An adverb is the Swiss Army knife of parts of speech. It not only modifies verbs, but also adjectives, verbals, other adverbs, and entire clauses or sentences. Because adverbs are so versatile, we’ll cover each function separately.
Regular and Irregular Adverbs
Many adverbs are formed by adding -ly to an adjective:
We call these regular adverbs. Adverbs that don’t follow this rule are called irregular adverbs.
Sometimes adverbs look exactly the same as the adjective form:
The early bird gets the worm.
I came early.
Sometimes they are quite different:
Are you feeling well?
And sometimes they have no corresponding adjective form (often, not).
In fact, even when a word ends in -ly, you can’t assume that it’s an adverb. There are also adjectives that end in -ly (lonely, friendly).
Asking the right question.
To find an adverb in a sentence, you can ask the following questions:
- To what degree?
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
In the winter, the bus from Abbotsford was often late.
When? In the winter
To what degree? Often
Be careful, however! By themselves such questions don’t tell us why these words are adverbs. For example, we might ask the question where? and answer from Abbotsford, not realizing that from Abbotsford acts like an adjective to describe what kind of bus (a noun) we’re dealing with.
That’s why in the following sections we’ve broken down the specific uses of adverbs. If you learn these, you will understand exactly why some words are adverbial.
The uses of adverbs
Modifying the Verb
The word adverb literally means “something that is added to the verb” (in Latin ad = to and verbum = word, verb). It’s not surprising, then, that adverbs often modify verbs:
Jennifer bugged Mike relentlessly.
If we ask bugged how? the answer would be relentlessly.
Even prepositional phrases can act like an adverb and modify the verb:
I saw you through the window.
Here the prepositional phrase through the window tells us where I saw you. Prepositional phrases always act like adjectives or adverbs, so context is everything.
Adverbs Exercise 1
Modifying an Adjective
Adverbs also allow us to refine the meaning of an adjective:
Myron drives an extremely old Volkswagen bus.
The adverb extremely answer the question To what degree? Myron’s vehicle is not just old; it is extremely old.
Here are a few more examples:
Her baby is so adorable!
That’s the most flimsy excuse ever.
The children were surprisingly curious.
Adverbs Exercise 2
You’ll recall that verbals look like verbs but often take on a different role in the sentence. If you want to modify a verbal you would use an adverb:
Salana, swinging her bat wildly, somehow hit a home run.
Let’s look at some more examples:
Walking regularly is great for your health.
Left alone, Cindy sat on a bench and read a book.
To ski properly takes practice.
As you can see, to check if a word is an adverb you need to know what other part of speech it’s modifying.
Adverbs Exercise 3
Modifying Other Adverbs
Adverbs can even modify each other:
He broke the news too suddenly.
Here the adverb too answers the question to what degree? and so tells us how suddenly he broke the news.
Here are a few more examples for good measure.
He appeared to accept his award almost reluctantly.
Annette checked her Fitbit very often.
I love your necklace so much.
Adverbs Exercise 4
Modifying Entire Clauses.
Sometimes an adverb modifies not just a specific word but an entire clause or sentence:
Oddly, no one had thought of that solution.
Fortunately, the check was in the mail.
Interestingly, in Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.
As you can see from these examples, the adverb is not specific enough to modify one word, but provides a comment on the entire sentence.
Adverbs Exercise 5
The Finer Points of Adverbs
Comparative Forms of Adverbs
Just as with adjectives, adverbs come in three forms: positive (the basic form), comparative (showing a greater or lesser degree) and superlative (showing the greatest or least degree).
There are two ways to form the comparative:
- Use –er when the adverb is just one syllable long: nearer, later, sooner, slower, straighter.
- If the adverb is longer than one syllable, add more: more closely, more fully, more incessantly, more jealously.
Similarly, there are two standard ways to form the superlative:
- Use –est when the adverb is just one syllable long: nearest, quickest, slowest, straightest.
- If the adverb is longer than one syllable, add most: most impressively, most gleefully.
The only exception to these rules is early, which follows the rules for one syllable adverbs (earlier, earliest).
Some irregular adverbs don’t follow the normal rules for comparative and superlative forms:
Positive Comparative Superlative well better best badly worse worst much more most little less least far farther/further farther/furthest
Many of these forms are the same as for irregular adjectives.
Adverbs with Two Endings
If you’ve read the previous section, you may have noticed that some adverbs that end in –ly also have a shorter form. Here are some examples:
Sometimes the two forms are used in different ways:
He came close and gave me a hug.
I watched her closely.
At other times, the shorter form is simply a more casual way of phrasing something:
Janet laughs so loud that her mom gets embarrassed.
Let’s go slow this time.
In a more formal context you should think about using the –ly ending, but it depends somewhat on preference. You might find that you would readily substitute slowly, but still prefer loud over loudly.
There are a few adverbs and adjectives that cause a lot of trouble. Let’s focus on the chief troublemakers:
Adjective Adverb bad badly good well
To see which one you’re dealing with, you have to look at the rest of the sentence. Take the following examples:
He treated me badly.
That was a bad idea.
He treated me well.
That was a good idea.
So far so good: the adverb modifies the verb and the adjective describes the noun. The difficulty comes when we use a linking verb:
She felt bad about our breakup.
A linking verb is usually followed by a noun or adjective that describes the subject. That’s why we have to use bad rather than badly. You can see why this is so if you compare a similar sentence:
The weather forecast looked bleak.
The linking verb itself is not being modified—it’s the forecast that’s bleak.
But there is one more thing to watch out for: the adverb well can also be an adjective, in which case it refers to one’s health. Compare these sentences:
After her fever subsided, Belinda was well enough to go to class.
After her fever subsided, Belinda felt good enough to go to class.
In each case we’ve used an adjective to describe Belinda’s health.
Adverbs Review 1
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