Adverbs

Adverbs are words and phrases that are used to modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adverbs answer specific questions, such as how, how much/many, how often, when, where, why, with whom, for what purpose, and to what extent/degree, among others. In fact, adverbs are used to answer a broad range of questions about what is happening in a sentence.

Adverbs also have other uses, such as to show direction, to link clauses, sentences and ideas, to show certainty or uncertainty, place, probability, or to add emphasis.

Some adverbs also take the same form as adjectives (fast: a fast car, he drove fast (not fastly). Some appear to be prepositions, but in fact are adverbs (please sit down). It is important, then, to understand the function of adverbs and their position in the context of a clause or sentence:

He is a quick learnerquick is an adjective that describes the person (he, learner); He learns quicklyquickly is an adverb that expresses the speed/pace at which he learns.

Keep in mind that some words look like adverbs but are in fact adjectives, while some words look like adjectives, but are in fact used as adverbs:

The snake we came across in the jungle was well known for its deadly poison.—deadly – adjective modifying the noun poison.

After 12 hours of work on the essay, Lisa was dead tired.—dead – adverb modifying the adjective tired.

Some adverbs have two forms that mean different things:

I am pretty angry with her.—pretty is an adverb of degree, here modifying the adjective angry.

The little girl was prettily made up for the party.prettily is an adverb meaning in a pretty way, here modifying made up.

She is a very pretty girl.pretty is also an adjective.


Adverbs modify verbs

Adverbs provide extra information about action verbs in terms of how that action occurs, is proceeding, behaves, etc. In other words, an adverb “describes” the action. For example, to say that Boris speaks English, does not say enough if Boris is not a native English speaker. To say that Boris speaks English well or poorly is to have a complete idea in that the listener/reader can have a better understanding of Boris’s ability with the language. (Note: good is an adjective, well is an adverb, though well is also an adjective meaning in good health).

The boy cried loudly until his father had to take him, reluctantly, outside. (loudly modifies cried, reluctantly modifies take)

The economy fell sharply, catching investors off-guard. (sharply modifies fell)

Adverbs modify adjectives

Adverbs can also add extra elements to adjectives, to add emphasis, a level of degree or certainty, a quality, or other aspects to make the adjective more vivid or to complete the idea:

Tom bought a very expensive new car.

The project is almost complete.

Calvin knew that his acceptance to Harvard was highly unlikely, but he decided to try anyway.

I’m afraid your grandmother is too old now to have this procedure done safely.

Adverbs can also be added to adjectives to create compound adjectives (see adjectives page for more details about compound adjectives):

A brightly-coloured fabric

A well-written essay

Adverbs modify other adverbs

Just as they add certain elements to adjectives, adverbs can also add intensity and further information to other adverbs.

The situation deteriorated extremely quickly.

Although he quite often wins, Ted knows how to be a gracious loser.

Jane did not perform well on her exam, but she had a legitimate excuse.


Adverbs of time and frequency

Adverbs of frequency express the pace of an action or situation. In other words they say how often something happens, or if it happens at all. These adverbs can be one word, or short phrases:

Common adverbs of frequency are always, never, sometimes, seldom, hardly ever, rarely, usually, often, frequently, regularly, daily, weekly, monthly, annually, biannually, every day, every other day, every three days, every other week, once a month, twice a year, three times a week, every Saturday, every other Monday, the fourth Tuesday of every month, etc.

Adverbs of time point out when something occurred, is occurring, or will occur, or when a situation/condition (will) exist(s)(ed). Common adverbs of time are ago, last, next, today, yesterday, still, soon, when, finally, before, after, in, on, at (see adverbs particles below), etc.

I have never won the lottery, but I still buy tickets regularly. In fact, I buy ticket at least once a week, usually on Fridays.

Adverbs of degree, quantity

These adverbs add an element of degree, or intensity to other adverbs or adjectives or they can quantify the verb; in other words, these adverbs can suggest the idea of how strong or how much the verb, adjective, or adverb applies:

The man apologized profusely.— profusely means a lot, even too much

The situation is extremely worrying.—not a slight worry but an extreme one

It will cost a lot.— the cost is high

The man can lift five times his own weight.—if he weighs 150 pounds, he can lift (how much?) 750 pounds

Note: Be careful to differentiate the adjective use of some of these words and the adverb use. For example, A lot of people came to the partya lot is an adjective modifying people, suggesting a large number of individuals. Compare to People came to his parties a lot—a lot here is an adverb modifying the verb came, suggesting that people (the same people) came often.

