Parts of Speech: Adverbs

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 the 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

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 — as in "Softly she sang to the baby," with position of adverb typically affecting the meaning of the sentence.

Types, Forms and Functions of Adverbs

Adverbs have traditionally been classified according to meaning, with broad categories to encompass a variety of usage.  For example, adverbs of emphasis like certainly, definitely and really serve to bolster the part of speech it modifies while adverbs of frequency and adverbs of time like always, often and seldom emphasize the timing of those verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

Similarly, adverbs of place like here, there and everywhere describe location-based details to words they modify while adverbs of manner like quickly, quietly, and carefully describe the manner in which the action verb is performed.

In most of these cases, and especially for adverbs of manner, adverbs are formed from adjectives by the addition of the ending "-ly" as in easily or dependably, but many common adverbs like just, still, and almost do not end in "-ly". Additionally, not all words that end in "-ly" are adverbs, such is the case with words like friendly and neighborly.

Distinguishing Between Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes the same word can be both an adjective and an adverb. In order 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 three o'clock," the word "fast" modifies a noun, coming before the noun it modifies and is therefore considered 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 enough, "-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."

Again, it's important to refer to context clues when hints like the addition of an "-ly" or the word "most" to a word doesn't quite clue you into whether it is an adjective or adverb. Look to the word that is being emphasized — if it's a noun, it's an adjective, but if it's a verb, it's an adverb.