The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.