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22.3: Adverbs

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  • Adverbs


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Adverbs can perform a wide range of functions: they can modify verbs, adjectives, and even other adverbs. They can come either before or after the word they modify. In the following examples, adverbs are in bold, while the words they modify are in italics (the quite handsome man):

    • The desk is made of an especially corrosion-resistant industrial steel.
    • The power company uses huge generators which are generally turned by steam turbines.
    • Jaime won the race, because he ran quickly.
    • This fence was installed sloppily. It needs to be redone.

    An adverb may provide information about the manner, place, time, frequency, certainty, or other circumstances of the activity indicated by the verb. Some examples, where again the adverb is in bold and the words modified are in italics:

    • Suzanne sang loudly (loudly modifies the verb sang, indicating the manner of singing)
    • We left it here (here modifies the verb phrase left it, indicating place)
    • I worked yesterday (yesterday modifies the verb worked, indicating time)
    • You often make mistakes (often modifies the verb phrase make mistakes, indicating frequency)
    • He undoubtedly did it (undoubtedly modifies the verb phrase did it, indicating certainty)

    They can also modify noun phrases, prepositional phrases, or whole clauses or sentences, as in the following examples. Once again the adverbs are in bold, while the words they modify are in italics.

    • I bought only the fruit (only modifies the noun phrase the fruit)
    • Roberto drove us almost to the station (almost modifies the prepositional phrase to the station)
    • Certainly we need to act (certainly modifies the sentence as a whole)

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Identify the adverbs in these paragraphs:

    Mass extinctions are insanely catastrophic—but important—events that punctuate the history of life on Earth. The Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary was originally thought of to represent a mass extinction, but has subsequently been “downgraded” to a minor extinction event based on new discoveries.

    However, compared to other important stratigraphic boundaries, like the end-Triassic or the end-Cretaceous, the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary remains really poorly understood.


    There are five adverbs in the paragraphs:

    insanely; originally; subsequently; really; poorly

    Here the adverbs have been bolded:

    Mass extinctions are insanely catastrophic—but important—events that punctuate the history of life on Earth. The Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary was originally thought of to represent a mass extinction, but has subsequently been “downgraded” to a minor extinction event based on new discoveries.

    However, compared to other important stratigraphic boundaries, like the end-Triassic or the end-Cretaceous, the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary remains really poorly understood.

    Intensifiers and Adverbs of Degree

    Adverbs can also be used as modifiers of adjectives, and of other adverbs, often to indicate degree. Here are a few examples:

    • You are quite right (the adverb quite modifies the adjective right)
    • Milagros is exceptionally pretty (the adverb exceptionally modifies the adjective pretty)
    • She sang very loudly (the adverb very modifies another adverb—loudly)
    • Wow! You ran really quickly! (the adverb really modifies another adverb—quickly)

    Other intensifiers include mildlyprettyslightly, etc.

    This video provides more discussion and examples of intensifiers:

    Adverbs may also undergo comparison, taking comparative and superlative forms. This is usually done by adding more and mostbefore the adverb (more slowly, most slowly). However, there are a few adverbs that take non-standard forms, such as well, for which better and best are used (i.e., “He did well, she did better, and I did best“).

    Relative Adverbs

    Relative adverbs are a subclass of adverbs that deal with space, time, and reason. In this video, David gives a quick intro to the three most common relative adverbs: whenwhere, and why.

    As we just learned, we can use these adverbs to connect ideas about where, when, and why things happen.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Read the following questions and turn them into statements using relative adverbs:

    1. Where did Nina last see her keys?
    2. When are the repairmen going to get here?
    3. Why did the desk just collapse?
    1. I don’t know where Nina last saw her keys.
    2. I don’t know when the repairmen are going to get here.
    3. I don’t know why the desk just collapsed.

    Common Mistakes


    Have you ever noticed the effect the word only can have on a sentence, especially depending on where it’s placed? Let’s look at a simple sentence:

    She loves horses.

    Let’s see how only can influence the meaning of this sentence:

    • Only she loves horses.
      • No one loves horses but her.
    • She only loves horses.
      • The one thing she does is love horses.
    • She loves only horses.
      • She loves horses and nothing else.

    Only modifies the word that directly follows it. Whenever you use the word only make sure you’ve placed it correctly in your sentence.


    A linguistic phenomenon is sweeping the nation: people are using literally as an intensifier. How many times have you heard things like “It was literally the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” or “His head literally exploded when I told him I was going to be late again”?

    So what’s the problem with this? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the actual definition of literal is as follows:

    • involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word
    • giving the meaning of each individual word
    • completely true and accurate : not exaggerated[1]

    According to this definition, literally should be used only when something actually happened. Our cultural usage may be slowly shifting to allow literally as an intensifier, but it’s best to avoid using literally in any way other than its dictionary definition, especially in formal writing.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Identify and correct any errors in adverb usage in each sentence.

    1. Presilah literally died when she heard the news.
    2. Teddy is literally the best person on the planet.
    3. Daveed often takes things too literally.
    4. A pirate only sails the seas.
    5. In their vows, they promised to love only each other.
    1. This sentence is incorrect (hopefully). Try replacing literally with practically or nearly.
    • Presilah practically died when she heard the news.
    • Presilah nearly died when she heard the news.
    1. This sentence may or may not be true; it’s something that would be very hard to verify. When you’re being purposefully hyperbolic, this may be okay in a non-formal setting, but you may want to consider replacing literally with an intensifier like actually or omitting the adverb altogether, since literally has such a stigma around it.
    • Teddy is actually the best person on the planet.
    • Teddy is the best person on the planet.
    1. This sentence is correct.
    2. This sentence is probably not true. It implies that a pirate sails the seas, and does nothing else. It may be an acceptable sentence if you’re exaggerating on purpose, but a more likely sentence would be “A pirate sails only the seas.” (A pirate sails the seas, and nowhere else.)
    3. This sentence is correct.


    1. "Literal." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 20 June 2016. 
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