Adverbs of certainty

These adverbs, as the heading suggests, add a level of certainty or possibility to an action:

He will most likely vote with the opposition.—most likely suggests the high probability that he will vote with the opposition.

Based on her attitude, it is probably safe to assume that she did indeed see the picture.

Adverbs of quality/ manner

These adverbs add a sense of quality to a verb or adjective or show the way in which something was done:

The fabric was carefully embroidered with intricatelysewn figures of dolphins and seahorses.—carefully, suggests the manner in which the action (embroidered) was done, while intricately suggests the quality of the sewing, yet the two words combine to create a compound adjective.

John softly whispered his proposal to Jane.

Heather was somewhat relieved that her pregnancy test came back negative, though she also had some regrets.

Adverbs as transitions

(also called conjunctive adverbs or transitional tags)

These adverbs act as conjunctions between sentences or clauses and act just like adverb clause conjunctions in that they convey a relative meaning between ideas. In other words, the relationship between the ideas (e.g., contrast, addition, alternative, etc.) is clear. However, unlike adverb clause conjunctions, these adverbs are not followed by subordinate clauses; they can be followed by phrases or independent clauses and they can begin a sentence or be positioned within or at the end of a sentence:

Common adverbs of transition are, nevertheless, nonetheless, likewise, otherwise, thereby, furthermore, moreover, in addition, besides, of course, on the contrary, notwithstanding, despite (this is a preposition, though it functions like an adverb in the case of transition), finally, presently, thereafter, in fact, therefore, etc.

Tom was sick, but he came over nevertheless.

Despite being sick, Tom came over.

To this day no-one knows the true cause of the disaster; in fact, the mystery has confounded scientists from all over the world who had gone to investigate the remains of the city.

It turns out that no winning ticket was issued with this week’s winning lottery numbers; therefore, the jackpot for next week’s draw will rise to just over $10 million.

To learn more about transitioning within sentences, see out transitions page.


For negative or positive emphasis

Negative words, such as not, never, and no are adverbs that signify the negation of the verb. There are also adverbs that suggest a negation, such as seldom, scarcely, hardly, etc. When we begin a sentence or clause with a negating adverb, we usually invert the positions of the subject and verb (for more on this, see the inversions page).

Larry swore that he would never agree to sell his company to a corporation.

Kate scarcely walked in the room when her son jumped on her in excitement.

Seldom do these situations turn out well.

Adverbs are also used to emphasize or amplify verbs:

I really wish you’d have told me about this earlier.

I absolutely refuse to subject my friends to this investigation.

Likewise, adverbs can be used to tone down a verb:

Mary was mildly interested in the boss’s proposition.

Jack was pleased to a certain extent, but he was also kind of apprehensive about the whole thing.

Adverb particles

These adverbs appear to be prepositions but are actually adverbs. The key to distinguishing them from prepositions is to identify their function in the clause or sentence. For example, if they work to answer a question about the verb in a clause, then they are adverbs:

Place the vase on the table (where?)

Once you turn onto Main Street, go straight for another five kilometers and you’ll see the building on your right. (which direction?)

Nouns as adverbials

In a clause, a verb may take an object or an adverb. In both cases this may be a noun. If the noun functions to answer questions such as where, when, how, or why? then this noun is acting as an adverb to the verb.

I went home.—(home answers where I went and is therefore acting as an adverb in this sentence)

Adverbial participles

A word ending in –ing, -ed, or the past participle form of a verb may be acting as an adverbial participle and shows a relationship between the participle and the independent clause. The key to recognizing an adverb participle is to understand that it is a reduced adverb clause (To learn more about this, see the participles page.)

Resigned to his fate, Paul did not put up much of a fight.

Having lost for the fourth straight game, the team decided to call a players’ meeting to discuss the problems that were giving them trouble.

Adverbial phrases

Phrases may function as adverbs in a clause or sentence. They may appear in different forms, including prepositional phrases, infinitive phrases, or participle phrases. If the phrase answers questions such as where, when, why, how, with whom, etc., then they are considered adverbials:

Lindsay went to the store to buy milk for her mother.—to the store (prepsotional phrase) modifies went (where did she go); to buy milk (infinitive phrase) also modifies went (why did she go?)

