An adverb is a word that modifies (describes) a verb (“he sings loudly”), an adjective (“very tall”), another adverb (“ended too quickly”), or even a whole sentence (“Fortunately, I had brought an umbrella.”). Adverbs often end in -ly, but some (such as fast) look exactly the same as their adjective counterparts.
It’s easy to identify the adverbs in these sentences.
Adverbs are easy to recognize because they usually end in –ly, but not always. Some of the most common adverb examples include:
- really, very
- well, badly
- today, yesterday, everyday, etc.
- sometimes, often, rarely, etc.
- early, late, soon, etc.
- here, there, everywhere, etc.
Adverbs and verbs
Adverbs often modify verbs. This means that they describe the way an action is happening.
The adverb in each of the sentences above answers the question In what manner? How does Huan sing? Loudly. How does my cat wait? Impatiently. How will I consider your suggestion? Seriously. Adverbs can answer other types of questions about how an action was performed. They can also tell you when (“we arrived early”), where (“turn here”), or with what frequency (“I go there often”).
However, there is one type of verb that doesn’t mix well with adverbs. Linking verbs, such as feel, smell, sound, seem, and appear, typically precede adjectives, not adverbs. A very common example of the type of mixup that happens with linking verbs is the following:
Because feel is a verb, it seems to call for an adverb rather than an adjective. But feel isn’t just any verb; it’s a linking verb, which means that it links the subject of a sentence to the modifier that follows it. Since a subject is, by definition, a noun (or a pronoun), it is modified by an adjective. An adverb would describe how you perform the action of feeling—an adjective describes what you feel. “Paz feels badly” means that Paz is bad at feeling things. If Paz is trying to read Braille through thick leather gloves, then it might make sense for you to say “Paz feels badly.” But if you’re trying to say that Paz is experiencing negative emotions, “Paz feels bad” is the phrase you want.
Adverbs and adjectives
Adverbs can also modify adjectives. An adverb modifying an adjective generally adds a degree of intensity or some other kind of qualification to the adjective.
Adverbs and other adverbs
You can use an adverb to describe another adverb. In the following sentence, the adverb almost is modifying the adverb always (and they’re both modifying the adjective right):
In fact, if you wanted to, you could use several adverbs to modify another adverb.
However, that often produces weak and clunky sentences like the one above, so be careful not to overdo it.
Adverbs and sentences
Some adverbs can modify entire sentences—unsurprisingly, these are called sentence adverbs. Common ones include generally, fortunately, interestingly, and accordingly. Sentence adverbs don’t describe one particular thing in the sentence—instead, they describe a general feeling about all of the information in the sentence.
At one time, the use of the word hopefully as a sentence adverb (e.g., “Hopefully, I’ll get this job”) was condemned. People continued to use it, though, and many style guides and dictionaries now accept it. That said, there are still plenty of readers out there who hate it, so it’s a good idea to avoid using it in formal writing.
Degrees of comparison
Like adjectives, many adverbs can show degrees of comparison, although it’s slightly less common to use them this way. With certain flat adverbs (adverbs that look exactly the same as their adjective counterparts), the comparative and superlative forms look the same as the adjective comparative and superlative forms. It’s usually better to use stronger, more precise adverbs (or stronger, more precise adjectives and verbs) than to rely on comparative and superlative adverbs.
An absolute or positive adverb describes something in its own right:
To make the comparative form of an adverb that ends in -ly, add the word more:
To make the superlative form of an adverb that ends in -ly, add the word most:
Placement of adverbs
In general, adverbs should be placed as close as possible to the words they are intended to modify. Putting the adverb in the wrong spot can produce an awkward sentence at best and completely change the meaning at worst. Consider the difference in meaning between the following two sentences:
The first sentence is correct if it’s meant to communicate that you very nearly dropped the papers but managed to hold on to them—the adverb almost comes right before the verb dropped, so it’s most naturally understood as modifying dropped. In the second sentence, almost has moved to modify the adjective all, communicating that you did drop most of the papers.
Be especially careful about the word only, which can be an adverb, an adjective, or a conjunction and is one of the most often misplaced modifiers. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
The first sentence means that all Phillip did was feed the cat. He didn’t pet the cat or pick it up or anything else. The second sentence means that Phillip fed the cat, but he didn’t feed the dog, the bird, or anyone else who might have been around.
When an adverb is modifying a verb phrase, the most natural place for it is usually the middle of the phrase.
When to avoid adverbs
Ernest Hemingway is often held up as an example of a great writer who detested adverbs and advised other writers to avoid them. In reality, it’s impossible and unnecessary to avoid adverbs altogether. Sometimes we need them, and all writers (even Hemingway) use them occasionally.
The trick is to avoid superfluous adverbs. When your verb or adjective doesn’t seem powerful or precise enough, instead of reaching for an adverb to add more color, try reaching for a stronger verb or adjective instead. For example, the following two sentences are both grammatically correct and mean the same thing, but you’ll probably agree that the second, in which the verb wrested does all the work that the adverbs forcefully and away are doing in the first, packs more of a punch.
If you find yourself piling on the adverbs, many times you cancome up with a better word, and your writing will be stronger for it.