answering the question ‘How was Jake dancing?’ Seeing as ‘joyfully’ is modifying the present participle ‘dancing’, it is an adverb. Once we know that we can see that ‘very’ is modifying ‘joyfully’ by answering the question ‘How much is Jake dancing joyfully?’

1.5 Interrogative adverbs

Interrogative adverbs modify a single word, phrase or clause by asking the questions:

‘why?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’ and ‘how?’

More simply, the above words are put at the beginning of sentences to ask that respective question. We also see the subject and the verb switched around from the more common subject + verb construction we usually see. Let’s look at some examples of them modifying verbs, starting with ‘why’:

Why did you run away?

Here the interrogative adverb ‘why’ is modifying the verb ‘did’ to ask the question ‘why?’ Note how the subject ‘you’ comes after the verb ‘did’ – which is a relatively unusual construction.

Here is ‘when’ modifying a verb:

When is the concert?

Here the interrogative adverb ‘when’ is modifying the verb ‘is’ to ask the question ‘when?’ Note how the subject ‘the concert’ come after the verb ‘is’.

Here is ‘where’ modifying a verb:

Where is your house?

Here the interrogative adverb ‘where’ is modifying the verb ‘is’ to ask the question ‘where?’ Note that the subject ‘your house’ is after the verb ‘is’.

Here is ‘how’ modifying a verb:

How can you live with yourself?

Here the interrogative adverb ‘how’ is modifying the verb phrase ‘can…live’ to ask the question ‘how?’ This sentence has the modal auxiliary verb ‘can’ and the main verb ‘live’, with ‘can’ working as an auxiliary to ‘live’. Therefore, ‘how’ is really working on both because they are connected. Note that the subject ‘you’ comes after the auxiliary verb ‘can’, though it comes before the main verb ‘live’.

‘Why’, ‘When’ and ‘Where’ do not often modify adjectives. However, the interrogative adverb ‘how’ often does as in:

How agile are you?

Here the interrogative adverb ‘how’ is modifying the adjective ‘agile’ to ask the question ‘how?’ This is an interesting construction. If ‘agile’ is an adjective then it must be modifying a noun, or pronoun. The only such word in this sentence is the subject ‘you’ – which is a pronoun. ‘Agile’ is describing more about the subject ‘you’. We then have the linking verb ‘are’ in the middle, so this is a sort of reverse version of the predicate adjective we saw earlier. This is because the ‘how’ adverb leads us to swap around verbs and their subjects. Usually with predicate adjectives we see things like:

You are agile.

Here we have the subject ‘You’, the linking verb ‘are’ and the predicate adjective ‘agile’, which is modifying the pronoun ‘you’. However, in the original example we have the adjective and the subject switched around:

How agile are you?

Nevertheless, the adjective ‘agile’ could still be said to be modifying the subject ‘you’ via the linking verb ‘are’.

‘Why’, ‘When’ and ‘Where’ do also not often work with other adverbs, but ‘how’ does as in:

How slowly can you ride a bike?

Here the interrogative adverb ‘how’ is modifying the adverb ‘slowly’ to ask the question ‘how?’ To know this we need to know that ‘slowly’ is an adverb. Note that ‘slowly’ is modifying the verb phrase ‘can…ride’. Remember that ‘can’ is a modal auxiliary verb and cannot stand alone, giving us a hint that ‘ride’ is the main verb and ‘can’ is its auxiliary.

1.6 Use a more precise verb instead

It is often argued that adverbs should be used sparingly. A common bit of advice to writers is to take out the adverbs and to use a more precise verb instead. For example:

He quickly moved down the street.

can become

He ran down the street.

This makes the writing more concise, because less words are likely needed, and more precise, because a more specific word has been used which are two hugely important factors in writing clearly and powerfully.

2) Conjunctive adverbs

Conjunctions are words which join groups of words together. Conjunctive adverbs (a list of common ones can be found here) are a specific type of conjunction that link together independent clauses. They are liable to cause confusion because the words in this group can be used both as standard adverbs, or as conjunctive adverbs. When they are used as simple adverbs, they modify a verb, adjective or adverb. However, when they are used as conjunctive adverbs, they do not. Let’s look at some examples:

He usually hated seafood; however, he was going to try some tonight.

