English Grammar

Adverbs

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. You may already know that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Perhaps you will be surprised to learn that they can also modify prepositions, prepositional phrases, conjunctions, clauses, and sentences (these uses will be considered later). Furthermore, there are adverbs called transitional adverbs, which function both as conjunctions and as adverbs. They too are a topic for later consideration. Finally, there are independent adverbs; they modify nothing at all.

2. How does one recognize an adverb? "They end in -ly," says Brian in the back row. Heís right, of course, but heís also wrong--well, more right than wrong, actually. Indeed, most words that end in -ly are adverbs. Think of thoroughly, pleasantly, helpfully, dearly, horribly, astutely, etc. The list extends into the thousands; however, some words that end in -ly arenít adverbs at all, but adjectives: manly, costly, ugly, for example. And what would you call also, too, quite, very, here, and there? Although they donít end in -ly, they are adverbs. Whatís more, there are quite a few adjectives without -ly that also serve as adverbs. Think of fast, high, low, long, right, left, late, to name several. Early is both an adjective and an adverb.

Consider the following sentences in support of some of the observations of the preceding paragraph:

You can say A, but you canít say B:

A. She is a friendly person. B. She speaks friendly to everyone.

A. They admire his manly qualities. B. He smiles manly.

A. She shows a motherly concern for patients. B. She listens to her patients motherly.

You can say C, and you can also say D:

C. Only racecar drivers need fast cars. D. He drives too fast.

C. It was a long wait. D. They had to wait long.

C. She made a right turn. D. She turned right.

C. The early bird gets the worm. D. That bird arrives early.

 

3. Here is an example of adverbs modifying a verb:

- The assistant principal spoke softly, patiently, and supportively to the troubled student.

The adverbs softly, patiently, and supportively modify the verb spoke. They tell how the assistant principal spoke. She might have felt like speaking loudly or thunderously, angrily or threateningly, patronizingly or insultingly; however, she chose to speak softly, patiently, and supportively.

 

4. The following sentence contains adverbs that modify adjectives:

- The motives of the exceedingly gracious hostess were quite political. The adverb exceedingly modifies the attributive adjective gracious, while the adverb quite modifies the predicate adjective political.

 

5. In the following sentence, there are two adverbs modifying other adverbs:

- Ray answered the question quite hastily and altogether incorrectly. The adverbs quite and altogether modify the adverbs hastily and incorrectly, respectively.

 

6. The following sentence contains an independent adverb:

- Honestly, I donít care. Honestly is an independent adverb.

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7. When is the word only an adverb, and when is it an adjective? It seems that every dictionary on the planet calls only in the sense of "without others," "without anything further," or "no more" an adverb. I can find only one source (the second edition of Descriptive English Grammar, by Susan Emolyn Harmanóan excellent diagramming reference, by the way) that implicitly calls it, when so used, an adjective. In her diagram of Only the men smoked, Harman presents only as a modifier of men. She offers no explanation and makes no apology. According to the dictionaries I consulted, only is an adjective only when it means "sole," as in We were the only customers there. But what about only in a sentence like It takes her only seconds to solve the Rubikís Cube? To make a case for this only being an adverb, one could reword as follows: It takes her, to the exclusion of larger units of time, seconds to solve the Rubikís Cube. In this rephrased (albeit somewhat awkward) sentence, the prepositional phrase to the exclusion of larger units of time is adverbial. So is only an adverb here? Does it modify takes? Maybe, but letís look at one more sentence: They collect only ashtrays. This means that they collect one thing: ashtrays. But the relationship between ashtrays and things is appositional, therefore (as both words are nouns) adjectival. If the function of only is adverbial in this sentence, then the diagram of They collect only ashtrays would be exactly the same as the diagram of They only collect ashtrays (that is, they donít use them for smoking, they donít break them to keep others from using them, and they donít recycle them; they only collect them). Still, diagramming is not a perfect instrument. After a good deal of thought and vacillation, I have concluded, with dictionaries, that only is an adjective only when it means "sole"--only when it comes after an article (an or the): an only child, the only survivor. Harmanís sentence Only the men smoked can be rephrased (not elegantly but accurately) as The men, to the exclusion of boys, girls, and women, smoked. Surely the infinitive phrase modifies the verb. The same argument, mutatis mutandis, can be made for just. Only when an adjective like "upright," "impartial," or "accurate" can be substituted for just, is it an adjective; otherwise, itís an adverb. In Wait just a minute and Just the thought of you makes me smile, just is an adverb. Of course, just and only can modify adjectives. If a bookstore owner says, I had only five customers today and sold just one book, only and just are adverbs modifying numbers used as attributive adjectives.

