Many people think of adverbs as words that tell us more about a verb. For example, quickly is an adverb in the phrase “He ran quickly,” as it tells us something about the verb run.
This is correct, but adverbs can do more than this. Adverbs also modify adjectives (e.g., “Her clothes were incredibly clean,”) and other adverbs (e.g., “He writes concisely, and always quickly.”)
Finally, adverbs can modify an entire clause. In the phrase “I go there mostly for the good service,” the word mostly modifies the string of words, for the good service. Such an adverb is called a clause adverb.
An accurate definition of an adverb, then, is that an adverb is a word that describes or modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or an entire clause.
What Adverbs Do
Adverbs can give us many kinds of information. Commonly, adverbs tell us about:
Aspect: An adverb can tell us about the nature, appearance, or conduct of something. These are the adverbs that tend to end in -ly.
- E.g. “You sing beautifully.”
Intensity: An adverb can express magnitude or severity.
- E.g. “You sing very beautifully.”
Time: An adverb can give us temporal information.
- E.g. “I woke up early.”
Frequency: An adverb can tell us how often something occurs.
- E.g. “I rarely wake up early.”
Extent: An adverb can give us information about scope.
- E.g. “I was partly responsible.”
Some adverbs do not give the reader information about another word, but rather perform a linking function. Such conjunctive adverbs (or linking adverbs) are generally placed at the beginning of a sentence to connect it to the sentence which precedes it.
An example of a linking adverb is besides in the following: “It isn’t in her character to steal from her employer. Besides, she has an airtight alibi.”
Adjective or Adverb?
As a final point, it should be noted that some words can be either an adjective or an adverb. This occurs when an adjective does not take an -ly suffix to become an adverb.
An example of such a word is fast. It can be either an adjective (e.g., “Roger is fast,”) or an adverb (e.g., “Roger runs fast.”)
To know whether such a word is an adjective or an adverb, simply determine to what kind of word it refers. In the phrase “Roger is fast,” fast refers to the word Roger, which is a noun; fast is an adjective in this phrase. The word is an adverb if it refers to anything other than a noun — as is the case in “Roger runs fast,” where fast refers not directly to Roger, but rather to the way he runs.
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