Here the conjunctive adverb ‘however’ is connecting the independent clause:

‘He usually hated seafood’

with the other independent clause:

‘he was going to try some tonight’

‘However’ is not acting here to modify a verb, adjective or adverb alone, but instead working on connecting two independent, or main, clauses.

Now look at this example:

However painful the marathon was going to be, he was going to finish it.

Here, ‘however’ is working as an adverb by modifying the adjective ‘painful’. However, it isn’t working as a conjunctive adverb because it isn’t linking two independent clauses together. So, as I understand it, this is simply called an adverb, not a conjunctive adverb.

This is obviously confusing terminology. The conjunctive adverbs link two independent clauses together, but don’t actually work as adverbs (which modify a verb, adjective or other adverb). As we will see when we get to conjunctions, there are actually names for conjunctions which do this: coordinating conjunctions. It is not so confusing in the second example, where a word which does modify a verb, adjective or other adverb is called an adverb. So why are conjunctive adverbs not just called coordinating conjunctions?

The first answer seems to be that they have the ability to be both an adverb and a conjunction, so this distinguishes them from the other coordinating conjunctions. Some examples of coordinating conjunctions are ‘and’ and ‘but’ – both of which can’t work as adverbs. So there is a distinction in the ability of conjunctive adverbs to be coordinating conjunctions in some situations, and adverbs in others.

The second answer relates to structure. One other likely reason why conjunctive adverbs have been differentiated from coordinating conjunctions is their position within the clause. If the clause has a conjunction in it, the conjunction has to be directly in between the two clauses such as:

She was happy, and she was loved.

Here the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ cannot be placed anywhere else in the sentence as in:

She was happy she and was loved. (incorrect)

She was happy she was and loved. (incorrect)

She was happy she was loved and. (incorrect)

However, conjunctive adverbs have much more freedom. They can be moved around within the clause they are linking to. For example:

She was loved; consequently, she was happy.

She was loved; she, consequently, was happy.

She was loved; she was, consequently, happy.

She was loved; she was happy, consequently.

These two reasons are as clear as an answer as I can see for conjunctive adverbs being called adverbs. I have also read that words for which there is no other category are often arbitrarily called adverbs, for convenience. I don’t think that is the case here though, because, if you look up a conjunctive adverb in the dictionary, you should find that they have two word types they can be: adverbs or conjunctions. Actually, it doesn’t appear the dictionary states all of them as conjunctions, but usually seems to state them as adverbs. The point here is that they don’t generally appear to be used in any other word class other than adverbs or conjunctions, which perhaps led to the term ‘conjunctive adverb’ rather than, say, ‘conjunctive noun’ or ‘conjunctive adjective’.

3) Degrees of adverbs

Adverbs, just like adjectives, can form the positive, comparative and superlative degrees of comparison. Also like adjectives, this relates to the amount of syllables. So adverbs with one syllable mostly add ‘r’ or ‘er’ on the end for the comparative form.

For example, ‘late’ becoming ‘later’ as in:

He finishes later than most.

Let’s compare positive and comparative below:

Positive degree: ‘He always works late.’

Comparative degree: ‘He always works later than most.’

In the positive degree the one syllable adverb ‘late’ is modifying the verb ‘works.’ In the comparative degree the adverb ‘later’ is modifying the verb ‘works to allow us to compare to another group of people (‘most’). Therefore, we add ‘er’ on the end. As in adjectives, if the ending of the adverb has an ‘e’ we just add ‘r’ but otherwise we ad ‘er’ as in ‘soon’ becoming ‘sooner’.

However, many adverbs end with more than one syllable, and these often have ‘more’ or ‘less’ added on the end of the comparative degree. For example:

Positive degree: ‘The man ran aggressively.’

Comparative degree: ‘The man ran more aggressively than before.’

