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  • The waves came in quickly over the rocks.
  • I found the film amazingly dull.
  • The meeting went well, and the directors were extremely happy with the outcome.
  • Crabs are known for walking sideways.
  • I often have eggs for breakfast.

An adverb is a part of speech. Adverb refers to any word that modifies any other part of language: verbs, adjectives (including numbers), clauses, sentences and other adverbs, except for nouns; modifiers of nouns are primarily determiners and adjectives.

Adverbs typically answer questions such as how?, when?, where?, why? and to what extent?

This function is called the adverbial function, and is realized not just by single words (i.e., adverbs) but by adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses.

An adverb as an adverbial may be a sentence element in its own right.

They treated her well. (SUBJECT)

Alternatively, an adverb may be contained within a sentence element.

An extremely attractive woman entered the room. (SUBJECT + ADVERBIAL + OBJECT)

Adverbs in English

In English, adverbs of manner (answering the question how?) are often formed by adding -ly to adjectives. For example, great yields greatly, and beautiful yields beautifully. (Note that some words that end in -ly, such as friendly and lovely, are not adverbs, but adjectives, in which case the root word is usually a noun. There are also underived adjectives that end in -ly, such as holy and ugly.) The suffix -ly derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "like."

In some cases, the suffix -wise may be used to derive adverbs from nouns. Historically, -wise competed with a related form -ways and won out against it. In a few words, like sideways, -ways survives; words like clockwise show the transition. It is not a foolproof indicator. Some adverbs are formed from nouns or adjectives by appending the prefix a- (such as abreast, astray). There are a number of other suffixes in English that derive adverbs from other word classes, and there are also many adverbs that are not morphologically indicated at all.

Comparative adverbs include more, most, least, and less (in phrases such as more beautiful, most easily, etc.).

The usual form pertaining to adjectives or adverbs is called the positive. Formally, adverbs in English are inflected in terms of comparison, just like adjectives. The comparative and superlative forms of some (especially single-syllable) adverbs that do not end in -ly are generated by adding -er and -est (She ran faster; He punches hardest). Others, especially those ending -ly, are periphrastically compared by the use of more or most (She ran more quickly). Adverbs also take comparisons with as ... as, less, and least. Not all adverbs are comparable; for example in the sentence He died yesterday it does not make sense to speak of "more yesterday" or "most yesterday."

Adverbs as a "catch-all" category

Adverbs are considered a part of speech in traditional English grammar and are still included as a part of speech in grammar taught in schools and used in dictionaries. However, modern grammarians recognize that words traditionally grouped together as adverbs serve a number of different functions. Some would go so far as to call adverbs a "catch-all" category that includes all words that don't belong to one of the other parts of speech.

A more logical approach to dividing words into classes relies on recognizing which words can be used in a certain context. For example, a noun is a word that can be inserted in the following template to form a grammatical sentence:

The _____ is red. (For example, "The hat is red.")

When this approach is taken, it is seen that adverbs fall into a number of different categories. For example, some adverbs can be used to modify an entire sentence, whereas others cannot. Even when a sentential adverb has other functions, the meaning is often not the same. For example, in the sentences She gave birth naturally and Naturally, she gave birth, the word naturally can have an entirely different meaning although the first sentence could be interpreted in the same way as the second, depending on the context. Naturally as a sentential adverb means something like "of course" and as a verb-modifying adverb means "in a natural manner." The "hopefully" controversy demonstrates that the class of sentential adverbs is a closed class (there is resistance to adding new words to the class), whereas the class of adverbs that modify verbs is not.

Words like very and particularly afford another useful example. We can say Perry is very fast, but not Perry very won the race. These words can modify adjectives but not verbs. On the other hand, there are words like here and there that cannot modify adjectives. We can say The sock looks good there but not It is a there beautiful sock. The fact that many adverbs can be used in more than one of these functions can confuse this issue, and it may seem like splitting hairs to say that a single adverb is really two or more words that serve different functions. However, this distinction can be useful, especially considering adverbs like naturally that have different meanings in their different functions.

Not is an interesting case. Grammarians have a difficult time categorizing it, and it probably belongs in its own class (Haegeman 1995, Cinque 1999).

