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Adverbs: The Question Masters of Grammar

The adverb can be a tricky element of the English language to get to grips with, not least because its definition has been somewhat blurred by modern linguists. While it's accepted that their primary job is to modify a verb, adjective or even another adverb, this word type has become a convenient dumping place for words that don't fit neatly into the other main categories.

The key is not to let these anomalies confuse your understanding of basic adverbial function, and how to use regular ones in a sentence—which this guide should help you with. You could also see this online grammar handbook, which looks at the different types of prepositional phrases.

Another useful online grammar resource to help with writing your papers and essays is our EasyBib Plus grammar checker. You can upload your work for free at EasyBib Plus for a quick and easy check. The EasyBib Plus plagiarism checker should also prove useful for ensuring that your sources are referenced correctly, avoiding unintentional plagiarism and the consequences that can come alongside that.

What is an Adverb?

The adverb definition is fairly straightforward in that it's a word that qualifies, limits, describes or modifies a verb, adjective or another adverb. However, it also has the power to modify a preposition, conjunction, clause or even an entire sentence. It also has the power to modify whole phrases and clauses—there's a lot to learn about.

Many, but not all, examples of this word type are formed from adjectives, which can add an element of confusion when distinguishing between the two, especially as they essentially serve the same function in a sentence. Just remember, the definition of an adjective is that it modifies a noun. While the definition of adverb is that is modifies pretty much every other key part of speech!

Confused? Don't worry! Continue reading this guide and it should become clearer. You can find more info here and there's also some further recommended reading online for those who need more clarification.

The Adverbial Function

Once you understand how to define adverb, you can look at its function. The two main functions are essentially opposites: they can be used to ask or answer questions. Interrogative adverbs are the "asking words," while other types are used to answer questions, usually preemptively. Let's take a look in more detail.

Masters of Interrogation

Interrogatives include why, where, how and when. These are the words that you'll often find placed at the beginning of a sentence to ask a question. They will typically be followed first by a verb and then the subject.

For example:

  • Why is he late?
  • Where is my bag?
  • How fast does it go?
  • When will it start?

While these direct question words form a very small and exclusive group, they are super important elements of language, and it's difficult to imagine communicating effectively without them.

They can be used to ask a variety of different types of questions including:

  • Time questions: When will the game end?
  • Place questions: Where is the stadium?
  • Reason questions: Why do you support this team?
  • Quantity questions: How many tickets do you have?
  • 'In what way' questions: How quickly can you get here?

While interrogatives often open a sentence, they can also crop up elsewhere too.

For example:

They can be used to ask indirect questions within statements.

She asked where the stadium is.

Or to ask indirect questions within other questions.

Did she ask you where the stadium is?

They can also be used to begin a noun clause. A noun clause performs the function of a noun, i.e., a naming word, within a sentence.

For example:

I know when it happened.

When it happened is the noun clause. When is the interrogative.

For anything you want to know, use an interrogative!

Top of the Class Words

A much larger list of adverbs are the words that hold all the answers. While a verb might tell us what is happening, this word type can clarify the when, where and how of the action. When used correctly, they can make a sentence stronger, clearer and more informative.

For example:

  • Sarah is eating.
  • Sarah is eating loudly.
  • Sarah is eating quickly.
  • Sarah is eating messily.
  • Sarah is eating now.
  • Sarah is eating soon.
  • Sarah is eating there.

A Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs Party

Remember that the adverb meaning is to modify verbs and adjectives, as well as their own word type. Nouns are strictly off this grammar guest list, so don't confuse them with noun-modifying adjectives, which perform a similar function.

Let's look at some examples.

To Modify Verbs

A key function of this word type is to modify a verb. In other words, they can tell you something about the way an action is happening.

For example:

  • When? -- We often eat late.
  • Where? -- We went there for dinner.
  • How? -- We waited impatiently for our food.
  • To what extent? -- I'd definitely recommend that restaurant.

So far, so simple. However, there's a sneaky little rule about linking verbs that throws a wrench into the works.

The Linking Verb Rule

Linking verbs don’t play nicely with this word type. Linking verbs are words that connect the subject to further information about the subject. They don't express an action, as you'd usually expect a verb to do.

The list of true linking verbs includes: am, is, are, was, were, become and seem.

There are also some double agent verbs that can act as either linking verbs or action verbs. For example, feel, grow, look, smell, sound and taste.

