Adverbs - an essential part of speech in the English language. But what are they? And what purpose do they serve? That’s precisely what we’ll dive into in today’s article.
In short, adverbs modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.
This article is part of our free online grammar book.
A standard definition for an adverb is that they often end in -ly and that they modify verbs, but that’s a very simplistic explanation for these complex words. Let’s give them a little more credit.
In reality, while many adverbs end in -ly, many of them also don't. And they can modify a whole lot more than just verbs. An adverb can also tell you more about an adjective, another adverb, or an entire sentence.
Adverbs are one of the main parts of speech in English grammar, along with nouns, adjectives, and verbs. See our Grammar Book to learn about the others.
Another essential thing to know about adverbs is that they can be one word, a group of words, or even an entire phrase or clause (referred to as adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses - more on that later).
Here are the categories you'll most commonly find linked to adverbs that modify verbs:
You’ll also see references to adverbs of purpose, adverbs of condition, adverbs of concession, and adverbs of reason. Possibly even others. Just like with prepositions, different sources list different categories. But with adverbs and any other grammatical concept, I always think it's best to just categorize things in a way that makes sense to you and helps you remember how to use them appropriately and in the right context.
Here are some examples of adverbs that fall under the above categories.
Manner: She drove to the city center as quickly as she could.
Place: Our clients are located abroad.
Time: I arrived yesterday.
Frequency: You should always check with me first.
Degree: Don't sing too loud; the baby's sleeping.
Top tip! The adverbs that end "ly" are usually adverbs of manner.
Now that we know what adverbs are, let's learn a little more about what they do. As you'll see, they serve more than one function and are very versatile little things.
Firstly, the most well-known purpose of an adverb is to modify verbs. After all, it says it right there in the name - adverb.
Indeed, an adverb can tell us how, when, or where an action was performed. It can even tell us how often or how much. Here are some examples (see the adverb underlined and the verb it modifies in bold):
Sophie always dresses elegantly.
Everyone promptly started work to avoid wasting time.
She often watches TV in the evening.
He addressed his audience confidently.
We already went there yesterday.
There's one exception to the rule about adverbs modifying verbs: adverbs can't modify linking verbs.
Linking verbs are the opposite of action verbs in that they describe a state of being rather than doing. Some examples of linking verbs include:
It's a common mistake to use adverbs with linking verbs, such as :
I feel badly. ❌
With 'feel' being a linking verb, you can't use an adverb with it. The above sentence means that you are bad at feeling when in fact, what you are trying to say is that you are feeling negative sensations concerning a particular situation.
Instead, it would be best if you used an adjective as such:
I feel bad. ✅
Here are some more examples to show the incorrect use of an adverb replaced with the correct use of an adjective:
This fruit smells funkily. ❌
This fruit smells funky. ✅
She seems sadly today. ❌
She seems sad today. ✅
Your holiday plans sound really nicely. ❌
Your holiday plans sound really nice. ✅
Adverbs can also modify adjectives. What they'll do is they'll emphasize what the adjective is saying or add more intensity to it. Here are some examples, with the adverb underlined and the adjective it modifies in bold.
I'm somewhat confused by the situation.
This plan has been poorly executed.
That's appallingly expensive.
You can use the adverbs 'more', 'most,' 'less,' and 'least' paired with adjectives to form comparatives and superlatives. The purpose of comparatives is to compare two or more things, and superlatives show which one is superior or inferior to all the others. Here are some examples:
I'm more worried now than I was yesterday.
This is the most challenging project on which I've ever worked.
The room feels less cold with the heating on.
That's my least favorite design of all.
Adverbs can also modify... other adverbs! You heard that right. Usually, you'll do this by placing two adverbs one after the other. It helps describe the degree to which the adverb applies. For example:
I've never seriously considered changing careers.
The adverb 'seriously' modifying the adverb 'considered' shows that the speaker might have considered changing careers in the past, but never in a serious way.
Sophie is slightly less worried.
The adverb 'slightly' communicates the fact that while Sophie is less worried, it isn't by a lot. Without the adverb 'slightly,' the degree of worry could be anywhere from 1% to 99%. All we would know is that there's less worry than before, but there's still worry. Thanks to the adverb 'slightly,' we know the degree of worry is only a little bit less than it had been.
There's literally nothing to do here.
I wanted to include this one because you'll hear this one a lot in everyday speech. Ironically, something is almost never literal when the word 'literally' is used. Nonetheless, it serves the purpose we need for this section in that it's a sentence that contains an adverb that modifies an adverb.
'Literally' often gets added to emphasize whatever you're about to say next. As I mentioned, it's best saved for informal contexts unless you are, in fact, talking about something literal.
A sentence adverb is an adverb that modifies the entire sentence that follows it or a clause within a sentence. It's also known as a sentence adverbial.
Fortunately, we got there in time.
We are quickly approaching the deadline.
Quite frankly, I don't know what to believe anymore.
Note in the final example how not one but two adverbs modify the sentence.
If you think adverbs are always made up of just one word, think again. Adverbs can also be entire phrases or clauses.
As a reminder, a phrase is part of a clause or a sentence. It's a grammatical unit but does not convey a complete thought as it doesn't have a subject or verb.
An adverbial phrase is a phrase built around an adverb.
An easier way to look at it is that an adverbial phrase is an adverb made up of several words. So what's the difference between any old group of words and an adverbial phrase? Well, just like an adverb, the adverbial phrase answers the question of how, when, where, how often, or how much.
