Adverbs in English grammar

Adverbs in English grammar

The final section in this short introduction to the grammar of English focuses on the adverb. This is the most difficult word class to categorise in a simple, clear way. It is perhaps easiest to list, with examples, the range of things that we can do with adverbs in a sentence and then to look more closely at some of the special features of adverbs.

Types of adverb

Examples

time now, then, presently, soon, already
place there, here
frequency now and again, often, usually
manner slowly, properly, cautiously
degree very, quite, extremely
focus only, especially, just
quantity a bit, a little, a lot
attitude hopefully, unfortunately, sadly

A great number of adverbs are formed by adding the –ly to an adjective – usefully, swiftly, importantly, but some words that look like adverbs are in fact adjectives (e.g. costly, friendly) and to use these as an adverb we have to put the adjective into a phrase like in a friendly way.

There are also several adverbs whose form is the same as the adjective … fast and hard are the two most obvious examples; but many people, especially in the spoken form, also prefer the following adjectival forms in place of the adverbs quick, loud, separate and tight; for example, he speaks really loud, hold tight. There is only one completely irregular adverb and that is well which is linked to the adjective good.

Just as trying to identify an adverb can be a problem, so can trying to give simple rules for their positioning in a sentence. Some adverbs’ positions are relatively fixed, while others can occupy a number of different slots in a sentence. Their position will also to some degree depend on the speaker’s intended meaning and the part of the sentence that they wish to highlight. General rules-of-thumb are:

  • before the main verb – we often eat out.
  • after an auxiliary or modal auxiliary – they could never understand his accent.
  • at the beginning of a clause/sentence – sometimes I see him at the station.
  • at the end of a clause/sentence – she speaks every now and again.
  • before an adjective – really hot
  • before an adverbial phrase – he did it quickly in his usual way.
  • before an adverb – rather a lot

Two positions where it is unacceptable to place adverbs are as follows: between the verb and object of the sentence and between the verb and a clause beginning with to + an infinitive or a that-clause e.g. (remember that the asterisk marks an unacceptable sentence).

  • *The doctor took quickly the patient’s pulse.
  • *He asked indignantly to leave.

One set of adverbs do not follow these guidelines and those are the so-called negative adverbs that occur at the beginning of a sentence like scarcely, not only, seldom, rarely, never and so on. The whole word order of the sentence will change to look like the question form:

  • Scarcely had he walked in, when the argument started.
  • Never had I seen such devastation.
  • Not only does she visit me occasionally, but she also phones every week.

Types of adverb

Time

The two most common adverbs of time that can replace adverbial expressions such as on Tuesday, next week and last year are now and then. These usually appear at the end of the sentence. There are also a number of time adverbs that express a relationship between the present and some other time in the past or future; the most common ones are recently, just, currently, afterwards andsoon. The last two usually come at the end of a clause, while just tends to occur immediately before the main verb or between two auxiliary verbs. Recently and currently have a more flexible positioning since they can come in any of the three positions just mentioned and also at the beginning of a clause.

Place

The only two main adverbs of place are here and there and they occur in the same positions asnow and then.

Frequency

This set of adverbs includes words and phrases like sometimes, never, always, often, now and again, hardly ever and occasionally. Their position is quite flexible, but the most common position is either before the main verb or between two auxiliaries;

  • He hardly ever comes any more.
  • He has often been arrested for burglary.
  • At other times, for the sake of emphasis, we can put some of these adverbs at the beginning or the end of a clause.
  • Sometimes she’s on time, sometimes she’s not.
  • They go out occasionally.

Manner

Adverbs of manner express how the action of the verb is carried out – take it quickly! She’s been working well, and as you can see from just these two examples, the best place for them is at the end of the clause or sentence. However, the position can vary enormously depending on where we want to put the emphasis of the sentence. See how many different ways you can say the sentencehe picked up the box using the adverb gingerly. You should find that the sentence sounds acceptable English if you put the adverb at the beginning and the end and also before the verb. Again, putting the adverb between the verb and its object usually results in an unacceptable sentence.

Degree

These adverbs often answer the question how much? to what extent? and they are divided intointensifiers, which strengthen the verb or adjective that they are qualifying and downtoners, which weaken them.

  • He was totally exhausted.
  • She read the document quite carefully.
  • It was a bit chilly.
  • He climbed down very steadily.

As we noted in the section on adjectives, we use adverbs like very, quite and extremely with gradeable adjectives, but completely, totally and absolutely are used with ungradeable adjectives.

Focus

Adverbs of this type can help us to give what we are saying or writing a coherent structure and include words that highlight specific information (particularly, especially, even), words that restrict (only, just, merely) and words that refer to other parts of the text (too, also, either…or). It is impossible to give many guidelines concerning this range of adverbs since they all tend to have their own special features and grammatical requirements. Often their meaning will depend on the context that they are used in.

Quantity

The main adverbs of quantity are much, a lot and a little. Much is normally used with negative sentences (I don’t get out much these days), a little with positive (affirmative) sentences (I know him a little) and a lot can be used with both. The most common position for all of these is at the end of the clause or sentence.

Attitude

Attitude adverbs usually refer to the whole clause or sentence rather than just to a particular word or phrase. The list of possible attitude adverbs includes: frankly, clearly, obviously, naturally, fortunately, hopefully, really, surprisingly, astonishingly and apparently. Their position is quite flexible since they can occur at the beginning and the end of a clause as well as immediately before the verb and before a complement:

  • Frankly , I don’t think we’ll win.
  • I don’t think we’ll win, frankly.
  • He obviously doesn’t want to come.
  • She’s clearly the best person for the job.

You should note that most adverbs of attitude can also function as adverbs of manner; it depends on how the adverb is used in a sentence and how it is spoken. The examples should help.

  • Clearly, it’s a question of choice. (attitude – it’s obvious that…)
  • I can see him quite clearly (manner – there is no obstruction)

There are some native speakers who still object to the use of hopefully as an adverb of attitude and suggest it should only be used as an adverb of manner as in it’s better to travel hopefully… but quite why this one word is singled in this way is not clear since, as we noted above, many of these attitude adverbs can be adverbs of manner too, for example:

  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. (attitude)
  • I would like to speak to you frankly. (manner)

But these examples don’t seem to upset some people to the same extent as hopefully.

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