Adverbs: Modifying Verbs, Adjectives and Other Adverbs

Certain parts of speech, like subjects and verbs, are readily identifiable within a sentence. However, other parts may not be so recognizable. Adjectives, for example, describe nouns and appear in a wide range of forms. In a similar way, adverbs describe verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Adverb definition can be a tricky part of the English language. Like adjectives, they come in many forms. In order to learn to distinguish an adjective from an adverb, paying attention to context is crucial. The most important thing to remember about adverbs is that they alter a verb, adjective or other adverb. The following offers a guideline for common adverb usage as well as typical examples.

Adverbs Ending in "ly"

Words that end in "ly" are most likely adverbs. A woman might say, "It's really cold." In this case, the word "really" describes "cold" (an adjective). If a student regularly sits at his desk doodling, a teacher might say, "That student barely pays attention." In this case, "barely" modifies "pays attention" (a verb phrase). Adverbs modify action and pre-existing descriptors. Among other things, they might indicate space, shape, time and the extent to which something is performed.

Examples of adverbs ending in "ly":

• That woman truly needs a new barber.

• My cat spends his day aimlessly wandering the house.

• His instructors are shockingly harsh.

It should be noted that if a word ends in "ly," it is not necessarily an adverb. It might instead be an adjective, such as a "lovely necklace." In this case, "lovely" describes a noun rather than a verb, adjective or other adverb. Again, context plays a large role in differentiating between adverbs and adjectives.

Adverbial Phrases

Unlike other, simpler parts of speech, adverbs can actually appear in phrase and clause form. Adverbial phrases occur when a prepositional phrase modifies an action. Prepositions, like "to," "under," "through" and "of" begin an adverbial phrase. For example, a girl might say, "In the morning, I brush my teeth." In this instance, the phrase "in the morning" modifies the activity of brushing her teeth by telling when it happens. Adverbial phrases often describe the "when" and "how" in greater detail than simply using one word.

Examples of adverbial phrases:

• I prefer to sleep with my socks on.

• Throughout the house, a small squeaking noise could be heard.

• He lost his keys during the storm.

These phrases modify their respective verbs. A good rule of thumb for determining adverbs is to ask details about the action taking place. For example, in the first sentence, how does the person prefer to sleep? The answer is "with socks on." "With" is a preposition, and the entire phrase modifies the verb "sleep."

Adverb Clauses

Similar to adverbial phrases, adverb clauses modify verbs in a sentence. Unlike phrases, however, adverb clauses contain a subject and a verb that act as modifiers. For example, a person might say to his friends, "When I finish my homework, I will come outside and play." In this case, the first part of that sentence, or clause, contains a subject (I) and a verb (finish) that modify the verb (will come) in the second part.

Examples of adverb clauses:

• Once I find my suitcase, I can pack my clothes.

• I overheard him talking about the time he went to France.

• After he brushes his teeth, he reads a bedtime story.

Identifying adverbial phrases and adverb clauses can be confusing. Fortunately, nearly all adverbs that exist as a phrase or as part of a clause use prepositional words or phrases. These words, like "to," "behind" or "over," signify that the part of speech might be an adverbial phrase or clause. If the phrase has both a subject and a verb, then it is an adverb clause. If not, then it is an adverbial phrase.

Other Adverb Situations

The aforementioned adverb situations appear most often, with adverbs ending in "ly" more common than any other adverbs. Still, learning to identify other adverbs will come in handy when learning various parts of English speech. Other adverb examples include words and/or phrases like "really" or "sort of." Adverbs might describe time, place and the extent to which something happened. The following examples illustrate other forms of adverbs.

• His comments were wholly inappropriate.

• She was positive that she had seen him before.

• I am completely lost.

The words "wholly," "positive" and "completely" all describe the extent of the action. In the first sentence, the man's comments were not only inappropriate but "wholly" inappropriate, the maximum amount of inappropriate. Like adjectives, adverbs can be superlative, meaning that they describe the greatest extent to which something can happen. In the case of the first sentence, "wholly" encompasses the entire range of inappropriate comments, and this man reached that level. These are also called "amplifiers" because they amplify the intensity of the action.

On the other end of the degree spectrum, adverbs can also bring down the mood of the word they describe.

• That paint sort of looks dingy.

• I kind of want to be here.

• She almost ran away from home.

In these examples, the words or phrases "sort of," "kind of" and "almost" also indicate the degree to which the action was happening, but this time, they brought the mood of the sentence down. These adverbs can be called "downtoners" because they bring down the tone of the action.

Adverbs encompass a large portion of the English language because they modify not only verbs but adjectives and other adverbs as well. Keeping this in mind, it's important to consider the context in which a word appears to determine whether it's an adverb or another part of speech. Though this guide is not exhaustive, it should provide a useful overview.

Quiz: Choose the correct part of speech.

I really like James's new hat.

a: Adverb

b: Adverbial phrase

c: Adverb clause

d: None of the above

That house has ugly shutters.

a: Adverb

b: Adverbial phrase

c: Adverb clause

d: None of the above

After the movie, we will go to the arcade.

a: Adverb

b: Adverbial phrase

c: Adverb clause

d: None of the above

When her mom arrives, she will be in trouble.

a: Adverb

b: Adverbial phrase

c: Adverb clause

d: None of the above

That tree looks somewhat bent.

a: Adverb

b: Adverbial phrase

c: Adverb clause

d: None of the above

Answers (in order): a, d, b, c, a