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What is an Adverb?

Updated on May 16, 2010

Adverb is the name in grammar for a word used chiefly to modify a verb. The word derives from the Latin ad-verbium, meaning "(added) to the verb," and early grammarians defined it as an indeclinable part of speech (that is, one having only a single form) whose meaning is added to that of the verb. Modern grammarians disagree about the definition of "adverb" and about which words are adverbs.

Historically, in both English and the other Indo-European tongues, most adverbs and the word endings associated with them have been derived from other parts of speech. This may suggest that the adverb is not one of the most ancient and primary features of language.

Traditional Grammar

Traditional grammar, even that used for the analysis of English, is based largely on classical Latin. It has been taught in British and American schools in about the same form since the late 1700's.

In "school grammar," the most simplified version of traditional grammar, the adverb is ordinarily defined as "a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb." It makes the meaning of the modified word more explicit by specifying time and answering the question "When?" (He will come soon. We stopped immediately.); by specifying place and answering the question "Where?" (The car is outside. Hold it up.); by specifying manner and answering the question "How?" (They walked slowly. The door swung creakily open.); or by specifying degree and answering the question "To what extent?" (very tired; fairly quickly). These general kinds of modification can be subdivided. Certain adverbs of time, for example, can be called adverbs of frequency; certain adverbs of place are more precisely adverbs of direction.

All these are the adverbs closest in function to the historical class and the meaning of adver-bium, but traditional English grammar also describes at least five special kinds of adverbs: (1) the interrogatives (When can we start? How does this work?); (2) the relatives (Tell me when you can come. I don't know where she is.); (3) the correlatives (He is as tall as I am. When he jumps, then I'll jump.); (4) the independents (You have it, then? Now, don't be a fool!); and (5) the transitionals (However, he knows best. I won; therefore, I get the prize.).

Most adverbs in English, including nearly all newly formed adverbs, have the ending -ly, which derives from an adjective ending in Old English. Many adverbs, however, including most of the special kinds, are uninflected forms without the -ly ending. One small but troublesome group of adverbs are identical in form with related adjectives (bright, deep, fair, hard, slaw, and others). Most had distinctive endings in Old English but lost them in Middle English.

Like adjectives, most adverbs may be "compared," that is, used with the suffix -(e)r or with more to show a relatively higher degree, and with the suffix -(e)st or with most to show the relatively highest degree. The suffixes are used with the small group of adverbs that function as modifiers and do not end in -ly (bright, brighter, brightest; fast, faster, fastest), while more and most are used with the many adverbs ending in -ly (sweetly, more sweetly, most sweetly). Less and least are used in "reverse comparison."

Adverbs that cannot be compared include all five special kinds and those that have an absolute meaning: there, now, not, abroad, and others. Some adverbs have irregular comparison: little, less, least; much, more, most, and others.

The adverbs in traditional grammar form a large, diverse, and not very satisfactory class. They include words as dissimilar as yes, arbitrarily, and notwithstanding. Their functions are so various that one authority doubts that there is anything an adverb may not at one time or another be found to modify (in junior year abroad and the up escalator, for example, they modify nouns). Some grammarians helplessly define the adverb by elimination, as any modifier that is not an adjective or a noun. Others frankly classify words as adverbs "because we have to put them somewhere."

Structural Grammar

It was such defects as these in traditional grammar that prompted a group of American linguistic scientists, beginning in the 1930's, to work out the kind of grammatical analysis called structural grammar. In order to exclude meaning entirely as a basis for determining grammatical class, the structuralists set up "form classes" and "positional classes." The form classes are usually named after the traditional parts of speech, and the related positional classes have the same name plus the suffix -al or -ial.

The form class "adverb" is restricted to words (like roughly) that consist of an adjective plus -ly and that cannot receive the additional suffixes -(e)r and -(e)st; and words (like crab-wise) that consist of a noun plus -wise. The form class takes care of most adverbs because most end in -ly, but it does not account for the many uninflected modifiers called adverbs in traditional grammar. Some of these are located, along with true adverbs, in the positional class "adverbials." Adverbials are words that can occupy the sentence positions or test-frame positions that adverbs regularly occupy. This has not been entirely satisfactory, since the English adverb can occupy a bewildering number of positions.

The other uninflected modifiers traditionally called adverbs are excluded from the class in structural grammar. They are generally called "function words" and subclassified under names that vary according to the grammarian consulted. Typically, not is called "the negator"; words like very are called "intensifiers"; words like when, where, and why are called "interrogators"; words like nevertheless and therefore are called "connectors"; words like well, oh, and now are called "attention signals"; and yes and no are called "responses."

The new and very active school of transformational or generative grammar has followed structural grammar in rejecting the catchall traditional class of adverbs and has revealed how the newer classification has its logical basis in the step-by-step processes by which grammatically normal sentences are constructed.


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    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

      This is very interesting. I wish there were writers like you when I was in school. This study is not dull and clinical. I worked as a vocational instructor in a mental health facility for adolescents. We worked on reading and writing as part of the curriculum. I could have used this more effectively. Including the history and etymology was a nice touch. Those guys would respond to the fact there were "defects in the language". They could rebell against the establishment and use "adverbs".