Adverbs are words that modify

As we will see, adverbs often tell when, where, why, or under what conditions something happens or happened. Adverbs frequently end in -ly; however, many words and phrases not ending in -ly serve an adverbial function and an -ly ending is not a guarantee that a word is an adverb. The words lovely, lonely, motherly, friendly, neighborly, for instance, are adjectives:

If a group of words containing a subject and verb acts as an adverb (modifying the verb of a sentence), it is called an Adverb Clause:

When a group of words not containing a subject and verb acts as an adverb, it is called an adverbial phrase. Prepositional phrases frequently have adverbial functions (telling place and time, modifying the verb):

And Infinitive phrases can act as adverbs (usually telling why):

But there are other kinds of adverbial phrases:

Click on "Lolly's Place" to read and hear Bob Dorough's "Get Your Adverbs Here" (from Scholastic Rock, 1974).
Schoolhouse Rock® and its characters and other elements are trademarks and service marks of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Used with permission.

Adverbs can modify adjectives, but an adjective cannot modify an adverb. Thus we would say that "the students showed a really wonderful attitude" and that "the students showed a wonderfully casual attitude" and that "my professor is really tall, but not "He ran real fast."

Like adjectives, adverbs can have comparative and superlative forms to show degree.

We often use more and most, less and least to show degree with adverbs:

The as — as construction can be used to create adverbs that express sameness or equality: "He can't run as fast as his sister."

A handful of adverbs have two forms, one that ends in -ly and one that doesn't. In certain cases, the two forms have different meanings:

In most cases, however, the form without the -ly ending should be reserved for casual situations:

Adverbs often function as intensifiers, conveying a greater or lesser emphasis to something. Intensifiers are said to have three different functions: they can emphasize, amplify, or downtone. Here are some examples:

Adverbs (as well as adjectives) in their various degrees can be accompanied by premodifiers:

This issue is addressed in the section on degrees in adjectives.

For this section on intensifiers, we are indebted to A Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. Longman Group: London. 1978. pages 438 to 457. Examples our own.

Using Adverbs in a Numbered List

Within the normal flow of text, it's nearly always a bad idea to number items beyond three or four, at the most. Anything beyond that, you're better off with a vertical list that uses numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.). Also, in such a list, don't use adverbs (with an -ly ending); use instead the uninflected ordinal number (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.). First (not firstly), it's unclear what the adverb is modifying. Second (not secondly), it's unnecessary. Third (not thirdly), after you get beyond "secondly," it starts to sound silly. Adverbs that number in this manner are treated as disjuncts (see below.)

Adverbs We Can Do Without

Review the section on Being Concise for some advice on adverbs that we can eliminate to the benefit of our prose: intensifiers such as very, extremely, and really that don't intensify anything and expletive constructions ("There are several books that address this issue.")

Kinds of Adverbs

Adverbs of Manner
   She moved slowly and spoke quietly.

Adverbs of Place
   She has lived on the island all her life.
   She still lives there now.

Adverbs of Frequency
   She takes the boat to the mainland every day.
   She often goes by herself.

Adverbs of Time
   She tries to get back before dark.
   It's starting to get dark now.
   She finished her tea first.
   She left early.

Adverbs of Purpose
   She drives her boat slowly to avoid hitting the rocks.
   She shops in several stores to get the best buys.

Positions of Adverbs

One of the hallmarks of adverbs is their ability to move around in a sentence. Adverbs of manner are particularly flexible in this regard.

The following adverbs of frequency appear in various points in these sentences:

Indefinite adverbs of time can appear either before the verb or between the auxiliary and the main verb:

Frank and Ernest

Order of Adverbs

There is a basic order in which adverbs will appear when there is more than one. It is similar to The Royal Order of Adjectives, but it is even more flexible.

Beth swimsenthusiasticallyin the poolevery morningbefore dawnto keep in shape.
Dad walksimpatientlyinto townevery afternoonbefore supperto get a newspaper.
Tashonda naps in her roomevery morningbefore lunch. 
 In actual practice, of course, it would be highly unusual to have a string of adverbial modifiers beyond two or three (at the most). Because the placement of adverbs is so flexible, one or two of the modifiers would probably move to the beginning of the sentence: "Every afternoon before supper, Dad impatiently walks into town to get a newspaper." When that happens, the introductory adverbial modifiers are usually set off with a comma.