The custodian locked up the school, thinking that all the students had left. (because he thought…)

Adverb clauses

See the Adverb Clauses page for detailed information about this function.

adverb endings

-ly, -ily, ically, -wise, -wards, —these suffixes are used to change an adjective or other word form into an adverb. Other than these endings, adverbs have many of their own words and might not always be easy to recognize in terms of construct or spelling. use context to figure out what a word is doing in the context of the sentence.


Positioning

Where an adverb is placed in a sentence depends a lot on its function in relation to the entire sentence, to the word it is modifying, to the clause it is modifying, or to other adverbs.

As such, adverbs can be placed at the beginning of a sentence, the end of the sentence, or somewhere mid-sentence:

Yesterday I went to see my teacher about the latest assignment.

I went to see my teacher about the latest assignment yesterday.

I went to see my teacher yesterday to talk about the latest assignment.

Although each of these sentences is correct, the best one is the first. The reason for this is that the sentence does not need to be changed (as in the last example) and the adverb is closest to the verb that it is modifying (went when? yesterday). Also, it sets up the entire sentence so the reader knows exactly when this situation or action occurred.

That being said, it is best to place the adverb closest to the word it is modifying. In cases where the adverb is modifying an entire sentence, the best position is at the beginning of the sentence:

Maybe I’ll go see my teacher tomorrow to discuss the assignment.

Maybe makes the entire sentence a possibility. Saying I’ll go see my teacher tomorrow maybe to discuss the assignment is weak as the maybe might be interpreted as applying to the action to discuss.

In fact, this problem can occur regularly with certain adverbs:

John only eats peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwiches for lunch.

John eats only peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwiches for lunch.

John eats peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwiches for lunch only.

In the first example, the only action John does is eating PB&J sandwiches, which is not very likely. He probably has a job too, and some hobbies. (he only eats)

In the second sentence, he eats nothing other than PB&J sandwiches for lunch. No tuna sandwiches, no soup, no other dish. (only PB&J sandwiches)

In the last example, the only time John eats PB&J sandwiches is lunchtime. He does not have these sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, or snack. (at lunchtime only)

The first example is likely a misplaced modifier, meaning a modifier that is inappropriately placed and thus confusing to a reader. Misplaced modifiers are common writing errors and should be avoided. (see other common writing errors)

Where to place the adverb:

When modifying an adjective or other adverb, place the initial adverb before the word being modified:

This is a very delicious sandwich. (not a delicious very sandwich)

He spoke somewhat quickly. (not quickly somewhat)

When modifying verbs:

  • Manner

    He quickly wrote down her information and handed her the forms to sign.

    He wrote down her information quickly and handed her the forms to sign.

    Both examples here are correct. The position depends more on the level of emphasis placed on the adverb. In shorter sentences, especially without an object or adverbial phrases, the adverb of manner will usually go at the end: She signed hurriedly.

    • Time

      These adverbs can come at the beginning middle or end, depending on the level of emphasis you want to place on them, or on how far away from the verb they are:

      Two weeks ago, I saw a great performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Ballet House.—time and verb (saw) are close to each other)

      I saw a great performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Ballet House two weeks ago.— time and verb (saw) are far from each other)

      In this case the first example is better. In cases where a contrast in time is emphasized, the time expressions are placed closer together: She was sick last weekend, but today she looks fine.—end of one clause and close to beginning of next. (compare with: Last weekend she was sick, but she looks fine today.—we want to compare the change in her condition more than the change in time)

    • Frequency

      Adverbs such as never and always go before the verb they modify. Other adverbs can go before the verb or at the end of the clause:

      Philip always travels alone. (not Philip travels alone always.)

      Philip usually travels with his friends. Or, Philip travels with his friends usually. (The first is more common)—in this case, the adverb usually modifies the adverb phrase with his friends (how does he travel?)

      Sam often reads novels. Or, Sam reads novels often. —in this example, the first sentence emphasizes novels, while the second emphasizes reads novels.

      • Degree/quantity

        Degree adverbs go before the verb, while quantifiers usually go at the end of the clause:

        Kelly really appreciates your help.

        Henry really likes you a lot.

        Transition adverbs usually begin the clause/sentence and apply to the whole clause, not to any particular word in it.

        Adverbs modifying an entire sentence or clause:

        In most cases, place the adverb at the beginning of the sentence when it modifies the entire idea

        Ex: Not surprisingly, Beth was awarded first place in the tournament.

        Luckily, no one was hurt in the explosion.

      Pronouns