Adverbs



Adverbs are parts of speech that describe, or modify, either a verb, clause, adjective, or even another adverb. A formal sentence requires only a subject and verb to be complete, but these sentences lack description. Adverbs add information and are used to give more depth to a sentence, describing the place, frequency, time, purpose or manner. Adverbs have many functions. Most of the time, they answer the following questions:

  • How? Or In what manner?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How much? Or To what extent?

Adverbs vs. Adjectives

Adverbs and adjectives both serve to modify other parts of speech, which can make them confusing. However, they have different purposes and uses. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, while adjectives modify nouns. Above we saw which questions adverbs typically answer. Adjectives answer the questions “what kind?” or “how many?” or “which?”

Adverbs often end in -ly, but do not have to. Examples of adverbs that don’t use an -ly are already, always, never, now, often, soon, still, there, and too. On the other hand, not all words that end in -ly are adverbs: The words lonely, lively, and lovely are adjectives.

In addition, some adverbs have a version that ends in -ly and a version that doesn’t, such as ‘late’ and ‘lately,’ or ‘hard’ and ‘hardly.’ These words have different meanings depending on how they’re used, like this humorous phrase:

“Are you working hard or hardly working?”


Both ‘hard’ and ‘hardly’ are adverbs, and while they come from the same word, they convey different meanings.

 

Adverbs

Examples of Commonly Used Adverbs

The children swam quickly to the shore. (How did the children swim?)

In this example, ”quickly” is an adverb because it is used to modify the verb “swam.” It answers the question how the children swam.

We finished our tests early. (In what manner were the tests finished?)

In this example, “early” is an adverb, as it describes when the tests were finished.

The man walked slowly across the street. (How did the man walk?)

“Slowly” is the adverb here, as it is used to modify the verb “walked.”

As we can see in the above examples, most adverbs are flexible in terms of placement within a sentence. The general rule, however, is to place the adverb close to the word it is supposed to modify. When an adverb is used to modify a verb, for instance, the adverb is most often placed in the middle of the sentence or phrase. This isn’t always the case, however. Consider the following sentence:

Clearly, Laura forgot to call the school.

This one is a bit trickier, because the adverb “clearly” is modifying the whole phrase after it. Adverbs like clearly, hopefully, fortunately, and obviously are called sentence adverbs. Sentence adverbs describe a general feeling about the rest of the sentence, and come at the beginning or end of a sentence.

Here are a few more examples of sentence adverbs:

Hopefully, they learned their lesson.

The cat was saved just in time, fortunately.

Obviously, the man was drunk.

Be careful with the word hopefully, which has long been hated by English writers and teachers. The Elements of Style put it this way: “To say ‘Hopefully, I’ll leave on the noon plane’ is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind?”

Adverbs of Time

When we describe where or when, we use adverbs to make these sentences more informational. Among adverbs of time, there are adverbs of frequency, to denote how often something occurs, and adverbs of relative time, to denote when an action took place, sometimes in relation to another event.

Adverbs of Frequency

She always walks her dog in the morning.

John often forgets to bring his lunch.

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with you.

Adverbs of Relative Time

I was just about to leave the house.

The newlyweds are currently in Hawaii.

Jessica still doesn’t know what she wants to study.

Adverbs of Place

We often use adverbs to describe a place, called adverbs of place, or spatial adverbs. Adverbs of place describe where the verb is taking place in a sentence and can be used to denote direction (as well as movement in a specific direction), distance, and position in relation to another object.

Consider the following examples:

The coffee shop nearby is closed for construction.

She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

John walked toward the building.

We drove the car northeast on the highway.

In the above examples, some adverbs of place give us specific directions, like northeast, others, like nearby, indicate relative distance, and still others, like toward, show movement in a specific direction.

Adverbs of Manner

Adverbs of manner describe how and in what way the action occurs. We do things in different ways and at different speeds, and adverbs of manner help us describe how fast or slow, for example, something is done.

Consider the following examples:

For the first time, scientists have carefully analyzed all the critters in a kitchen sponge." (From an NPR article on dirty kitchen sponges.)

Eric spoke loudly with the professor.

Angrily, the mother took the toy.

The car quickly turned around to follow the getaway car.

Be careful with adverbs of manner that don’t add much real information to the phrase or sentence. Words like extremely, really, very, and totally should be used sparingly and appropriately.

Adverbs of Degree

Another function of adverbs is to convey more or less emphasis or intensity about something. Adverbs of degree act to amplify or show precision, or alternatively, to soften or downtone it. Examples of adverbs of degree include almost, exactly, extremely, completely, greatly, just, lots, much, most, nearly, quite, somewhat, and very.

Amplifiers

You really don’t want to mess with that teacher.

The boy was obviously in pain.

She definitely did the best work in the class.

He was exactly on time to the interview.

Now, see how the same sentences can be changed by switching the amplifying adverb to a downtoner.

Downtoners

You probably don’t want to mess with that teacher.

The boy was hardly in pain.

She maybe did the best work in the class.

He was almost on time to the interview.

These examples make it clear what role adverbs of degree - or adverbs in general - can make in shaping a sentence. Note that like adverbs of manner, overusing some adverbs of degree like very (she was very beautiful) or lots (there were lots of people in attendance) should be avoided as they don’t add much information to the sentences.

A Last Word About Using Adverbs

Adverbs are one of only four main parts of speech in the English language. We have nouns to name things and people, verbs to show action, and we have adjectives and adverbs to both add to or clarify nouns and verbs. Adverbs, then, are an important part of how we describe the things we experience or wish to relate to others.

Too many adverbs, or weak adverbs, however, should be eliminated as much as possible. Writers are encouraged to show, not tell, and in writing, adverbs are mostly used to tell the reader what to think. Consider if a stronger verb or adjective could better show how something is done. For example, we used the sentence “the man walked slowly” earlier. Instead of “walked slowly,” we could say “the man shuffled,” or “the man dragged his feet” to give readers a better idea of exactly how slowly the man moved. If you can take out the adverb and the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change, delete it.

As this recent New York Times article quoted from the Elements of Style, we should “write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” but that “certainly, it’s extremely difficult to vigilantly avoid adverbs always.”

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