Adverbs: introduction and categories

Adverbs have always been my favourite part of speech. I think this is partly because, when I first learnt about them in primary school, there was a beautiful simplicity to them – or at least there was in my view.

As the name suggests, adverbs add to a verb. The primary school definition is that adverbs describe a verb; the more formal definition is that adverbs modify a verb, adjective or another adverb.

Categories of adverbs

Adverbs describe how, when, where, why or what extent something is happening

Adverbs modify other words in very specific ways. In traditional grammar, the functions of adverbs were to describe how, when, where, why or to what extent something was happening.  (I love that description: just five clear, easy-to-remember functions). These functions consequently give us five categories of adverbs:

  • adverbs of manner (explaining how something is happening)
  • adverbs of time (explaining when something is happening)
  • adverbs of place (explaining where something is happening)
  • adverbs of reason (explaining why something is happening)
  • adverbs of degree (explaining to what extent something is happening).

Of course, modern grammarians had to spoil the fun. They took a look at the uses of adverbs and decided there were more categories. How many? Well, the answer depends on where you look. Many sources add three more groups: number; order; and cause and effect. You might also find these categories of adverbs in other sources: interrogative; modal; relative; conjunctive (which is similar to the cause-and-effect category). If you find the modern groupings of adverbs useful, you are welcome to use them but I have always loved the elegantly straightforward nature of the five traditional groups, and I thus belong very firmly in the traditional grammar camp. (There is one exception, and that is the case of sentence adverbs, which I deal with in separate post.)

Recognising adverbs

The key thing to remember is that adverbs never modify or describe a noun; that is the work of adjectives. If you spot an adverb before a noun, it will in fact be modifying an adjective that is describing the noun – or it will be an adjective, not an adverb.

One of the other nice things about adverbs (there are so many attractive features to adverbs!) is that most of them end in –ly. In fact, many adverbs are formed by adding –ly to an adjective:

  • quickly is the adverbial form of quick
  • cleanly is the adverbial form of clean
  • firmly is the adverbial form of firm
  • sleepily is the adverbial form of sleepy
  • happily is the adverbial form of happy

But be careful! As we know, you cannot always tell what part of speech a word is just be looking at it: you must always analyse how the word is being used. There are a number of words – some ending in –ly, some not – that can also be used as adjectives. Many of the adverbs of time (many of which don’t end in –ly) can also be used as adjectives. Compare these two sentences:

  • The bird was feeding early.
  • The early bird catches the worm.

In the first sentence, early is an adverb, modifying the verb was feeding: it describes when feeding happened. But in the second sentence, early is an adjective, modifying the noun bird: it describes what the sort of bird we are talking about.

The early bird catches the worm

While the  ‘adverbs often end in –ly’ rule is helpful, it is also useful to keep in mind that this applies mostly to the adverbs of manner (the how adverbs). These are some common irregular (not ending in –ly) adverbs:

  • today, tomorrow, yesterday, late, now, always, never (adverbs of time).
  • here, there, up, down (adverbs of place)
  • thus, nevertheless (adverbs of reason)
  • very, quite, rather, somewhat, however (adverbs of extent)

Note: while early is an adverb of time that does end in –ly, it isn’t formed by adding –ly to ear, so it can be considered as either a regular or irregular adverb, depending on how you feel about it!

Adverbs in use

  • The cat lay sleepily on my book yesterday.

This sentence contains two adverbs: sleepily is an an adverb of manner (how), describing the verb lay; and yesterday is an adverb of time (when), also describing the verb lay.

Sleepily cannot describe the cat (we would say The sleepy cat if we wanted to describe the cat) and also cannot describe the book. Yesterday does not describe the cat or the book (the yesterday cat and the yesterday book make no sense).

  • The horse jumped up and cleanly over the fence.

Again, this sentence contains two adverbs: up is an adverb of place (where), describing the verb jumped; and cleanly is an adverb of manner, also describing the verb jumped.

Neither adverb can describe the horse (neither the up horse or the cleanly horse makes sense) and neither can they describe the fence, but both words tell us more about jumped.

I thus belong very firmly in the traditional grammar camp

  • I have always loved the elegantly straightforward nature of the five traditional groups, and I thus belong very firmly in the traditional grammar camp.

There are five adverbs in this sentence (I did explain that I was fond of adverbs!):

  • always is an adverb of time (when), describing the verb loved
  • elegantly is an adverb of manner (how), describing the adjective straightfoward
  • thus is an adverb of reason (why), describing the verb belong
  • very is an adverb of degree (extent), describing the adverb firmly
  • firmly is an adverb of manner (how), describing the verb belong.

Always and firmly are similar to the examples of adverbs of time and manner given in the previous examples, so should be clear.

Elegantly cannot describe the noun nature: if it did, the sentence would have to say the elegant, straightfoward nature. It is describing the manner of the adjective straightforward; it is not simply straightfoward or plainly straightforward or beautifully straightforward but elegantly straightforward.

The adverbs of reason are a bit tricky, often because they are often not placed near the verb they describe. But you can see how thus describes belong: the reason for the belonging or why the belonging happens has been given.

Very is describing another adverb (firmly), telling us the degree of extent of firmly. It is not slightly firmly or rather firmly but very firmly.

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