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What is an Adverb?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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An adverb is a modifying part of speech, targeting anything other than a noun. Not all languages use adverbs to accomplish this, as the role may be filled by other parts of speech, but English uses them widely. In English, many of these words end with the -ly suffix, usually with an adjective as the root word, as in quickly or obtrusively. This does not always hold true, however, as an adverb does not always use the -ly ending and some words that are not adverbs do end with it — smelly and ally are two examples of exceptions. Adverbs are also often formed by taking a noun and adding the -ways or -wise suffix to it, as in sideways and contrariwise.

An adverb is often thought of as modifying a verb, both because this is easiest to remember — due to the name — and because it is the role most often filled by this part of speech. It is important to note, however, that it may also serve to modify other adverbs, adjectives, and entire clauses or phrases. Usually, it serves the purpose of telling when something happened, where it happened, how it happened, how often it happened, or the manner in which it happened. Words or phrases that answer one of these questions are often said to fulfill the adverbial function, whether or not they are truly adverbs.

The following sentence can provide an example:

  • The bicyclist quickly rode down the hill to the finish line. The adverb quickly is being used to answer the question, In what way did the bicyclist ride down the hill?

There are four main roles an adverb may take on: as adjective, adverb, verb, or phrasal modifier. Here are more examples:

  • The woman laughed heartily.

    The adverb heartily is modifying the verb laughed.

  • The gun was barely concealed.

    Barely is modifying the adjective concealed.

  • His partner told him he should walk more cautiously in the future.

    The adverb more is modifying another adverb, cautiously, which in turn is modifying the verb walk.

  • Sadly, he never listened to her advice.

    Sadly modifies the entire sentence that follows.

There is another use of the adverb, filled by a special set of words known as conjunctive adverbs. These words help to join two clauses in a sentence. Common examples include still, meanwhile, then, finally, also, and however. One can usually identify a conjunctive adverb by its use immediately after a semi-colon as a way of joining the two clauses. Here is an example of a sentence using a conjunctive adverb to join two discrete elements:

It seemed as though time had stopped in anticipation; finally, in a sudden flurry, the storm came.

In modern grammar, there is some discussion of the adverb as a less discrete part of speech than has traditionally been taught. It has been pointed out that these words seem to serve such a wide range of functions that lumping them all together may be somewhat misleading. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that they add an enormous amount to the English language.

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Discussion Comments
By anon144318 — On Jan 19, 2011

Thanks! i am an 11 year old student and this helped me a lot!

By anon135537 — On Dec 19, 2010

Can adverbs have a comparative or superlative?

By anon95616 — On Jul 13, 2010

Adverbs are easy. i learned them in the fourth grade. I'm just trying to prove a point to my high school brother. -Kris101

By anon91376 — On Jun 21, 2010

I still don't get it. Can someone give me examples?

By anon83872 — On May 12, 2010

it helps me in my english!

By anon78322 — On Apr 18, 2010

that helped me a lot!

By anon67393 — On Feb 24, 2010

this really helped me a lot.

By anon47540 — On Oct 05, 2009

this is an awesome article!

By anon46343 — On Sep 24, 2009

I need a list of adverbs with the endings ible and able combined with ly. terribly, comfortably, possibly, and so on. please help! ASAP! I need them before tomorrow. -Riley (the girl version, lol)

By anon37974 — On Jul 23, 2009

my teacher is asking me about those kinds of adverb, what are those?

By brendan — On Mar 14, 2008

hi anon,

that's a good question, and i should have listed some in the article itself. this is by no means a comprehensive list, but gives an idea of some common ones. you'll notice the majority are adjectives, and a few are just derived adjective (year-ly, week-ly, etc.) there are quite a few nouns as well, but those are usually quite obviously not adverbs.

so, here's a partial list: ally, anomaly, apply, assembly, belly, bely, bodily, bubbly, bully, burly, chilly, comely, comply, costly, courtly, cuddly, curly, daily, dally, dastardly, deadly, deathly, disorderly, doily, dolly, dragonfly, early, family, fly, friendly, frilly, ghastly, goodly, gravelly, grisly, gully, heavenly, hilly, holly, holy, homely, homily, hourly, imply, jelly, jolly, kindly, leisurely, likely, lily, lively, lonely, lovely, lowly, mannerly, mealy, measly, melancholy, monopoly, monthly, multiply, nightly, oily, only, orderly, pearly, pebbly, ply, rally, rarely, rely, reply, scaly, shapely, sickly, silly, sly, smelly, sprightly, squiggly, stately, steely, supply, supply, surly, tally, timely, ugly, unlikely, weekly, wily, wobbly, wooly, worldly, wrinkly, yearly

By anon9763 — On Mar 13, 2008

Give me words that end in -ly but not an adverb

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