Then there are some examples where multiple forms can be used, as in:

Positive degree: ‘The rope was tied tightly.’

Comparative degree: ‘The rope was tied more tightly than before.’

Comparative degree 2: ‘The rope was tied tighter than before.’

In the positive degree the adverb ‘tightly’ is modifying the verb ‘tied’ to answer the question ‘how is the rope tied?’ In the comparative degree ‘more’ is added so that the adverb phrase ‘more tightly’ can modify the verb ‘tied’ to answer the question ‘how was the rope tied compared to before?’

Similarly, if the word has one syllable, the ending for the superlative form – which compares more than 2 things – is usually ‘est’ or ‘st’. For example ‘late’ becomes ‘latest.’ Let’s look at an example:

Positive degree: ‘He always works late.

Superlative degree: ‘Out of everyone in the office he works the latest.

In the positive degree the adverb ‘late’ is modifying the verb ‘works’ by answering the question ‘When does he work?’ This has ‘st’ added to the end so that the adverb ‘latest’ modifies the adjective ‘the’, or it could be looked at as the adverb phrase ‘the latest’ modifying the verb ‘works’ to answer the question ‘Out of everyone in the office, when does he work?’

The same applies here for words that don’t end in ‘e’ which have ‘est’ added onto the end as in ‘hard’ becomes ‘hardest’.

If there are 2 or more syllables then the superlative form usually involves adding ‘most’ or ‘least’ on the end. For example:

Positive degree: ‘John ran aggressively.’

Superlative degree: ‘Out of everyone, John ran most aggressively.’

However, as before, there are some which have multiple forms. For example:

Positive degree: ‘The rope was tied tightly.’

Superlative degree: ‘The rope was tied most tightly by Ben.’

Superlative degree: ‘The rope was tied tightest by Ben.’

A table summarising the general rules for positive, comparative and superlative based on syllables is below:

Syllables Positive Comparative Superlative
1 He always works late He always works later than most Out of everyone in the office he works the latest
More than one The man ran aggressively The man ran more aggressively than before Out of everyone John ran most aggressively.

Then there are also some irregular adverbs, which have endings specific to them. For example:

Positive: He writes well.

Comparative He writes better than her.

Superlative: Out of everyone, he writes best.

In all of these examples the adverb in bold is modifying the verb ‘writes’.

Common errors

In a similar way to adjectives, errors can occur due to combining degrees of adverbs. For example:

The rope was tied more tighter than before. (incorrect)

This can be remedied by getting rid of ‘more’, because it is redundant, giving us:

The rope was tied tighter than before. (correct)

Another method with this word is keeping ‘more’ but changing the comparative ‘tighter’ to the positive ‘tightly’ which makes ‘more’ no longer redundant, as in:

The rope was tied more tightly than before. (correct)

I would generally recommend going with the first example though because it uses fewer words, and expresses the same thing.

4) Adverb form

One fortunate element of a lot of adverbs is that they end in ‘ly’. Often this ‘ly’ is added onto the end of an adjective to make an adverb. For example:

Adjective: ‘Tight’

Adverb: ‘Tightly’

If you look up an adjective like ‘tight’ in some dictionaries, you will also be provided with the adverb form, which is often just the word with ‘ly’ added on the end. This closeness does suggest a closeness in meaning. Let’s compare some sentences between the two:

Adjective: ‘He couldn’t open the tight knot.’

Adverb: ‘He tightly tied the knot.’

The adjective ‘tight’ is modifying the noun ‘knot’ by giving it an extra characteristic, while the adverb ‘tightly’ is modifying the verb ‘tied’ to tell us the manner in which it was tied, and the extent to which it was tied. In this case, It is like the ‘ly’ breaths energy into the adjective, moving it from giving a quality about a thing to being part of the action of the verb.

While a lot of adverbs have this ending, there are also many that don’t. We have already seen the conjunctive adverb group, which has words like ‘however’, ‘consequently’, ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ in it. We have also seen how a lot of words can be adverbs in the positive degree as in:

He always worked late.

