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Obviously: A Guide to Adverbs

What is the purpose of an adverb? Traditionally, adverbs are used as modifiers, which means that they help to clarify or deepen the meaning of a sentence by modifying verbs, adjectives and even other adverbs. Adverbs help us answer questions about why, when, how or where a particular event or condition occurred. While many people believe that adverbs are essentially words that end in the suffix ‘-ly,’ this is not the best way to classify them. Some adverbs, such as “quite” in the example below, do not end this way. Confusingly, some adjectives like “lonely” end in “-ly.” Therefore, the best way to distinguish adverbs is to determine what questions they answer. The following examples illustrate basic adverb uses on a verb, adjective and another adverb:

  1. He read quickly. (How did he read?)
  2. He read an extremely thick book. (How thick was the book he read?)
  3. flipped quite rapidly through the book. (How rapidly did he flip through the book?)

In addition to traditional adverbs, there are also “adverbial phrases.” These phrases may not contain actual adverbs, but they serve the function of an adverb in that they answer the where, when, how or why of a particular sentence. Technically, an adverbial phrase is any group of words without a subject and verb that acts as an adverb. Consider the following prepositional phrases that act as adverbial phrases:

  1. She biked to the river. (Where did she bike?)
  2. He sang off key. (How did he sing?)
  3. She flew into a blizzard. (Where did she fly?)

Adverbs are one of the most flexible parts of speech in terms of their placement within a sentence. However, there are some instances where an adverb or an adverbial phrase can be inappropriately placed. Consider the following two examples:

  1. The plant only grew to be 2 inches tall.

    This is awkward. A better order would be “The plant grew to be only 2 inches tall.”

  2. They showed that the race car driver was injured on the 11’o’clock news.

    This construction implies that the race driver suffered some kind of accident in the television studio, not while driving his car. The adverbial phrase should be moved so that it comes after “they showed” in order to clarify the meaning of the sentence.

Adverbs can also be used to create lists, add a tone to an entire sentence, or join two seemingly separate thoughts. These types of adverbs are known as disjuncts and conjuncts.

First, you need to mix the batter. (Disjunct.)
Obviously, grammar is a nuanced field of study. (Disjunct.)
I enjoy reading 19th century literature; however, my eyes have grown quite tired. (Conjunct.)

These unusual forms should be used sparingly. Numbered lists can quickly grow tiresome. Likewise, conjuncts can become overwhelming to the reader.

Finally, adverbs are frequently used as “intensifiers.” They can amplify, emphasize, or bring down the tone of a sentence. Consider these examples:
  1. I really don’t enjoy pilates. (Emphasizer)
  2. I sort of want to take a nap. (Lowered Tone)
  3. I emphatically deny the allegations. (Amplifier)
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