How do adverbs function in English grammar?
This is the first of three lessons about Adverbs. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Understand the concept of word types and classes in English
– Explore the form, function and distribution of adverbs
– Compare the differences between adverbs and adverbials
No knowledge of English grammar would be complete without a thorough understanding of the many categories of word. Whether you’re learning about nouns, verbs or adjectives, the study of word types normally involves an exploration of their form, function and distribution in order to memorise the rules that govern them. In this short course on adverbs, we therefore cover these three areas first, turning in Lesson 2 to the sixteen types of adverb among their adjunctive, conjunctive and disjunctive categories. Finally, in Lesson 3, we explore the accurate use of adverbs in academic settings such as when writing essays or when delivering presentations.
Are there clear similarities among adverbs?
While words such as ‘adequately’, ‘furthermore’ and ‘somewhat’ are traditionally considered as belonging together under the label ‘adverb’, some grammarians argue that this categorisation may be a lazy one. In truth, adverbs are a large and jumbled grouping of words that perform a wide variety of functions. Though these words certainly do share similarities, it can sometimes seem that adverbs comprise many minor word types which have been grouped together simply because they do not function like any of the major types, such as nouns, pronouns or prepositions.
Do adverbs look similar to each other?
The short answer is no. Unlike the major word types, students may find it tricky to identify adverbs because they lack clear patterns of word formation. The only noticeable pattern is when certain adjectives such as ‘adequate’ or ‘essential’ are formed into adverbs using the suffix ‘-ly’, as in ‘adequately’ or ‘essentially’. Even this pattern isn’t particularly common however, and as the following table shows, the spelling of an adjective can lead to variation in the ‘-ly’ suffix too:
While a limited number of adverbs may also be formed from nouns by adding ‘-ways’, as in ‘lengthways’, most adverbs such as ‘furthermore’ and ‘somewhat’ lack any pattern. Adverbs are therefore a challenging word type to identify by form alone.
Do adverbs at least function in the same way?
Unfortunately not. Just as adverbs cannot be readily identified by form, nor is it easy to identify them by function. This is because the benefits they offer to a speaker are so varied. One commonly cited function is that adverbs add to the meaning of a verb by expressing aspects such as how, when, where, how often or to what extent:
However, while other word types are more strict in their function (such as how adjectives can only modify nouns), the following examples show that adverbs may modify adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases and sentences as well as verbs:
What’s more, adverbs don’t always express aspects such as how, when, or where. Nevertheless, as we will see in more detail in Lesson 2, adverbs can thankfully be categorised in three ways based on a shared functionality (although each of these categories possesses a number of subcategories too):
1) Adjunctive adverbs: these add optional information about an event or state in relation to its circumstances, such as its place, time, condition or manner (‘I failed the exam this morning.’).
2) Conjunctive adverbs: these join clauses together, forming relations between expressions such as addition, contrast and order (‘Jessica studied hard; therefore, she received a good grade.’).
3) Disjunctive adverbs: these provide additional information about entire clauses, expressing attitudes, evaluations and probabilities (‘Surprisingly, she failed the exam.’).
How about adverb distribution?
One unique feature of adverbs that makes them somewhat easier to identify is that they have a much greater freedom of distribution than other word types. This means that they can move position within a sentence without breaking the grammar or meaning of that expression. However, as the below shows, not all possibilities are grammatical, and some sound odder than others to native speakers:
Are adverbs and adverbials the same?
Many students get confused by the similar terms ‘adverb’ and ‘adverbial’, but while these two grammar items are similar in many ways, it’s important to recognise that the classification ‘adverb’ denotes a word type and ‘adverbial’ a phrase function – such as subject or object. It’s true that adverbs and adverbials do often function similarly and share patterns of distribution, but where an adverb is also an adverbial, not all adverbials are composed of adverbs. This is because an adverb is only one word, whereas an adverbial may comprise a word, a phrase or a clause:
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