Adverbs and other awkward customers

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Adverbs and adverbials

First we must distinguish between adverbs and adverbials:

  • An adverb is a single word and adverbs are a word class like nouns and adjectives.
  • An adverbial is a clause element like subjects and objects.
  • An adverbial may be an adverb or it may be something else, as we shall see.
  • An adverb can also form part of an adverb phrase or an adjective phrase.


To begin with, forget the one about ‘adverbs end with -ly ’. A lot of very important adverbs don’t (for example, tomorrow, here, and fast). And there are words ending in -ly that aren’t adverbs, like friendly and silly.

Adverbs are a class of words that can:

  1. act as an adverbial: 
The anger came later.
  2. form the headword of an adverb phrase: 
luckily for us
  3. be used to modify an adjective in an adjective phrase: 
very stupid
  4. be used to modify an adverb in an adverb phrase:
rather rashly
  5. be formed from many qualitative adjectives by the 
addition of -ly: 

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 above show how adverbs can be used in the formation of phrases. Adverbs used to alter the meanings of adjectives and other adverbs are known as intensifiers. They can make them stronger:

I think it’s incredibly dangerous.

or weaker:

It was slightly fuzzy.

or sit on the fence:

He sounds quite interesting.

Whatever effect we achieve, these adverbs…

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Adverbials can be divided into adjuncts, conjuncts and -disjuncts. Of these, the first is by far the largest group.

The bulk of these provide answers to the questions, ‘When?’ ‘Where?’ and ‘How?’

Adverbials can provide information about:

  • the point in time at which something happens
    The shares moved up 2p to 132p yesterday.
  • how long it goes on for
    I can’t be a tourist forever.
  • how frequently it occurs
    He rarely ate red meat.

These adverbials tell us about:

  • position
‘It’s glorious here,’ he said.
  • direction
I scuttled backwards
  • distance
    I could see for miles

This is a much larger group of adverbials which tell us about the manner in which something occurred:

Louise watched him fastidiously.

Sentence focus
There is a small, but important, group of adverbials that add to the meaning of the sentence in a different way, by focusing attention on a part of it. For example:

The Pope, too, has spoken warmly of unity.
Only France has the mystique of the grandes écoles.

In the first of these examples, the adverb too makes it clear that The Pope is being added to the list of those who have spoken warmly of unity. In the second, only has the opposite effect: it separates France from all other countries.

Sentence adverbials: conjuncts and disjuncts
There are two other groups of adverbs that we use to help stick a text together (or, linguistically speaking, ‘give it cohesion’). For example…

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Prepositional phrases as adverbials

Pretty much all the functions of adverbs that have been described so far can also be done by groups of words that are not themselves adverbs. Compare these pairs of sentences:

  • Let me know tomorrow.

    Let me know at the end of the week.
  • He always used to tuck it away.

    He always used to tuck it underneath the water butt.
  • Fat Watt watched them go smugly.

    Fat Watt watched them go with a satisfied air.

In each case the adverb has been substituted by a phrase of similar meaning. Each of these is a prepositional phrase, so called because it begins with a preposition. Most prepositional phrases begin with a preposition, followed by one of the following:

  • a noun
    for elephants
  • a pronoun
    for them
  • a noun phrase
for the bulk of the population


These small words or word groups get their name because they are positioned before (‘pre’) a word or group of words. They can consist of one word (up, down, in, etc.) or two (out of, close to, etc.) or more (as well as, in the course of, etc.).

Other uses of prepositional phrases
Prepositional phrases don’t only work as adverbials. They also often form part of other phrases.

In noun phrases
They are often used as modifiers in noun phrases, as in these examples:

…a teacher from one of the local primary schools
Where this wins over the dance floor bandwagon jumpers is in its upfront and in your face approach rather than being docile.

In adjective and adverb phrases
They can also occur in adjective and adverb phrases, particularly those involving comparison:

The LMS used to be the biggest of the railways.

As a subject complement
They can come after verbs like be to provide more information about the subject. For example:

The critics were over the moon.

To sum up
The ways in which prepositional phrases can be used…

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