One test to distinguish whether a verb is linking or action in the context of a sentence is to replace it with a true linking verb such as am, is or are and see if it still makes sense.

For example:

  • The food tasted delicious.
  • The food is delicious.

The sentence still makes sense with the true linking verb “is.” It means that ”tasted” in this context is a linking verb.

Linking verbs are typically modified by adjectives (such as delicious).

  • Sally quickly tasted the food.
  • Sally quickly is the food.

The sentence with the true linking verb “is” does not make sense! So tasted in this context is an action verb.

Action verbs are typically modified by adverbs (such as quickly).

  • Action verb example -- Sally quickly tasted the food.
  • Linking verb example -- The food tasted delicious (adjective).

To Modify Adjectives

Another function is to modify an adjective, often to convey a degree of intensity.

For example:

  • The woman is quite beautiful.
  • The woman is very beautiful.
  • The woman is more beautiful than her sister.
  • The woman is not beautiful.

In all of the above examples, the function is to modify the adjective beautiful.

To Modify Other Examples Of Adverbs

Get two of this word type together and one can modify the other, conveying a degree of intensity in a similar way to the above.

For example:

  • Sally is eating quickly.
  • Sally is eating too quickly.
  • Sally is eating very quickly.
  • Sally is eating more quickly than usual.

A word of warning, though—too many can spoil the sentence!

For example:

Sally is eating too quickly very loudly.

The above sentence is grammatically correct, but it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue! Remember that, sometimes, less is more. If you do feel that all the information in the sentence is essential then consider a different structure. For example, adding a simple conjunction such as and can make all the difference to readability.

For example:

Sally is eating too quickly and very loudly.

To Modify Whole Sentences

Impressively, some examples of this word type can be used to modify entire sentences with ease. They usually convey an overall feeling about the information in the sentence.

Examples of these clever one-word wonders include:

  • Unfortunately, I felt really ill.
  • Generally, he comes home at 6:00 pm.
  • Interestingly, some words can be used to modify entire sentences.
  • Hopefully, the bus arrives on time.

Note that hopefully used in this context can cause some debate among linguists. It's argued that a bus cannot arrive on time 'hopefully' as A) a bus cannot feel hope and B) it just doesn't make sense. However, it's commonly accepted that the word 'hopefully' actually refers to the writer or speaker's point of view—in this case, the speaker's feeling about the bus arriving on time. Thus making it a sentence adverb. Still, some grammar purists will argue that the sentences "One hopes the bus will arrive on time" or "It's to be hoped that the bus arrives on time" would be preferable. What do you think?

These words don't necessarily have to appear at the beginning of the sentence that they modify.

For example:

  • I felt really ill, unfortunately.
  • The bus will hopefully arrive on time.
  • I thought we were going, obviously.

Remember though, in order to count as this type of adverbial function, the modification (or feeling) must relate to the whole sentence.

For example:

  1. Sadly, the girl was very upset -- whole sentence modification
  2. The girl was, sadly, very upset -- whole sentence modification
  3. The girl was very upset, sadly -- whole sentence modification
  4. The girl cried sadly -- modification of the verb cried

If you're having difficulty understanding the function of this word type, you'll find more tips here to help.

Compounds and Conjunctives

You'll find various different types of words on an adverb list, including compounds and conjunctives. Let's study them in turn.

Stuffy Compounds

Compounds are formed when two words come together as one to perform the modification function. Some compounds are still commonly used in the English language. For example: therefore, overnight and somewhere.

Others are reserved for formal writing as they can sound stuffy and don't necessarily fit well with modern speech. For example: thereupon, notwithstanding, nevertheless, furthermore and thereafter.

Making a Connection

Several of the words on the compounds list also fall into the conjunctive adverbs category. Conjunctives can be used to join two clauses together in one sentence. However, conjunctives can also be used to join two sentences. (See what we did there?) They can be used to show a relationship between two clauses, and can make your writing flow better or seem more conversational.

Conjunctive Adverbs List

These are all examples: however, also, besides, finally, furthermore, meanwhile, moreover, otherwise, next, still, therefore, likewise, thus.

Let’s see how they work in a sentence:

It's raining in the next town over; meanwhile, the sun is shining where I live.

I'm too tired to go to work today; moreover, I feel like I'm coming down with flu.