Here the adverb ‘late’ is modifying the verb ‘worked’ to give some extra detail about time to the verb.

There are also plenty more common ones such as:

He was a little slow.

She is almost invisible.

He ran quite fast.

Unfortunately, this means we cannot always be lazy and just look for the ‘ly’ ending when looking for adverbs. The other reason we can’t do that is because some adjectives end in ‘ly’, such as:

She liked the lovely flower.

Here the adjective ‘lovely’ is modifying the noun ‘flower’.

5) Position of adverbs

One of the hardest concepts to get with adverbs is that they can be in many different positions, so finding them is often hard. We have already seen that conjunctive adverbs can appear at different points along the independent clause they are part of:

She was loved; consequently, she was happy.

She was loved; she, consequently, was happy.

She was loved; she was, consequently, happy.

She was loved; she was happy, consequently.

The other main type of adverb that has this level of flexibility are the manner adverbs:

Slowly, it crawled towards me.

It slowly crawled towards me.

It crawled slowly towards me.

It crawled towards me slowly.

However, we see differences in many other types. For example, time adverbs have some variability. It is much harder to move the same word around within a sentence in this type, but we still see them appearing in different places, as in :

He will arrive today.

He will never arrive.

He always arrives late.

Today he will arrive late.

There doesn’t appear to be any clear rule for this variation in position, so the only rules to stick to are that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. What is particularly difficult is the adverb won’t always be directly next to the word it is measuring as in:

Slowly, it crawled towards me.

Here the adverb ‘slowly’ is modifying the verb ‘crawled’ by answering he question ‘how did it crawl?’. However, it has the pronoun subject ‘it’ in between ‘slowly’ and ‘crawled’. This really involves thinking about how the word is interacting with other words in the sentence when trying to figure out its class. With this example, the adverb ‘slowly’ is put there at the beginning to tell us about the manner of the crawling, which links the two words together.

A similar example might be:

Today, it crawled towards me.

We can look at this in a couple of ways. One way is as before, by saying this answers the question ‘when did it crawl towards me?’ – giving the answer ‘today’. In this way, ‘today’ is modifying the verb ‘crawled’ to let us know when the crawling happened. The other way of looking at it is that ‘Today’ is modifying the whole rest of the sentence, as it is essentially setting the scene for when everything happened.

This particular word can be difficult because ‘today’ can also be a noun, and at the beginning of a sentence, as in:

Today is beautiful.

Let’s think about both of these. In the first sentence, ‘Today’ is sitting at the beginning behind a comma, modifying the verb ‘crawled’, or, perhaps, modifying the rest of the sentence. The subject of this first sentence is ‘it’ because this is the thing being talked about, and it is also paired with the verb ‘crawled’. Furthermore, ‘Today’ is not a subject here, because it isn’t paired with any verb, in the sense that ‘today’ did not crawl. This is in contrast to the second sentence, where ‘today’ is paired with the verb ‘is’, with ‘beautiful’ being the predicate adjective modifying the noun ‘today’. One way which often helps when trying to tell if a word is a noun is to try replacing it with a pronoun. If the replacement works then this suggests it is a noun, seeing as the job of a pronoun is to replace nouns. If it can’t be replaced with a pronoun, this suggests it is another word class. Let’s try that with the two above:

Today, it crawled towards me.

It, it crawled towards me. (incorrect)

 

Today is beautiful.

It is beautiful.

We can see that replacing ‘today’ with the pronoun ‘it’ doesn’t work in the adverb example, but in the noun example it does. This backs up the idea that ‘today’ is the subject in ‘Today’ is beautiful.’, and is not in ”Today, it crawled towards me.’ Hopefully this helps to differentiate the two a bit.

6) Questions

1) Explain the different types of adverbs.

2) Explain the different degrees of adverbs.

3) What sorts of forms do adverbs often take on?

4) Discuss adverb position.

We are done with adverbs for now. Let’s move on to conjunctions next.

NEXT: 25) The conjunction

Posted in English Grammar