What Is an Adverb?

An adverb is a word that modifies the meaning of a verbOpens in new window, adjectiveOpens in new window or another adverb.

Consider the following examples:
  • She talks fast.
    (modifying the verb talks)
  • She talks very fast
    (modifying the adverb very)
  • The kolanut was very bitter
    (modifying the adjective bitter)

Adverbs primarily provide further information about where, when, and how something takes place. In the first sentence, the adverb fast modifies the verb talks; it tells how or in what manner she talks.

In the second, the adverb very modifies the other adverb fast.

In the third sentence, the adverb very, modifies the adjective bitter and tells us how bitter the kolanut was.

Most times, adverbs may consist of a single word, which is known as simple adverb, or contain two words joined together—known as compound adverb, or adverbial phrase, as it's also called.

In some occasion an adverb may modify a whole clause or sentence. See the sentences below:

  • Impressively the audience were well entertained.
  • Unfortunately, our friend didn’t turn up.

Most adverbs are formed by adding an –ly or –ally ending to an adjective, as: “brilliantly,” “slowly,” “immensely,” “tactically,” etc. However, in some cases the spelling of the adjectival stem may alter with the addition of the adverbial ending as with “easily,” “truly,” etc. Likewise, some adverbs retain their adjectival form and do not require an –ly ending, as with “arrive,” “fast,” “late,” etc.


Note that some adverbs can be used in comparative and superlative forms as with — more completely,” “less quietly,” “most richly decorated” and may have specific comparative and superlative forms as with — fast and hard“fast/faster/fastest,” “hard/harder/hardest”. Some may have irregular comparative and superlative forms as with “well/better/best,” “badly/worse/worst”.

How Adverbs Function

Intensifiers — Adverbs almost always function as intensifiers, describing the quality of action by conveying a greater or lesser emphasis on the action, showing how strong or weak the intensity of the action may be.

Intensifiers are grouped into three categories:
  • The Emphasizers (those that convey emphasis on actions);
  • The Amplifiers (those that amplify degree of action) and;
  • The Downtoners (those that play down degree of action).

1.  The Emphasizers — are made up of words such as “really,” “simply,” “certainly,” “obviously,” “literally”, as well as “for sure”. These words add up to make the action of verbs stronger.

Examples include:
  • I really admire the author of this great book.
  • There is no lunch break, we would literally starve.
  • Andy simply likes reading.
  • I’ll certainly go home tonight.
  • If he keeps studying hard, he will make the bar for sure.
  • She obviously stayed back.

2.  The Amplifiers — These include amplifying words such as “absolutely,” “completely,” “totally,” “undoubtedly,” “so well,” “so,” “well,” “heartily,”etc. These words add up in the sentence to strengthen or intensify the meaning of the verb.

Examples include:
  • Her improvement in mathematics is absolutely amazing.
  • We won because we practiced so well.
  • Her performance completely eclipsed those of her contemporaries.
  • She heartily wished everyone a happy new year.
  • Undoubtedly, they knew each other in the past.
  • His quotation included everything totally.
  • I so much desire to make my papers.

3.  The Downtoners — These include “sort of,” “to some extent,” “mildly,” “almost,” “not so much,” “kind of,” “all but,” “merely,” “simply,” etc. These words and a number of others takes a downplaying role to lessen the degree of action expressed by the verb.

Examples include
  • I was merely helping him.
  • Andy sort of gambled again.
  • He almost made it this time around.
  • The machine all but developed fault.
  • She kind of caught him gambling.
  • He has improved to some extent.

At this point it is import to illuminate a little on premodifiers.

Premodifers can also describe or modify an adverb, as it does with an adjective. Premodifiers are words that modify the meaning of an adverb.

Adverbs taking the roles of premodifiers

Premodifiers with Degrees of Adjectives — Both adverbs and adjectives in their comparative and superlative forms can be accompanied by premodifiers—single words and phrases—that intensify the degree.

