A Word, Please: An adverb lesson not for the faint of heart

Count the adverbs in the following sentence: Therefore, we should wait outside awhile because the very lovely and kindly family will be there soon to tell us fast whether everyone is well.

Would it surprise you to learn there are seven adverbs in that sentence? Would you be even more surprised to learn that neither lovely, family, kindly, nor well is among them?

We all learned about adverbs in school. Everyone knows they’re those -ly words that modify actions — quickly, slowly, sweetly, bitterly, and on and on. And if we didn’t get the message in a classroom, a lot of us had “Schoolhouse Rock” to reinforce it. Yet for reasons I’ll never understand, no one tells us — or most of us, at least — that the adverb story doesn’t end there.

Adverbs have several jobs.

The ones that modify actions are sometimes call manner adverbs because they describe the manner in which an action takes place. “He talks quickly.” In this job, they often, but not always, end in -ly. In “He talks fast,” fast is an adverb that does the same job as quickly, just without the tail.

Adverbs also modify adjectives. In “That is really beautiful,” the adverb really modifies the adjective beautiful. Adverbs can modify other adverbs. In “She sings very beautifully,” the adverb beautifully modifies the verb sings, and very modifies beautifully.

Adverbs also modify whole sentences or thoughts.

Frankly, I don’t care. Luckily, there is more pie. Ultimately, we will win. Hopefully, I left my wallet at the office.

Most people can identify the first word of each of those sentences as an adverb, even if they never thought about how those words can modify whole sentences.

But the same people might be hard pressed to identify the adverbs in these sentences: Therefore, I don’t care. However, there is more pie. Indeed, we will have to reconsider. Instead, I left my wallet at the office.

Therefore, however, indeed and instead are all adverbs, sometimes called conjunctive adverbs when they can serve as connective tissue between two sentences.

But that’s still just part of what adverbs do in English. They also answer the questions when? and where? And this, I would argue, is the adverb function that people are least familiar with.

I will see you tomorrow. He found his keys outside. Come back soon. Stay awhile. You can leave your coat there.

In each of these sentences, the final word answers the question when? or where? (though admittedly that explanation seems flimsy for “awhile”). Look any of these words up in the dictionary and you’ll see that they are categorized as adverbs when they work this way in a sentence, even though they may have other jobs, too.

But notice this little twist: In “I will see you tomorrow” and “Come back soon,” you can replace either adverb with, say, Tuesday even though Tuesday is listed in the dictionary as a noun and not an adverb. How is that possible? Because adverbs aren’t the only parts of speech that can function adverbially. Any word that answers the question when? or where? is functioning adverbially.

So in “I will see you Tuesday,” the word Tuesday is an adverb, even though lexicographers usually classify it as a noun.

So, as we have seen, therefore, outside, awhile, very, there, soon and fast are the seven adverbs in our example sentence. And in case you’re wondering about “well,” it’s not an adverb. Not in this sentence, anyway.

Well is only an adverb when it modifies a verb. (Joe sings well.) When it modifies a noun or pronoun (Joe is well), it’s a different word meaning “in good health” that just happens to be an adjective.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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