Adverbial Phrase

by Craig Shrives

What Is an Adverbial Phrase? (with Examples)

An adverbial phrase is a group of words that functions as an adverb. Adverbial phrases contrast with adverbial clauses and single-word adverbs. Unlike an adverbial clause, an adverbial phrase does not contain a subject and a verb.

Interactive Examples of Adverbial Phrases

Here are some interactive examples to help explain the difference between adverbial phrases, adverbial clauses , and single-word adverbs. (In these examples, the subjects are blue, and the verbs are green. Note that none of the phrases has a subject or a verb.)

    Easy Example of an Adverbial Phrase

    Here is an easy example of an adverbial phrase:
    • Jack will sit in silence.
    • (The adverbial phrase "in silence" is functioning as an adverb of manner. It tells us how Jack sat.)
    Compare the example above with these examples:
    • Jack will sit quietly.
    • (This is a normal adverb. This example has been included to prove that "in silence" is an adverb.)
    • I will sit like a monk meditates.
    • (This is an adverbial clause. It includes a subject ("a monk") and a verb ("meditates").)
    In the examples above, all the adverbs tell us how the person will sit. They are all adverbs of manner. When used to modify a verb, an adverb (including an adverbial phrase and an adverbial clause) will usually describe when, where, how, or why something happens.
    adverbial phrase

    When (Adverbial Phrase of Time)

    An adverbial phrase of time states when something happens or how often. For example:
    • I'll do it in a minute.
    • After the game, the king and pawn go into the same box. (Italian Proverb)
    • Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day. (Albert Camus)

    Where (Adverbial Phrase of Place)

    An adverbial phrase of place states where something happens. For example:
    • I used to work in a fire-hydrant factory. You couldn't park anywhere near the place. (Steven Wright)
    • Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings. (Ed Gardner)

    How (Adverbial Phrase of Manner)

    An adverbial phrase of manner states how something is done. For example:
    • He would always talk with a nationalistic tone.
    • He sings in a low register.
    • People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one. (Leo J. Burke)

    Why (Adverbial Phrase of Reason)

    An adverbial phrase of reason states why something is done. For example:
    • He went to the island to find gold.
    • He plays up to impress his class mates.
    • We tell ourselves stories in order to live. (Author Joan Didion)

    The Format of Adverbial Phrases

    Here are three common formats for adverbial phrases:
    • Prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase is headed by a preposition (e.g., "in," "on," "near," "by," "with"). For example:
      • He was standing in the corner.
      • She is winning without trying.
    • Infinitive phrase. An infinitive phrase is headed by an infinitive verb (e.g., "to play," "to jump"). For example:
      • She went to Florence to paint.
      • Fill in this form to join our club.
    • An adverb with an intensifier. An adverb with an intensifier (e.g., "very," "extremely," "really") is also an adverbial phrase. For example:
      • He answered you very quickly.
      • She danced extremely beautifully.
    There are, of course, other formats. For example:
    • We arrived a day later than expected.
    • I paid him every week.
    If you have a group of words that is functioning as an adverb and that doesn't feature a subject and a verb (meaning it's not an adverbial clause), then you're looking at an adverbial phrase. Here are four good reasons to think more carefully about adverbial phrases.

    (Reason 1) Be careful not to create a misplaced modifier.

    A misplaced modifier is a word (or group of words) that does not link clearly to what it is intended to modify. A misplaced modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous or wrong. Look at this example:
    • Jack, coax the monkey with the banana. wrong cross
    • (The shaded text is a misplaced modifier. It is meant to be an adverbial phrase modifying the verb "coax." It is supposed to tell Jack how to coax the monkey. However, the shaded text could feasibly be an adjective phrase describing the monkey, telling Jack which monkey to coax.)
    • Jack, use the banana to coax the monkey. correct tick
    • (Often, rewording is best. This corrected example does not feature an adverbial phrase.)
    Here is an example from the film "Hot Fuzz":
    • "He was a hero at his last police station. He once shot a robber with a Kalashnikov."
        "Great, where did he get that?"
      "No, the robber had the Kalashnikov."

    • (The shaded text is a misplaced modifier. It is meant to be an adjective phrase describing the robber. However, it was taken to be an adverbial phrase modifying the verb "shot.")
    Read more about misplaced modifiers.

    (Reason 2) Use commas correctly with your adverbial clauses.

    When your adverbial phrase (or clause for that matter) is at the front of your sentence, it is known as a "fronted adverbial." A fronted adverbial is usually offset with a comma. For example:
    • At 4 o'clock, open the gates. correct tick
    • In the middle of New York, temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit. correct tick
    When your adverbial phrase is at the back, the tendency is to omit the comma. For example:
    • Open the gates at 4 o'clock. correct tick
    • Temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of New York. correct tick
    Here are examples with adverbial phrases at both ends:
    • In July 1936, temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of New York. correct tick
    • In the middle of New York, temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit in July 1936. correct tick

    Should I Use a Comma for a Fronted Adverbial?

    When an adverbial phrase starts a sentence, it is good practice to offset it with a comma to show where the phrase ends and the main clause starts. This aids reading. If your adverbial phrase is short (say, 1-4 words in length), there is less need for the comma, which can now be safely omitted. With a short adverbial phrase, you can still use a comma, especially if you want to emphasize the adverbial phrase or create a pause for effect.
    Read more about commas with adverbial clauses and phrases.

    (Reason 3) Save two words by writing "to" instead of "in order to."

    To reduce your word count, you can usually replace "in order to" with "to" without any loss of meaning.
    • The mountaineers spent two months with the air-sea rescue team in order to gain experience.
    Even though it adds to your word count, you should not delete "in order" every time. Using "in order to" makes it clear that the text that follows is the reason for performing the action. (It's like using "so as to.") Using just "to" runs the risk of creating a misplaced modifier. Look at this example:
    • Jack designed a device in order to find underground water.
    • (With "in order" deleted, we're now unsure whether Jack designed an underground-water finder (i.e., "to find underground water" is an adjective describing "device") or whether he designed a device that can be used to detect underground water as per his intention (i.e., "to find underground water" is an adverb modifying "designed"). With "in order to," that ambiguity disappears. It can only be the latter. Get it?)
    There's another advantage to using "in order to." It puts a little more emphasis on the reason for the action. So, save two words if you need to, but be careful not to create a misplaced modifier. Read more about "in order to" on the non-finite verbs page (see Reason 3).

    (Reason 4) Delete your intensifier, unless you really need it.

    When writing formally, the level of intensity should be achieved through word choice (e.g., by using strong adjectives instead of intensifiers). Using intensifiers is widely considered as lazy writing.
    • She was very angry.
    • (This is considered as lazy writing.)
    • She was livid.
    • (There is no need for an intensifier with a strong adjective like "livid.")
    This quotation captures why you should use intensifiers sparingly.
    • If everything is very important, then nothing is important. (Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney)
    Read more about intensifiers. Here is a short video summarizing this lesson on adverbial phrases.

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