Observe carefully the underlined words in the following sentences:
  • We were a lot more careful this time.
  • We like his work so much better.
  • You'll get your watch back all the faster.
    The same means can be used to downplay the degree:

  • The weather this week has been somewhat better.
  • He approaches his schoolwork a little less industriously than his brother does.
    And sometimes a set phrase, usually an informal noun phrase, is used for this purpose:

  • He arrived a whole lot sooner than we expected.
  • That's a heck of a lot better.
    If the intensifier “very” accompanies the superlative, a determiner is also required:

  • She is wearing her very finest outfit for the interview.
  • They're doing the very best they can.
    Occasionally, the comparative or superlative form appears with a determiner and the entity being modified is understood:

  • Of all the wines produced in Connecticut, I like this one the most.
  • The quicker you finish this project, the better.
  • Of the two brothers, he is by far the faster.

Phrases that act as adverbs

PhrasesOpens in new window can sometimes take the role of adverbs in English. Some of these include:

1.  Adverbial clause — When a group of words which contains a subjectOpens in new window and a verbOpens in new window functions as adverb and modifies a verb in the sentence, it is known as adverbial clauseOpens in new window.

Examples include:
  • When the class teacher comes, she will teach us a new topic.
  • Andy seems so intelligent because he spent more time on studies.

2.  Adverbial phrase — When a group of words without a subjectOpens in new window and a verbOpens in new window functions as an adverb; it takes the place of adverbial phraseOpens in new windowin a sentence.

Practical Examples
  • After his team lost, he came home sitting in silence.
  • I met an old-time friend last night.

3.  Prepositional phraseOpens in new window This is when a group of words which contains a prepositionOpens in new window and a nounOpens in new window or noun phraseOpens in new window functions as an adverb of timeOpens in new window, or adverb of placeOpens in new window to modify the verbOpens in new window.

Examples include:
  • They went through the back door.
  • She visits on weekends.

4.  Infinitive phrases — This is when a group of words that contains the infinitive toOpens in new window plus the base formOpens in new window of a verbOpens in new window either with or without a modifier or complement takes the role of adverb in a sentence.

Examples include:
  • She hurried home to prepare dinner.
  • He came often on weekends to see us.

The Holy Grail Order of Adverbs

Naturally, adverbs are flexible and can appear anywhere in a sentence. However, in cases where adverbs in a sentence are more than one, there is a basic order in which the adverbs will appear. Study carefully the chart below:

The Holy Grail Order of Adverbs
Andy exercisespassionatelyat homeevery morningbefore dawnto keep in shape.
Gretchen studiesintensivelyin the libraryevery dayat break timeto improve her grades.
She spokeenthusiasticallyon TVduring the weekend showto encourage her audience.
Mum visitsthe mallevery dayafter workto buy groceries.
Effiong readsquietlyin his roomevery eveningbefore dinnerto improve his vocabularies.

In actual practice, 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. When that happens, the introductory adverbial modifiers are usually set off with a comma, as: Every afternoon before supper, Dad impatiently walks into town to get a newspaper.”

More Hints on Adverbs Order
    As a general principle, shorter adverbial phrases precede longer adverbial phrases, regardless of content. In the following sentence (notice that a bar separates the adverbs), an adverb of time precedes an adverb of frequency because it is shorter (and simpler):

  • Dad takes a brisk walk before breakfast | every day of his life.
    A second principle is this: among similar adverbial phrases of kind (manner, place, frequency, etc.), the more specific adverbial phrase comes first:

  • My grandmother was born in a sod house | on the plains of northern Nebraska.
    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:

  • Slowly, ever so carefully, Jesse filled the coffee cup up to the brim, even above the brim.
  • Occasionally, but only occasionally, one of these lemons will get by the inspectors.
Misplaced Modifiers

See the study on Misplaced ModifiersOpens in new window for additional ideas on placement. Modifiers can sometimes attach themselves to and thus modify words that they ought not to modify.

  • They reported that Giuseppe Balle, a European rock star, had died on the six o'clock news.
  • Obviously, 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:

  • She only grew to be four feet tall.
  • It would be better if “She grew to be only four feet tall.”
    See next pages.
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