In the following examples, note how the adverbial phrase (underlined) answers at least one of those questions.
I've been waiting to hear those words for six years.
After we've had breakfast, shall we head to the museum?
They're flying their kite at the top of the hill.
You might have noticed that adverbial phrases are often prepositional phrases in that the "head word" of the phrase is a preposition.
Clauses are parts of sentences and are made up of a subject and a verb, meaning they can stand alone in a grammatical sense - they will make sense without the rest of the sentence.
Having said that, adverbial clauses are not independent, so they can't be separated from the rest of the sentence. See the following examples with the adverbial clause underlined.
I was there before anyone else arrived.
She struggled to reproduce the speech as she had rehearsed it.
You can't leave the table until your mom says it's okay.
There are some standard practices you should know about when it comes to using adverbs. Some are hard and fast rules, and others are more like conventions.
Firstly it's important to note that you should use adverbs sparingly. Writing that makes too frequent use of adverbs is often frowned upon. Some say it's lazy. Others say it produces unnecessary redundancy. For example, if you say:
Upon seeing the ghost, he screamed with fear.
The adverb 'with fear' seems redundant since it's implied that a scream is done with fear, especially if you just specified that the scream happened upon seeing a ghost. It would be more justified to say:
Upon seeing the ghost, he screamed with delight.
Because 'delight' is an unexpected quality for a scream after seeing a ghost, there's more reason to specify that the scream was 'with delight.'
Sometimes, of course, the adverb is entirely unnecessary, no matter which way you look at it, like with 'return back,' 'repeat again,' or 'I personally.' This redundancy is known as a tautology.
So while adverbs are a beautiful addition to language that allows you to add color to your sentences, my advice to you would be to - where possible - craft words that make the adverb redundant. This will ensure that when you do use an adverb, it's 100% necessary and really adds quality to the sentence.
Using the example above, why not replace 'screamed' with 'shrieked'?
Here are some more examples of verbs that can replace poor adverbs:
In some contexts, the use of adverbs comes with its own set of rules regarding punctuation. What do I mean by that? Read on to find out.
When an adjective and adverb are linked to create a compound modifier, we typically connect the two with a hyphen. See the following examples where a hyphen joins up the compound modifier (underlined):
He is a well-known singer.
She's a blue-eyed beauty.
Look at my dust-covered furniture!
The hyphen shows that the two words belong together and should be treated as a single unit.
But the hyphen doesn't always apply. There are some instances where you shouldn't use one. Those are the following:
If the adverb in the compound modifier ends in -ly, don't worry about adding a hyphen. For example:
The poorly performed play won't be making it to the West End.
Our highly inefficient systems need to be changed.
We have a widely varied set of solutions to present.
Top tip! Make sure to distinguish adverbs that end in -ly and adjectives that end in -ly. Adverbs that end in -ly still need a hyphen. For instance, family-run or friendly-looking.
Often a compound modifier features at the beginning of a sentence before the noun it modifies. But if it features after the noun, it never takes a hyphen, regardless of whether or not it ends in -ly.
See the following examples where the compound modifier is underlined, and the noun it modifies is in bold. In the first example, the compound modifier precedes the noun and therefore takes a hyphen. In the second example, the compound modifier follows the noun and therefore takes no hyphen.
He's published a well-written book. ✅
The book is well written. ✅
We work in a fast-paced environment. ✅
The environment we work in is fast paced. ✅
It's a little-known fact that Steve Jobs dabbled in veganism. ✅
That fact is little known. ✅
'Very' is a standalone exception. The word doesn't take a hyphen when combined with an adjective. For example:
He very rapidly approached us.
When an adverb starts a sentence, follow the word or entire phrase or clause with a comma. If it's at the end of a sentence, there is no need to precede it with a comma. For example,
Unconvincingly, she gave her speech at 9 pm. ✅
She gave her speech unconvincingly. ✅
In the first sentence, the adverb precedes the noun it modifies. Therefore, we placed a comma after it. The adverb follows the noun in the second example, so we didn't use a comma.
Here are some more examples, this time using adverbial phrases and clauses. You'll notice that when the adverbial phrase or clause is at the beginning of the sentence, a comma will follow:
Because they felt stuck in a rut, they booked dinner and a show for tonight.
With a massive grin on his face, he thanked her for the compliment.
He couldn't go on a plane because of his fear of flying.
He has eggs on toast every morning before work.
One more thing to be careful of when using adjectives is to make sure it's clear what the adverb is modifying. Misplaced adverbs can confuse the meaning of the sentence. Consider the following sentence, for example:
Walking quickly made him feel better.
Is it walking quickly that helped him feel better, or did the walking make him feel better quickly?
You might want to rephrase the sentence in one of the following ways:
Walking at a fast pace made him feel better.
He quickly started to feel better when he walked.
Just be aware of this in your writing. Always check that the adverb placement makes sense and that it's clear what it's modifying.
As you've probably noticed, adverbs are everywhere. And if you haven't, I'm sure you'll see it now. Their name seems to imply they simply modify verbs, but they can also modify adjectives, other adverbs, and entire sentences, which makes them even more popular than adjectives!
They're incredibly versatile and an excellent tool for your arsenal in speaking fantastic English.
For an in-depth look at even more grammatical concepts, head to our Grammar Book.
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