Definition and Examples of Sentence Adverbs in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sentence adverb
David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. (Guardian Books, 2010). (Getty Images)

In English grammar, a sentence adverb is a word that modifies a whole sentence or clause within a sentence. A sentence adverb is also known as a sentence adverbial or a disjunct.

Common sentence adverbs include actually, apparently, basically, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, however, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, and wisely.

Examples of Sentence Adverbs

To get an understanding of where and how sentence adverbials are used, read through this list of examples.

  • "Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today." -Mark Twain
  • "Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party. Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away. Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded. Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane," (Charlip 1993).
  • "It rarely adds anything to say, 'In my opinion'—not even modesty. Naturally, a sentence is only your opinion; and you are not the Pope," (Goodman 1966).
  • "Basically my wife was immature. I'd be at home in the bath and she'd come in and sink my boats." -Woody Allen
  • "Normally, I should've felt like doing what Jimmy Durante did after every successful performance: Run to the nearest phone booth, put in a nickel, dial the letters G—O—D, say 'Thanks!' and hang up," (Capra 1971).
  • "They're plainly both skilled at concealing their real selves from the world, and they've presumably managed to keep their respective secrets from each other," (Frayn 2009).
  • "In the U.S., it isn't mandatory for bottled water manufacturers—unlike water utilities—to report violations of water quality or check for such things as E.coli. Thankfully, even if the chutzpah is hard to swallow, 40% of American bottled water comes from the municipal tapwater supply anyway," (George 2014).
  • "Hopefully the boy didn't get a good look at him. And hopefully he didn't see the mosquitoes circling Mark's head or fingers as he walked away," (Weissman 2009).

Commonly Used Sentence Adverbs

There are a handful of sentence adverbs that appear much more frequently in speech and writing than others, and some are more than a little controversial in the linguistic community.

Hopefully

Writer Constance Hale addresses the disagreement among grammarians about whether the common sentence adverb hopefully should really be considered a sentence adverb. "Innocent though they may seem, sentence adverbs can stir wild passions in grammarians. By far the likeliest to raise hackles is hopefully, which can modify verbs ('"It's my birthday, you're flush, and I'm hungry," she hinted hopefully'; hopefully tells how she said it, in a hopeful manner.)

But everyone seems to prefer hopefully as a sentence adverb ('Hopefully, you'll get the hint and take me out to dinner'). Some traditionalists disparage the vogue for hopefully as a sentence adverb, calling it 'one of the ugliest changes in grammar in the twentieth century.' Others see in the demise of 'I hope that' a thoroughly modern failure to take responsibility, and even worse, a contemporary spiritual crise, in which we have ceded even our ability to hope. Grammarians, get a grip. Hopefully as a sentence adverb is here to stay," (Hale 2013).

Surely and Truly

Another source of frustration for linguists is the word surely and its cousin, truly. Ammon Shea writes: "The word surely often functions in much the same way that the disputed form of hopefully does. If one writes 'Surely you are joking' the intended meaning is not 'you are telling a joke in a manner that is sure.' This use of surely, used to qualify a statement rather than a verb, has been in use since the late fourteenth century. Truly, in the sense of emphasizing a statement ('Truly, I had no idea she was your mother'), has a similar lineage, appearing in English with regularity since the late thirteenth century," (Shea 2015).

Also and As Well in Canadian English

Some sentence adverbs are only used "problematically" in select varieties of English, such as the use of also to begin a sentence in Canadian English. "Only in Canadian English ... are also and as well frequently used at the beginning of sentences as connecting adverbs to introduce the whole sentence as an additional point:

  • As well, they will be responsible for emergency care.
  • Also, a firm may establish a probationary period.

In British and American English, as well is so seldom used in this way that it has escaped the attention of commentators," point out Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine. "Also and as well are well-established connecting adverbs in every variety of Canadian writing, and Canadians who are writing for a Canadian audience need not have any qualms about using them. Canadians writing for an international audience may (or may not) want to substitute sentence adverbs with wider international acceptance, such as in addition or furthermore," (Fee and McAlpine 2011).

Actually

Finally, there is actually, a thorn in the side of any English speaker with a good vocabulary. "The single most abused and annoying sentence adverb is actually. ... The degeneration of actually is signaled by a Doonesbury cartoon in which a Hollywood mogul, Mr. Kibbitz, instructs his young associate: 'Listen, Jason, if you're going to make it in this town, you have to start using the word "actually." A Hollywood assistant always says, "Actually, he's in a meeting," or, "He's actually at lunch." "Actually" means "I'm not lying to you,"" writes Ben Yagoda (Yagoda 2007).

Sentence Adverbs in Humor

Irritating as they may be to some, sentence adverbs have their place in language; here is an example from comedy.

George: Now she thinks I'm one of these guys that loves her. Nobody wants to be with somebody that loves them.

Jerry: No, people hate that.

George: You want to be with somebody that doesn't like you.

Jerry: Ideally, (Alexander and Seinfeld, "The Face Painter").

Sources

  • Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. 1st ed., Macmillan Company, 1971.
  • Charlip, Remy. Fortunately. Aladdin, 1993.
  • Fee, Margery, and Janice McAlpine. Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Frayn, Michael. Spies. Faber & Faber, 2009.
  • George, Rose. "No Bottle." London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 24, 18 Dec. 2014.
  • Goodman, Paul. Five Years. 1st ed., Brussel & Brussel, 1966.
  • Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Three Rivers Press, 2013.
  • Shea, Ammon. Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. TarcherPerigee, 2015.
  • “The Face Painter.” Ackerman, Andy, director. Seinfeld, season 6, episode 22, 11 May 1995.
  • Weissman, Elissa Brent. The Trouble With Mark Hopper. Dutton Juvenile, 2009.
  • Yagoda, Ben. When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse. Broadway Books, 2007.