The grammar rules surrounding conjunctives can be tricky. Notice that when the conjunctive is joining two clauses as above, a semi-colon is often used to punctuate.

A conjunctive adverb can also be used within a single clause. In some cases, a comma is the correct punctuation.

I am determined, nevertheless, to finish this essay.

In other cases, no punctuation is required.

I will therefore have to study all night.

Obviously, punctuation can be tricky—EasyBib Plus is not! Give our grammar tool a try and check your punctuation, writing style, and more! EasyBib Plus's tool kit can also help with your papers and essays by creating citations in popular formats, including APA and MLA format—plus several more styles.

Adverb Phrase

A phrase consists of two or more words, usually with a modifying head word. Remember, our definition of 'what is a adverb' was to identify the head word. The phrase should perform the modifying function in a sentence.

For example:

I worked very hard on my paper.

I caught the bus around the corner.

Note that we say 'usually with modifying head word'. It's possible to have a phrase that doesn't contain this word type at all. It still counts, as long as it performs the modifying function within the sentence.

For example:

I'm going to bed in an hour.

Hour is a noun. However, in an hour performs the correct function—telling us when the subject is going to bed.

Adverb Clause

A dependent clause is also known as a subordinate clause—meaning that it can't stand alone without the rest of the sentence. When trying to work out what is an adverb clause, remember that it will typically contain a subject and a predicate (a part of a sentence that contains the verb), and begin with a subordinating conjunction (a conjunction introducing a subordinate clause).

Adverb clause examples:

  • Unless you go now, you'll miss your train.
  • Before we go on vacation, we need to pack.
  • Call me when you get home from school.

You should be able to remove this type of clause and the remainder of the sentence should still make grammatical sense, as you'll note from the examples above.

Adverbs vs Adjectives

As we've mentioned, an adjective performs essentially the same function as this question master word type—one modifies a noun and pronoun, the other modifies pretty much everything else! Because of their similar functions it's already easy to get them confused. However, because grammar likes to test us, things are made even more difficult by the fact that many words on the adverbs list are formed from adjectives.

For example:

  • Shy -- shyly
  • Interesting -- interestingly
  • Loud -- loudly
  • Slow -- slowly
  • Happy -- happily
  • Excited -- excitedly
  • Impatient -- impatiently
  • Lucky -- luckily

And if that isn't confusing enough, there are also some crossover words thrown in that can be used to modify both nouns and verbs, depending on the context.

For example:

  • A fast car (adj) -- He ran fast (adv)

  • A straight line (adj) -- He walked straight ahead (adv)

  • It was early morning (adj) -- I woke up early (adv)

  • A low sun (adj) -- The sun was lying low (adv)

The LY Transformation

As mentioned above, many of the words in this category are formed from adjectives, which sometimes involves adding a suffix. Which suffix you need to add depends on the word.

For example:

Add the Suffix LY

  • Quick -- quickly
  • Sad -- sadly
  • Loud -- loudly
  • Fresh -- freshly
  • Bad -- badly
  • Soft -- softly
  • Neat -- neatly
  • Beautiful -- beautifully
  • Cheerful -- cheerfully

Add the Suffix ILY

If an adjective already ends in a Y, remove it, then add ILY in its place.

  • Happy -- happily
  • Noisy -- noisily
  • Easy -- easily
  • Unnecessary -- unnecessarily

Unfortunately, these rules can't be applied to every adjective, as some just don't take well to the addition of a suffix. For example, these don’t sound quite right:

  • Juvenile -- juvenilely
  • Ugly -- uglily
  • Silly --sillily

The above words are included in some dictionaries; however, they appear clumsy and can be difficult to say out loud. For this reason it's often preferable to word your sentence differently, to achieve the same meaning.

For example:

  • He acted in a juvenile manner.
  • She danced in a silly way.

Of course, some of these words don't have a suffix at all.

For example: Always, never, often, once, sometimes, after, before, early, now, soon, quite, here, home, inside, near, very, there, yesterday, daily, still, tomorrow.

To suffix or not to suffix? That is the question!

What Can an Adverbial Add?

The right word can be a powerful sentence-strengthening tool. When used in the correct context it can be used to add all of the following.

Information

  • She went upstairs.
  • I'm working tomorrow.
  • The dog sleeps inside.

Detail

  • I finished my essay quickly.
  • Carefully, I folded the paper.
  • The bus stopped abruptly.