More Notes on Adverb Order

As a general principle, shorter adverbial phrases precede longer adverbial phrases, regardless of content. In the following sentence, an adverb of time precedes an adverb of frequency because it is shorter (and simpler):

A second principle: among similar adverbial phrases of kind (manner, place, frequency, etc.), the more specific adverbial phrase comes first:

Bringing an adverbial modifier to the beginning of the sentence can place special emphasis on that modifier. This is particularly useful with adverbs of manner:

Inappropriate Adverb Order

Review the section on Misplaced Modifiers for some additional ideas on placement. Modifiers can sometimes attach themselves to and thus modify words that they ought not to modify.

Clearly, it would be better to move the underlined modifier to a position immediately after "they reported" or even to the beginning of the sentence — so the poor man doesn't die on television.

Misplacement can also occur with very simple modifiers, such as only and barely:

It would be better if "She grew to be only four feet tall."

Adjuncts, Disjuncts, and Conjuncts

Regardless of its position, an adverb is often neatly integrated into the flow of a sentence. When this is true, as it almost always is, the adverb is called an adjunct. (Notice the underlined adjuncts or adjunctive adverbs in the first two sentences of this paragraph.) When the adverb does not fit into the flow of the clause, it is called a disjunct or a conjunct and is often set off by a comma or set of commas. A disjunct frequently acts as a kind of evaluation of the rest of the sentence. Although it usually modifies the verb, we could say that it modifies the entire clause, too. Notice how "too" is a disjunct in the sentence immediately before this one; that same word can also serve as an adjunct adverbial modifier: It's too hot to play outside. Here are two more disjunctive adverbs:

Conjuncts, on the other hand, serve a connector function within the flow of the text, signaling a transition between ideas.

At the extreme edge of this category, we have the purely conjunctive device known as the conjunctive adverb (often called the adverbial conjunction):

Authority for this section: A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993. 126. Used with permission. Examples our own.

Some Special Cases

The adverbs enough and not enough usually take a postmodifier position:

(Notice, though, that when enough functions as an adjective, it can come before the noun:

The adverb enough is often followed by an infinitive:

The adverb too comes before adjectives and other adverbs:

If too comes after the adverb it is probably a disjunct (meaning also) and is usually set off with a comma:

The adverb too is often followed by an infinitive:

Another common construction with the adverb too is too followed by a prepositional phrase — for + the object of the prepositionfollowed by an infinitive:

Relative Adverbs

Adjectival clauses are sometimes introduced by what are called the relative adverbs: where, when, and why. Although the entire clause is adjectival and will modify a noun, the relative word itself fulfills an adverbial function (modifying a verb within its own clause).

The relative adverb where will begin a clause that modifies a noun of place:

My entire family now worships in the church where my great grandfather used to be minister.

The relative pronoun "where" modifies the verb "used to be" (which makes it adverbial), but the entire clause ("where my great grandfather used to be minister") modifies the word "church."

A when clause will modify nouns of time:

My favorite month is always February, when we celebrate Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day.

And a why clause will modify the noun reason:

Do you know the reason why Isabel isn't in class today?

We sometimes leave out the relative adverb in such clauses, and many writers prefer "that" to "why" in a clause referring to "reason":

Authority for this section: Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.

Viewpoint, Focus, and Negative Adverbs

A viewpoint adverb generally comes after a noun and is related to an adjective that precedes that noun:

You will sometimes hear a phrase like "scholastically speaking" or "financially speaking" in these circumstances, but the word "speaking" is seldom necessary.

A focus adverb indicates that what is being communicated is limited to the part that is focused; a focus adverb will tend either to limit the sense of the sentence ("He got an A just for attending the class.") or to act as an additive ("He got an A in addition to being published."

Although negative constructions like the words "not" and "never" are usually found embedded within a verb string — "He has never been much help to his mother." — they are technically not part of the verb; they are, indeed, adverbs. However, a so-called negative adverb creates a negative meaning in a sentence without the use of the usual no/not/neither/nor/never constructions:

QuizQuiz on Adverbs

QuizOrder of Adverbs