Newton's cradle in mid swing

Adverb Types and Purposes

As we know, adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. The definition makes adverbs seem simple enough, but sometimes they can be tricky to identify nonetheless. Adverbs can describe many things and serve many different functions that we might overlook. Sometimes even common words we see every day are surprisingly difficult to categorize. Let’s look at the different types of adverbs and the information they provide. It will be helpful to remember that adverbs provide information regarding how, how often, when, where, and to what degree something is so.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Conjunctive adverbs are adverbs used to connect independent clauses. The conjunctive adverb used also indicates the nature of the two clauses’ relationship to one another. Conjunctive adverbs typically appear at the beginning of the second independent clause, which is connected to the first by a colon or semicolon. They may also be used somewhere in the middle of the second clause, often set apart by commas, or at the beginning of a separate sentence to relate it to the previous sentence.

Allen hates math; consequently, he refuses to try very hard in math class.

The conjunctive adverb consequently here connects two independent clauses joined by a semicolon. In cases like this one, conjunctive adverbs are often thought of more like conjunctions than adverbs. When functioning this way, one common view says that conjunctive adverbs do not modify words; but rather connect ideas and denote the nature of their relationship. However, this view is debatable according to the same logic applied to evaluative adverbs, which we’ll see below.

Allen hates math; he consequently refuses to try very hard in math class.

This time consequently is placed before the verb refuses. In this position, the conjunctive adverb still shows the relationship between the two clauses, and it also clearly modifies the verb refuses like a normal adverb. Because of this phenomenon, it would be more logical to say that, although conjunctive adverbs serve a second role as conjunctions, they are still adverbs modifying only one word in the clause. Therefore, in the previous example, consequently is still modifying refuses even though it is placed differently.

The weather is terrible today. Therefore, we have to cancel our picnic.

Conjunctive adverbs are also often used to relate two separate sentences in the same ways they might relate two independent clauses joined by a colon or semicolon.

Adverbs of Degree

Adverbs may be used to show the degree to which something is so.

Doug is absolutely certain that he left his phone in the kitchen.

In this example we might ask, “To what extent is Doug certain?” or “How certain is Doug?” The adverb absolutely tells us to what degree Doug is certain or the extent of Doug’s certainty.

That dog is pretty ugly.

This is another very common adverb. In this use, pretty does not mean attractive but rather has the same meaning as quite. How ugly is the dog? To what extent is the dog ugly? It is pretty ugly.

Evaluative Adverbs

Evaluative adverbs are used to comment on an action or to show an opinion, attitude, or judgment. Evaluative adverbs may be set apart at the beginning or, occasionally, the end of a sentence, or they may appear in the middle of the sentence.

Clearly, my hard work is unappreciated.

When set apart at the beginning or end of a sentence in this way, evaluative adverbs are sometimes said to modify the entire clause rather than one word, similarly to the way we might think of conjunctive adverbs in this position. In this view, clearly could stand to be a sort of abbreviation of an entire clause, which would make our complete sentence look something more like, “It is clear that my hard work is unappreciated.” However, this logic is quite debatable, as we’ll see in the next example.

My hard work is clearly unappreciated.

Moving the adverb to a different place in the sentence shows that it can also function as any other normal adverb to modify one word, in this case the adjective unappreciated. The sentence maintains the same meaning either way, and, as evaluative adverbs do not serve a special purpose like conjunctive adverbs do, it seems quite unnecessary to treat them differently. By definition, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. It is arguable that there is no need to muddy the water and throw logic and the proper definition of an adverb out the window just because we move the adverb to a different place in the sentence.

Unfortunately, Tim fractured his wrist last week and withdrew from the tournament.

Here we have another evaluative adverb set off by a comma at the beginning of the sentence, and this time there are two verbs in the sentence it could be modifying: fractured and withdrew. Rather than abandoning the correct definition of an adverb and trying to say that unfortunately modifies the entire sentence, it would be more logical to say that unfortunately modifies the actions that follow it. Placing the adverb at the beginning in this way indicates that all actions indicated in the sentence are meant to be interpreted as unfortunate. The sentence is saying that it is unfortunate that Tim fractured his wrist, and it is also saying that it is unfortunate that he had to withdraw from the tournament. By definition, an adverb does not modify an entire clause. It modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb. It is then much more logical to say that an adverb like the one in this example modifies the verbs that follow it than to contradict the very definition of an adverb by trying to make it apply to an entire clause.

Adverbs of Focus

These adverbs serve to expand or limit the focus of attention by adding or limiting information or possibility.

We just stayed home yesterday.

The adverb just means “only” or “simply.” In this example we understand that it means we did not go anywhere yesterday. We were only at home and nowhere else.

John mostly watches soccer.

The adverb mostly adds some limitation to our idea of what John watches. It allows other possibilities but indicates that he primarily watches soccer.

Adverbs of Frequency

Adverbs of frequency tell us how frequently or how often something is so.

Janette usually wakes up at 6:30.

To test this adverb, we might ask, “How often does Janette wake up at 6:30?”

Tanner goes to class every day.