Adverbs in other languages

Other languages may form adverbs in different ways, if they are used at all:

  • In Dutch and German, adverbs have the basic form of their corresponding adjectives and are not inflected (except for comparison in which case they are inflected like adjectives, too). Consequently, German primary-school teaching uses a single term, Eigenschaftswort, to refer to both adjectives and adverbs. However German linguists avoid this term.
  • In Scandinavian, adverbs are typically derived from adjectives by adding the suffix '-t', which makes it identical to the adjective's neuter form. Scandinavian adjectives, like English ones, are inflected in terms of comparison by adding '-ere'/'-are' (comparative) or '-est'/'-ast' (superlative). In inflected forms of adjectives the '-t' is absent. Periphrastic comparison is also possible.
  • In Romance languages many adverbs are formed from adjectives (often the feminine form) by adding '-mente' (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian) or '-ment' (French, Catalan). Other adverbs are single forms which are invariable. In Romanian, the vast majority of adverbs are simply the masculine singular form of the corresponding adjective—one notable exception being bine ("well") / bun ("good").
  • Interlingua also forms adverbs by adding '-mente' to the adjective. If an adjective ends in c, the adverbial ending is '-amente'. A few short, invariable adverbs, such as ben, "well," and mal, "badly," are available and widely used.
  • In Esperanto, adverbs are not formed from adjectives but are made by adding '-e' directly to the word root. Thus, from bon are derived bone, "well," and 'bona', 'good'.
  • Modern Standard Arabic forms adverbs by adding the indefinite accusative ending '-an' to the root. For example, kathiir-, "many," becomes kathiiran "much." However, Arabic often avoids adverbs by using a cognate accusative plus an adjective.
  • Austronesian languages appear to form comparative adverbs by repeating the root (as in WikiWiki), similarly to the plural noun.
  • Japanese forms adverbs, depending on the adjective's nature, either by changing the final syllable from い to く or by changing the particle that follows from な to に. Certain adjectives cannot be made into adverbs, among other restrictions on their use.
  • In Gaelic, an adverbial form is made by preceding the adjective with the preposition go (Irish) or gu (Scottish Gaelic), meaning 'until'.
  • In Modern Greek, an adverb is most commonly made by adding the endings <-α> and/or <-ως> to the root of an adjective. Often, the adverbs formed form a common root using each of these endings have slightly different meanings. So, <τέλειος> (<téleios>, meaning "perfect" and "complete") yields <τέλεια> (<téleia>, "perfectly") and <τελείως> (<teleíos>, "completely"). Not all adjectives can be transformed into adverbs by using both endings. <Γρήγορος> (<grígoros>, "rapid") becomes <γρήγορα> (<grígora>, "rapidly"), but not normally *<γρηγόρως> (*<grigóros>). When the <-ως> ending is used to transform an adjective whose tonal accent is on the third syllable from the end, such as <επίσημος> (<epísimos>, "official"), the corresponding adjective is accented on the second syllable from the end; compare <επίσημα> (<epísima>) and <επισήμως> (<episímos>), which both mean "officially." There are also other endings with particular and restricted use as <-ί>, <-εί>, <-ιστί>, etc. For example, <ατιμωρητί> (<atimorití>, "with impunity") and <ασυζητητί> (<asyzitití>, "indisputably"); <αυτολεξεί> (<autolexeí> "word for word") and <αυτοστιγμεί> (<autostigmeí>, "in no time"); <αγγλιστί> [<anglistí> "in English (language)"] and <παπαγαλιστί> (<papagalistí>, "by rote"); etc.
  • In Latvian, an adverb is formed from an adjective, by changing the masculine or feminine adjective endings -s and -a to -i. "Labs," meaning "good," becomes "labi" for "well." Latvian adverbs have a particular use in expressions meaning "to speak" or "to understand" a language. Rather than use the noun meaning "Latvian/English/Russian," the adverb formed form these words is used. "Es runāju latviski/angliski/krieviski" means "I speak Latvian/English/Russian," or very literally "I speak Latvianly/Englishly/Russianly." When a noun is required, the expression used means literally "language of the Latvians/English/Russians," "latviešu/angļu/krievu valoda."
  • In Ukrainian, an adverb is formed by removing the adjectival suffices "-ий" "-а" or "-е" from an adjective, and replacing them with the adverbial "-о." For example, "швидкий," "гарна," and "добре" (fast, nice, good) become "швидко," "гарно," and "добро" (quickly, nicely, well). As well, note that adverbs are placed before the verbs they modify: "Добрий син гарно співає." (A good son sings niceley/well)
  • In Russian adverbs are generally formed in the same manner as Ukrainian.
  • In Korean, adverbs are formed by replacing 다 of the dictionary form of a verb with 게. So, 쉽다 (easy) becomes 쉽게 (easily).
  • In Turkish, the same word usually serves as adjective and adverb: iyi bir kız ("a good girl"), iyi anlamak ("to understand well).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cinque, Guglielmo. Adverbs and functional heads—a crosslinguistic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University press. 1999. ISBN 9780195115277
  • Ernst, Thomas. The Syntax of Adjuncts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002. ISSN 0068-676X
  • Haegeman, Liliane. The Syntax of Negation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995. ISBN 9780521464925
  • Jackendoff, Ray. Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar. MIT Press, 1972. ISBN 9780262100137


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