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This article is part of the grammar course.

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Adverbs are one of the basic word classes. They are not used as frequently as the other semantic words (those that carry meaning); indeed some writers will tell you to avoid adverbs as often as possible.

  • In Primary School, you may have heard adverbs called "describing words", like adjectives. Adverbs were used to describe verbs, where adjectives describe nouns. (Note the etymology: adverb.)
  • In Secondary School, adverbs were "words used to modify a verb". (Modify = say more about the way in which a verb is 'done', or carried out, or 'happens'). At this stage, you may also have been taught that an adjective qualifies a noun. ('Qualify' here means "To express some quality belonging to (a noun)" (OED)

In more modern grammar, word classes are defined as much by the grammatical contexts in which they are found. Adverbs are used in several ways:

  • Adverbs can be used with verbs, to tell more about the manner, time or place in which the verb is done ('modify' the verb, in the jargon). Examples: "Later, it became dark"; "She slapped him cruelly"; "he hit her hard"; "the car went quickly"; "then he kissed her"; "it was here"; "I'll do it tomorrow"; "the dog ran forward, fast"; "he thought carefully"; etc.
  • Adverbs can also be used with sentences. Here, their meaning is not limited to modifying the meanings of the verb. Instead, they have an effect on how we understand the whole sentence. Examples include (as well as 'Instead' above): "Importantly, we should consider..."; "However, it was not to be"; "Therefore we must reconsider our decision"; "Consequently the Government lost the argument". (Some times it can be hard to separate a sentence adverb from an ordinary (or verbal) adverb. This distinction is not important in many cases.)
  • Adverbs are also used to modify adjectives and indeed other adverbs - such words as 'very', 'quite' and 'extremely', etc. are classed as adverbs. These are sometimes called intensifiers.

Many adverbs used with verbs - but not all - end in -ly. This is a way of forming adverbs out of adjectives. Compare "He drew a rough picture" (adjective) with "He drew a picture roughly" (adverb).)

Like adjectives, adverbs can be inflected - that is, they can change their shape, particularly the ending, for different grammatical usages. In the case of adverbs, the inflection is for comparison. In English, adverbs (and adjectives) have three degrees of comparison: the positive, for example far; the comparative (farther, sometimes spelled and pronounced further); and the superlative (farthest or furthest).