Every day is a little tricky because it is an adverbial phrase. This phrase often causes confusion if we try to think of the words separately, but as a phrase every day functions as an adverb, here modifying goes to tell us how often Tanner goes to class.

Adverbs of Manner

Adverbs can also be used to describe the manner in which something is done or the way something happens.

Gertrude sang beautifully.

We might ask something like, “How did Gertrude sing?” or “In what manner did Gertrude sing?” to arrive at the conclusion that she sang beautifully.

The new salesman performed perfectly last quarter.

Again, we could ask how or in what way the salesman performed to conclude that he performed in a perfect manner.

Negative Adverbs

As the name implies, negative adverbs serve to make verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or the entire clause negative.

I do not want any cake.

The adverb not modifies the verb want to make the sentence negative.

You may go no farther.

Here no serves as an adverb to modify its fellow adverb farther to indicate that the subject may not go any farther.

Heather seldom passed her tests.

Some adverbs that do not necessarily negate an action or quality are also sometimes considered negative because of their negative connotations or because they indicate that something does not typically happen.

Adverbs of Place

Adverbs also serve to tell us where something is the case. Adverbs describing anything related to location, including direction, distance, or placement, all fit into the category of place.

The team traveled west for the competition.

We could ask, “Where did the team travel?” or “In what direction did the team travel?” to confirm that west modifies traveled to tell us where the team traveled.

Simon leaves his dirty socks everywhere.

We could again ask a “where question” to test this example and conclude that everywhere modifies leaves to describe where Simon leaves his socks.

Viewpoint Adverbs

Viewpoint adverbs show a point of view. They work in the same way as evaluative adverbs and may cause the same logical dilemma when placed at the beginning or end of a sentence.

Personally, I don’t find his comedy offensive.

The adverb personally emphasizes that the sentence is from the speaker’s own point of view.

I don’t personally find his comedy offensive.

As with evaluative and conjunctive adverbs, the adverb may be moved to make it clear that, regardless of placement, it still conforms to the proper definition of an adverb to modify a verb, adjective, or adverb. Here personally modifies the verb do find.

Scientifically speaking, the theory of evolution is impossible.

Viewpoint adverbs often form adverbial phrases such as “grammatically speaking,” “according to him,” or “in financial terms.” This sentence could still be rearranged, however, to more clearly show that the adverbial phrase modifies the adjective impossible:

The theory of evolution is, scientifically speaking, impossible.

Relative Adverbs

Relative adverbs are adverbs that begin relative clauses relating information to a place, time, or reason. There are three relative adverbs: when, where, and why.

The shed where we keep the lawnmower is in the yard.

The relative adverb where begins the italicized relative clause. The entire clause, of course, functions as an adjective to modify the noun shed. Which shed is in the yard? The shed where we keep the lawnmower.

Within the relative clause, where functions as an adverb modifying keep. Although, where itself implies a question, it is still, in a way, answering the adverb question, “Where?” Where do we keep the lawnmower? If it helps, we could rearrange the clause to read, “We keep the lawnmower where.” Where then modifies the verb keep to say where we keep the lawnmower, although it doesn’t really provide much of an answer on its own. It primarily serves to relate the information in its clause to the outside clause which does have a clear answer.

I remember the time when I locked myself out of the house.

The relative adverb when starts another relative clause functioning as an adjective modifying time. Within the relative clause, when functions as an adverb modifying the verb locked, much like where in the previous example.

I don’t know why he left his books here.

Why can be a bit tricky sometimes. It doesn’t look like there is a noun for the relative clause to modify. However, if we think about what the sentence really means, it becomes more clear. This sentence essentially says, “I don’t know the reason why he left his books here.” What reason? The reason why he left his books here. The relative clause then modifies the implied noun reason, while, within the relative clause, why functions as an adverb modifying the verb left. The question “Why?” already demands a reason, so the word reason is frequently left out to avoid wordiness and redundancy.

Adverbs of Time

Adverbs in this category tell when something occurs or when something is so.

We went to the zoo yesterday.

When did we go to the zoo? We went yesterday. Yesterday then modifies the verb went to tell when the action happened.

I still like to stay at home on weekends.

The adverb still indicates that something remains so up until now or as of yet. In the example, still answers the question, “When do I like to stay at home?” by indicating that up until now it remains the case that I like to stay at home.

Which Type is It?

You may have noticed that some adverbs might seem to serve more than one purpose or logically answer more than one question. Certain adverbs, like conjunctive adverbs, are limited in function, but others seem more flexible. For example:

Jack utterly defeated his opponent.

Does utterly describe the manner in which Jack defeated his opponent or the degree to which he defeated his opponent?

Alice never liked pie.

Is never a negative adverb or an adverb of frequency?

In both examples we might argue either case, but frankly it doesn’t matter. The purpose of asking questions and categorizing adverbs at all is to help us remember what kinds of information adverbs provide to more easily identify them and the words they modify in sentences. Categorizations need only be held to insofar as they are useful. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to think of utterly as describing manner or extent. The important facts that remain are that utterly is indeed an adverb and that it is indeed modifying defeated. Which questions you prefer to ask yourself to arrive at this conclusion are irrelevant, so long as you arrive at it.