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8. In the sentence They are not always friendly, not only Reed and Kellogg but also Susan Emolyn Harman would call both not and always modifiers of the verb are. Itís a close call. A response to the question Are they friendly? might be Not always. This response, albeit elliptical, seems to argue that not is a modifier of always. In any case, our manner of diagramming verb contractions involving nít (the -nít always stays with the verb) is consistent with R & Kís analysis. Would it make any difference if the sentence were changed to Not always are they friendly? I think it would. In my opinion, not modifies always in this sentence.

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9. In the following pairs of sentences, notice how the meaning changes when the adverbs only, just, and even are repositioned:

- William only seems to succeed when opportunity slaps him in the face. William seems to succeed only when opportunity slaps him in the face.

- She just doesnít want to go to one game. She doesnít want to go to just one game.

- Did you hear about the professor who just died yesterday? Did you hear about the professor who died just yesterday?

- His family even ignores him. Even his family ignores him.

How easy it would be to say or write the first sentence in each of the above pairs while intending to convey the meaning expressed in the second sentence. Take care in the placement of adverbs. Be sure your sentences say what you want them to say.

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10. Have you ever looked up the word friendlily? If friendly is an adjective, the adverb must be friendlily, right? And it is. How about sillily? Yep, thatís a word, too. Scholarlily? Heavenlily? Nope, neither is an acceptable word. So what can you do if you want to express in a scholarly manner with one word? You can use scholarly, which is accepted not only as an adjective but also as an adverb. I found ghastlily, holily, jollily, surlily, and uglily in at least one authoritative source. I did not find timelily, sicklily, or mannerlily. Timely, sickly, and mannerly are not only adjectives but also adverbs, as are daily, early, hourly, and likely. My dictionaries do not show heavenly as an adverb; however, it almost certainly is. Who would object to this simple sentence: The choir sang heavenly? What if you think the word sillily sounds silly? Then use silly as an adverb; itís altogether acceptable. You can do the same with friendly and ghastly (but not with ghostly, which can be used only as an adjective and has no -lily form). The adjectives holy, jolly, surly, and ugly are not used as adverbs in the United States; the British have a fondness for the expression jolly well.

Exercise caution in using two-form adverbs like wide/widely, direct/directly, near/nearly, most/mostly, hard/hardly, and wrong/wrongly. One form may be correct in one position but not in another, as follows:

- They wandered far and wide. That is a widely used expression.

- Does this plane fly direct from Louisville to Denver? When you arrive, you must go directly to your hotel.

- She answered wrong. The racial slur was wrongly attributed to an equal-rights advocate.

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11. The words hither, thither, whither, hence, thence, whence, hitherto, and henceforth are useful words. Itís sad to see most of them slipping away into the netherworld of archaic words. But theyíre not dead yet, and they could be coaxed back into good health if enough of us chose to use them judiciously. Nowadays hither probably should be restricted to the first position in sentences (Hither came the faithful annually on the feast day of St. Anne.), where it means to this place; elsewhere, here seems a better choice. And thither is a good choice when there would be ambiguous, e.g., The trail there is steep. Does this there mean in that place or to that place? If the latter meaning is intended, why not use thither? The phrase hither and thither is alive and well in sentences like The children scampered hither and thither in search of the precious eggs. Whence is at least as good as from where; but avoid the oft heard phrase from whence (that would be like saying from from where). Its counterpart, whither often seems a better choice than where . . . to. Whence and whither can also mean from which and to which, respectively.

- I live in Boston, whence I have come today and whither I shall return on Friday.

Hitherto (until this time), thence (from that time, from that place), and henceforth (from this time on) are still in wide use.

- "Zaire has hitherto been my homeland," exclaimed the articulate immigrant; "henceforth I will live in America."

- I was born in Italy; thence comes my propensity to gesticulate abundantly.

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12. Try not to overuse adverbs like very, actually, and really. Actually they really very seldom do very much for very many sentences, really.

Use farther only as the comparative form of far. In most conversations, you will need further more often than farther.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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