Adverb(ial) Phrases in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Exhibit showing the Cheshire cat sitting in a tree.

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An adverb phrase or adverbial phrase is a multi-word expression driven by an adverb. The adverbs within an adverb phrase may be accompanied by modifiers and qualifiers. Adverbial phrases show when, where, how, and why something happened.

An adverb phrase can add meaning to verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and even entire sentences or main clauses, depending on their position and role. The adverb does not need to be the first item in this type of expression, but it can be. As you will see, adverbs can appear in a number of different places in a sentence.

Positioning Adverb Phrases

The flexibility of adverb phrases, while making them helpful and versatile, can also make them difficult to position. Grammar: A Student's Guide explains the different placements of these devices. "Like adverbs, adverb phrases can cause confusion because there is some flexibility in where they occur within sentences, and even in modifying the sentence structure. As well, adverb phrases are sometimes embedded in other phrases. Examples are:

  • Laura, a better, gentler, more beautiful Laura, whom everybody, everybody loved dearly and tenderly.
  • He had taken her hand sympathizingly, forgivingly, but his silence made me curious.
  • David, on the lowest step, was very evidently not hearing a word of what was being said.

Our first example identifies an adverb phrase following the verb loved; the next example shows an adverb phrase following the noun hand and removed from the verb it modifies; the third example has an adverb phrase embedded into a verb phrase was...hearing. Such flexibility makes it more difficult to identify these phrases; therefore, noting the head adverb can be of help," (Hurford 1995).

When choosing the placement of an adverbial phrase, simply decide which part of your sentence you intend for it modify and position it either before or after that—use personal preference to decide which is best.

Adverbial Phrases Without Adverbs

Adverbial phrases can occur in the same range of positions as single adverbs, hence their name. This is because they are simply adverbs with extra pieces. However, there are adverbial phrases that do not contain adverbs at all. Such adverb-less adverbial phrases are typically prepositional phrases, like the examples below. These are also from James R. Hurford's Grammar: A Student's Guide.

  • "On Friday night, I'm playing squash.
  • Their marriage broke up in the most painful way.
  • May I, on behalf of the shareholders, congratulate you?" (Hurford 1995).

Examples of Adverbial Phrases

Here are several examples of adverbial phrases to help you practice using them. Take note of which ones contain adverbs and which do not, what sentence part each adverbial phrase gives meaning to, and what question each phrase answers (who? when? where? or how?).

  • The players responded surprisingly well to all the pressures of the playoffs.
  • As quickly as possible, we cleaned the fish and placed them in coolers.
  • The air was warm, stirred only occasionally by a breeze.
  • Snow fell much earlier than usual.
  • My daughter's choice of driving music is, surprisingly enough, classic rock.
  • " ... and this time [the Cheshire Cat] vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone," (Carroll 1865).
  • "If youth be a defect, it is one that we outgrow only too soon." -James Russell Lowell
  • "Bernie watched Jim's face for a reaction. Surprisingly enough, he grinned," (Barton 2006).

Sources

  • Barton, Beverly. Close Enough to Kill. Zebra Publishing, 2006.
  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Macmillan Publishers, 1865.
  • Hurford, James R. Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • O'Dwyer, Bernard. Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position. 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2006.