What Is an Adverb in English Grammar?

Modifying Verbs, Adjectives, or Other Adverbs

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On this label, the word extremely is an adverb that modifies the adjective hot. James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

An adverb is a part of speech (or word class) that's primarily used to modify a verbadjective, or other adverbs and can additionally modify prepositional phrasessubordinate clauses, and complete sentences. Put another way, adverbs are content words that provide information about how, when, or where something happens. Adverbs are also called intensifiers because they intensify the meaning of the word or words they are modifying, notes Your Dictionary.

An adverb that modifies an adjective—as in quite sad—or another adverb—as in very carelessly—appears immediately in front of the word it modifies, but one that modifies a verb is generally more flexible: It may appear before or after—as in softly sang or sang softly—or at the beginning of the sentence—Softly she sang to the baby—with the position of an adverb typically affecting the meaning of the sentence. Adverbs can modify a verb or adjective in several ways, by providing information about emphasis, manner, time, place, and frequency.

Adverbs of Emphasis

Adverbs of emphasis are used to give added force or a greater degree of certainty to another word in a sentence or to the sentence as a whole, for example:

  • He certainly liked the food.
  • She is clearly the frontrunner.
  • Naturally, I like my chicken crispy.

Other common adverbs of emphasis include absolutelydefinitely, obviously, positively, really, simply, and undoubtedly. These types of adverbs serve to bolster the part of speech they modify.

Adverbs of Manner

Adverbs of manner indicate how something is done. They are usually placed at the end of a sentence or before the main verb, as in:

  • Tom drives quickly.
  • She slowly opened the door.
  • Mary waited for him patiently.

Other examples of adverbs of manner include quietly, fitfully, and carefully.

Adverbs of Time

Adverbs of time tell you when or at what time something is done. Adverbs of time are usually placed at the end of a sentence. They can also be used at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma.

  • The meeting is next week
  • Yesterday, we decided to take a walk.
  • I've already bought my tickets for the concert. 

These adverbs are used with other time expressions, such as days of the week. The most common adverbs of time include yet, already, yesterday, tomorrow, next week (or month or year), last week (or month or year), now, and ago.

Adverbs of Place

Adverbs of place indicate where something is done and usually appear at the end of a sentence, but they can also follow the verb.

  • I decided to rest over there.
  • She'll wait for you in the room downstairs.
  • Peter walked above me upstairs

Adverbs of place can be confused with prepositional phrases such as in the doorway or at the shop. Prepositional phrases indicate where something is, but adverbs of place can tell you where something occurs, such as here and everywhere.

Adverbs of Frequency

Adverbs of frequency tell you how often something is repeatedly done. They include usually, sometimes, never, often, and rarely. Adverbs of frequency are often placed directly before the main verb:

  • She rarely goes to parties.
  • I often read a newspaper.
  • He usually gets up at 6 o'clock.

Adverbs of frequency that express infrequency are not used in the negative or question form. Sometimes, adverbs of frequency are placed at the beginning of a sentence:

  • Sometimes, I enjoy staying at home instead of going on vacation.
  • Often, Peter will telephone his mother before he leaves for work.

Adverbs of frequency follow the verb to be:

  • He is sometimes late for work.
  • I am often confused by computers.

Adverbs Modifying Adjectives

When adverbs modify an adjective, they are placed before the adjective:

  • She is extremely happy.
  • They are absolutely sure.

However, do not use very with adjectives to express increased quality of a basic adjective, such as fantastic:

  • She is an absolutely fantastic piano player.
  • Mark is an absolutely amazing lecturer.

You would not say, "She is very fantastic," or "Mark is a very amazing lecturer."

Forming Adverbs From Adjectives

Adverbs are often formed by adding -ly to an adjective, such as:

  • Beautiful > beautifully
  • Careful > carefully

However, some adjectives don't change in the adverb form, such as fast and hard. Many common adverbs like just, still, and almost do not end in -ly. Good is probably the most important example. The adverb form of good is well, as in:

  • He is good at tennis.
  • He plays tennis well.

In the first sentence, good is an adjective that modifies the pronoun he; while in the second, well is an adverb that modifies plays (explains how he plays tennis). Additionally, not all words that end in -ly are adverbs, such as friendly and neighborly, which are both adjectives.

Distinguishing Between Adverbs and Adjectives

Sometimes the same word can be both an adjective and an adverb. To distinguish between them, it is important to look at the context of the word and its function in a sentence. 

For instance, in the sentence, "The fast train from London to Cardiff leaves at 3 o'clock," the word fast modifies and comes before a noun, train, and is, therefore, an attributive adjective. However, in the sentence, "The sprinter took the bend fast," the word fast modifies the verb took and is, therefore, an adverb.

Interestingly, -ly is not the only suffix that can be added to the end of a word to change its meaning or be used by both adjectives and adverbs. Additionally, -er and -est can combine with adverbs in a much more limited way wherein the comparative form of an adverb is likely to add more or most to the beginning of the adverb phrase rather than adding an -er or -est.

It's important to refer to context clues when hints like the addition of an -ly or the word most to accompany a word doesn't tell you whether it is an adjective or adverb. Look to the word that is being emphasized. If the word being emphasized is a noun, you have an adjective; if the word being emphasized is a verb, you have an adverb.