A Word, Please: The little part of speech that could

It’s always fun to dip into the mailbag. But it’s even more fun when someone writes to ask about a topic I was brushing up on that same day.

I’m speaking, of course, of adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts.

OK, no one really asked about those. But I did get a question about “hopefully” that fit right in to my self-refresher course.

Reader Richard wrote to say he prefers “I hope that” to “hopefully.” The reason, as he put it: “Hopefully, the train will arrive on time” makes him think of “the brave Little Engine that Could pulling into the station filled with hope.”

This thinking applies to “thankfully,” as well: “Thankfully, the souffle didn't collapse” calls to mind “the sincerely grateful puffed creation.”

And if that’s true, “I’m thankful that” is a much better choice than “thankfully.”

So are these assessments right?

We’re all taught that adverbs modify verbs. In “She runs quickly,” the adverb describes the manner in which the running takes place. In “He talks slowly” the adverb describes the manner in which the talking takes place.

It’s just logical then that “hopefully” modifies the train’s arrival: It arrives in a hopeful manner, its little engine bursting with hope. Right?

If adverbs were that simple, this would be true. But in fact, adverbs, in particular, and adverbials, in general, do a lot more than just describe how people and things perform actions.

They can cast commentary on whole sentences. They even reach beyond the sentence they’re in to create connections with other sentences.

Respectively, these jobs are called adjuncts, disjuncts and conjuncts.

Adjuncts are the ones you know best: modifiers that work within the sentence, usually describing an action. “The train will arrive quickly.” “She dresses very professionally.” “He eats sloppily.”

They can also describe other adverbs, the way “very” does in “He eats very sloppily,” or adjectives: He is very sloppy.

Disjuncts and conjuncts, on the other hand, are sentence adverbs.

Disjuncts provide commentary or other overview information about the whole sentence or clause.

Conjuncts join clauses or sentences. Here are some examples of conjuncts, also known as conjunctive adverbs.

Additionally, there will be soft drinks.

Consequently, the roof caved in.

Secondly, I told you to park in back.

Disjuncts express the speaker’s thoughts on the information in the clause, speaking to its truthfulness, its importance or other overview information.

Frankly, I don’t give a darn.

Absolutely, he should be indicted.

Truly, this is a great sandwich.

These groups aren’t mutually exclusive. If you open a gift in a hopeful manner, praying the box contains gold bullion, you do so hopefully.

But if you hope the box doesn’t contain a fruitcake, you can say, “Hopefully, there’s no fruitcake in this box.”

It’s worth noting, too, that adverb and adverbial are two different things. One’s a word class, the other is a function.

The word class known as adverbs contains more than just those manner adverbs such as “quickly” and “professionally.” It includes a whole range of words that answer the questions “when” and “where.”

For example, “soon” is an adverb in “I’ll see you soon.” “There” is an adverb in “Put it there.” A quick check of a dictionary will confirm that they can be adverbs.

As for adverbials, compare these two sentences. “Consequently, the roof caved in.” “As a consequence, the roof caved in.”

Note that “consequently” and “as a consequence” are doing the same job. They’re both adverbials, even though only one is a member of the word class known as adverbs.

So adverbs do a lot more than just modify actions. Hopefully, I’ve made that clear.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at

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