Intensity

  • I really enjoyed that.
  • I've completely finished my work.
  • She ran quite slowly.

Feeling

  • Unfortunately, I can't attend.
  • She waved cheerfully.
  • Happily, I can go shopping.

Context

  • Sadly, I had to move house.
  • I moved house willingly.
  • I opened the box excitedly.
  • Nervously, I opened the box.

The Importance of Placement

For your sentence to make sense, it's important that the modifying word is positioned near the word or words that you want to modify. However, some words can prove more troublesome than others. For example, the word only can convey totally different meanings, depending on where it is placed in a sentence.

  • Only I wear blue shoes -- No one else wears blue shoes
  • I only wear blue shoes -- I don't wear blue shorts or shirts
  • I wear only blue shoes -- I don't wear shoes of any other color
  • I wear blue-only shoes -- I don't wear multi-colored shoes

Some of the above sentences seem to flow better than others, but they are all grammatically correct within the right context.

The Three Degrees

Just like their adjective siblings, these modifying words can show three degrees of comparison. These include the base word—also known as the positive degree, the comparative degree and the superlative degree.

For example:

Slow

  • Positive -- I walked slowly.
  • Comparative -- I walked slower than Sarah.
  • Superlative – I walked the slowest out of everyone.

Early

  • Positive -- I arrived early.
  • Comparative -- I arrived earlier than Ashley.
  • Superlative -- I arrived the earliest out of everyone.

Irregular Rule-Breakers

Remember that there are exceptions to the degrees of comparison rule, and sometimes you'll need to use a different word, rather than a variation of the same word, to express them. Let's take a look at some rebel adverbs examples.

Bad

  • Positive -- I sang badly.
  • Comparative -- I sang worse than Sally.
  • Superlative -- I sang the worst out of everyone.

Well

  • Positive -- I sang well.
  • Comparative -- I sang better than Sally.
  • Superlative -- I sang the best out of everyone.

In some cases, you'll need to add more or most to create the comparative and superlative forms of a word.

For example:

Warm

  • Positive -- She smiled warmly.
  • Comparative -- She smiled more warmly than Gemma.
  • Superlative -- She smiled the most warmly out of everyone.

The Dumping Ground

As we touched on in the introduction, this word category has become something of a dumping ground for those that don't fit neatly elsewhere. This can make the question 'what are adverbs?' a difficult one to answer. A good example of this are negating words such as the word not. You can find detailed information on this complex grammatical debate online—click site to read more.

Too Wordy?

While these words can be very useful for asking and answering questions, conveying information, and adding intensity, context and feeling to a sentence, using too many can actually weaken, rather than strengthen, your writing. Before you use this word type, consider what it brings to the table. Is it essential? Would a different verb or adjective have a greater impact?

For example:

  • She visited me briefly.
  • She popped in briefly.

The verb phrase popped in already suggests a brief visit, so the modifying word briefly becomes superfluous.

  • He shouted loudly.
  • He shouted very loudly.

The verb shouted already indicates a loud voice, so the modifying words very and loudly are superfluous.

Having your work described as "woolly" or "wordy" is something that you definitely don't want. Cutting out any words that don't add value will result in clearer and more concise work.

Adverb Examples

To clarify 'what's a adverb', let's take a look at some more examples:

Place -- Where the action happened

  • Everywhere, Here, There, Inside, Outside, Upstairs, Around, Underground

Time/Frequency -- When the action happened

  • After, Before, Always, Never, Later, Soon, Now, Today, Tomorrow

Manner -- How the action happened

  • Cheerfully, Happily, Willingly, Reluctantly, Randomly, Angrily

Extent -- The extent of the action

  • Almost, Quite, Rather, Very, Enough

Intensity -- To intensify the action

  • Absolutely, Certain, Completely, Really

Feeling -- To convey a feeling about the action

  • Unfortunately, Fortunately, Sadly, Generally, Hopefully, Obviously

Need to Check Your Grammar?

Hopefully this guide has helped you to understand the adverb definition and answer the question 'what is an adverb?' But if you do want that extra peace of mind when it comes to handing in your paper, the EasyBib Plus grammar checker can help! Simply upload your work for a basic grammar check that's quick and easy.

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If you’d like to brush up on other skills and topics, check out our research, interjection, and determiner pages!