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What Are Adverbs?

The Quick Answer

What Is an Adverb?

An adverb is a word used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. For example:
  • She swims quickly.
  • (Here, the adverb quickly modifies the verb swims.)
  • She swims extremely quickly.
  • (Here, the adverb extremely modifies the adverb quickly.)
  • She is an extremely quick swimmer.
  • (Here, the adverb extremely modifies the adjective quick.)
When an adverb modifies a verb, it usually tells us when, where, how, in what manner, or to what extent the action is performed. Here are some examples of adverbs modifying verbs:
  • How: He ran quickly.
  • When: He ran yesterday.
  • Where: He ran here.
  • In what manner: He ran barefoot.
  • To what extent: He ran fastest.
In the examples above, each adverb is a single word, but an adverb can be made up of more than one word. For example:
  • How: He ran at 10 miles per hour.
  • When: He ran when the police arrived.
  • Where: He ran to the shops.
  • In what manner: He ran like a man possessed.
  • To what extent: He ran quicker than me.
Read more about adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses.

What Is an Adverb?

At school, you may have been told that adverbs end ly and modify verbs. That is all true, but adverbs are far more diverse than that description suggests.

Adverbs can also modify adjectives and other adverbs. Although many adverbs end ly, lots do not (e.g., fast, never, well, very, most, least, more, less, now, far, and there).

Adverbs Modifying Verbs

An adverb that modifies a verb usually tells you when, where, how, in what manner, or to what extent the action is performed. (NB: The ones that end ly are usually the ones that tell us how the action is performed, e.g., quickly, slowly, carefully, quietly.)

Here are some examples of adverbs modifying verbs:
  • Anita placed the vase carefully on the shelf.
  • (The word carefully is an adverb. It shows how the vase was placed.)
  • Tara walks gracefully.
  • (The word gracefully is an adverb. It modifies the verb to walk.)
  • He runs fast.
  • (The word fast is an adverb. It modifies the verb to run.)
  • You can set your watch by him. He always leaves at 5 o'clock.
  • (The word always is an adverb. It modifies the verb to leave.)
  • The dinner guests arrived early.
  • (Here, early modifies to arrive.)
  • She sometimes helps us.
  • (Here, sometimes modifies to help.)
  • I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly. (Oscar Wilde)
  • (Here, thoroughly modifies to know.)

Adverbs Modifying Adjectives

If you examine the word adverb, you could be forgiven for thinking adverbs only modify verbs (i.e., add to verbs), but adverbs can also modify adjectives and other adverbs. Here are some examples of adverbs modifying adjectives:
  • The horridly grotesque gargoyle was undamaged by the debris.
  • (The adverb horridly modifies the adjective grotesque.)

  • Peter had an extremely ashen face.
  • (The adverb extremely modifies the adjective ashen.)

  • Badly trained dogs that fail the test will become pets.
  • (The adverb badly modifies the adjective trained.)
    (Note: The adjective trained is an adjective formed from the verb to train. It is called a participle.)

  • She wore a beautifully designed dress.
  • (The adverb beautifully modifies the adjective designed.)

Adverbs Modifying Adverbs

Here are some examples of adverbs modifying adverbs:
  • Peter Jackson finished his assignment remarkably quickly.
  • (The adverb quickly modifies the verb to finish. The adverb remarkably modifies the adverb quickly.)

Different Types of Adverbs

Although there are thousands of adverbs, each one can usually be categorized in one of the following groupings:

Adverbs of Time

An adverb of time tells us when an action occurs. For example:
  • Press the button now.
  • I have never been.
  • I tell him daily.
  • I tell him on a daily basis.
  • (Remember, an adverb can be more than one word. Here, the adverb is a prepositional phrase.)
Read more about adverbial phrases.
Read more about adverbial clauses.

Adverbs of Place

An adverb of place tells us where an action occurs. For example:
  • Daisies grow everywhere.
  • I did not put it there.
  • I did not put it in the box.
  • (Remember, an adverb can be more than one word.)

Adverbs of Manner

An adverb of manner tells us how an action occurs. For example:
  • He passed the re-sit easily.
  • The lion crawled stealthily.
  • The lion crawled like an escaped convict.

Adverbs of Degree

An adverb of degree tells us to what degree action occurs. For example:
  • That is the farthest I have ever jumped.
  • He boxed more cleverly.
Read more about comparatives of adverbs (like more cleverly).

The adverb categories above are relatively simple. The next adverb categories are a little more complicated:

Adverbs of Condition

An adverb of condition tells us the condition needed before the main idea comes into effect. (An adverb of condition often starts with if or unless. For example:
  • If it rains, the party will be ruined.
  • I will not talk unless you apologize.

Adverbs of Concession

An adverb of concession contrasts with the main idea. An adverb of concession often starts with a subordinating conjunction like though, although, even though, while, whereas, and even if. For exammple:
  • Although her face is an odd shape, she is undoubtedly beautiful.
  • A loud voice cannot compete with a clear voice, even if it's a whisper. (Barry Neil Kaufman)

Adverbs of Reason

An adverb of reason gives a reason for the main idea. An adverb of reason usually starts with a subordinating conjunctions like as, because, given, or since. For example:
  • Given today's strong tide, you should expect a tough swim.
  • I don't have a bank account because I don't know my mother's maiden name. (Paula Poundstone).
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Beware

Common Questions on Adverbs

When an adverb modifies an adjective, there is no need to join the two with a hyphen. For example:
  • Thomas was a highly respected member of the team.
  • (There is no need to join the adverb highly to the adjective respected with a hyphen.)
  • She passed him the most crimson apple in the basket.
  • (There is no need to join the adverb most to the adjective crimson with a hyphen. Incidentally, most is an adverb of degree.)
  • Dawn was an exceptionally-talented teenager.
  • (There is no need to join the adverb exceptionally to the adjective talented with a hyphen.)

should be "neatly arranged"
(newspaper article)


Well and Fast

With words like well and fast (which are both adjectives and adverbs), a hyphen can be used to avoid ambiguity. For example:
  • We will be visited by a well-known actress.
  • (In this example, a hyphen is added to differentiate between well-known (i.e., a widely known actress) and well and known (i.e., healthy and recognized actress). As unlikely as the latter may be, it is grammatically feasible. The hyphen eliminates all ambiguity.)
  • He tried to sell me 200 fast-growing chickens.
  • (A hyphen is added to differentiate between fast-growing (i.e., chickens which grow quickly) and fast and growing (i.e., chickens which are good runners and still growing). As unlikely as the latter may be, the hyphen eliminates all ambiguity.)

Read about hyphens in compound adjectives.
Top Tip

Use a Hyphen with Well

This simple rule will cover most situations:

When preceding an adjective with an adverb, only use a hyphen with well.
  • It is a well-known play.
  • (Use a hyphen with well.)
  • It is a widely known play.
  • (Do not use a hyphen with any other adverb.)