Adverbial Phrases and Adverbial Clauses

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What Are Adverbial Phrases and Adverbial Clauses?

Adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses tell us when, where, how, or why an action occurs. For example:

adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses


Lots of adverbs are single words (e.g., yesterday, here, quickly), but an adverb can also come in the form of a multi-word phrase or clause. For example:

When

  • A one-word adverb: The game will take place tomorrow.
  • An adverbial phrase: The game will take place in the morning.
  • (A phrase does not contain a subject and a verb.)
  • An adverbial clause: The game will take place when both teams are ready.
  • (A clause contains a subject ("both teams") and a verb ("are").)

Where

  • A one-word adverb: The scene was filmed here.
  • An adverbial phrase: The scene was filmed near the bridge.
  • An adverbial clause: The scene was filmed where the bridge crosses the river.
  • (In this clause, the subject is "the bridge" and the verb is "crosses.")

How

  • A one-word adverb: The pike moves quickly.
  • An adverbial phrase: The pike moves like lightning.
  • An adverbial clause: The pike moves like its life depends on it.
  • (In this clause, the subject is "its life" and the verb is "depends.")

Why

  • A one-word adverb: They came to the mine just because.
  • (Using "because" to explain why the action occurs is a colloquialism. There are no one-word adverbs that tell us why. "Adverbs of reason" (as they're more formally called) are always adverbial phrases or adverbial clauses.)
  • An adverbial phrase: They came to the mine to find gold.
  • An adverbial clause: They came to the mine because they wanted gold.
  • (In this clause, the subject is "they" and the verb is "wanted.")
Read more about adverbial phrases.
Read more about adverbial clauses.

More about Adverbial Phrases and Clauses

Most adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses tell us when, where, how, or why an action occurs, but there are other types too. Below are some more examples of adverbial clauses and adverbial phrases with their more formal names, e.g., adverb of time (when), adverb of place (where).

Remember that an adverbial phrase does not contain a subject and a verb, but an adverbial clause does. That is the difference between a phrase and a clause.

More Examples of Adverbial Phrases and Clauses

Here are some more examples of adverbial phrases and clauses categorized under their formal names.

Adverbs of Time (When or How Often?)

  • An adverbial phrase: A crow attacked your cat about an hour ago.
  • An adverbial clause: Every time he cracked a joke, the punters roared with laughter.

Adverbs of Place (Where?)

  • An adverbial phrase: It is colder and wetter in the north of Germany.
  • An adverbial clause: Put the sign where the students can read it.

Adverbs of Manner (How?)

  • An adverbial phrase: That dog is barking like a king.
  • An adverbial clause: She is acting as if she has stolen something.

Adverbs of Reason (Why?)

  • An adverbial phrase: We abandoned the match to make a point.
  • An adverbial clause: Since it is your birthday, you can sit in the front.

Adverbs of Degree (To What Extent?)

  • An adverbial phrase: You are not as clever as this.
  • An adverbial clause: He is as modest as he is brilliant.

Adverbs of Condition (If, Then)

  • An adverbial phrase:If possible, I will show you the cellar.
  • An adverbial clause: I will come with you provided my suit is back from the dry cleaners.

Adverbs of Concession (In Spite Of)

  • An adverbial phrase: Although only four years old, Oliver can do long multiplication.
  • An adverbial clause: I will cover for you even though I may lose my job.

The Format of Adverbial Phrases

Here are three common formats for adverbial phrases:

Prepositional Phrases.

For example:
  • He was standing in the corner.
Read more about prepositional phrases.

Infinitive Phrases.

For example:
  • She went to Florence to paint.
Read more about infinitive phrases.

Adverbs with Intensifiers.

For example:
  • He answered you very quickly.
Read more about intensifiers.

There are, of course, other formats. For example:
  • We arrived a day later than expected.
  • I paid him every week.
If there's a group of words functioning as an adverb and that doesn't feature a subject and a verb (meaning it's not a adverbial clause), then you're looking at an adverbial phrase.

The Format of Adverbial Clauses

Adverbial clauses tend to start with subordinating conjunctions (e.g., when, because, if, even though, until). These subordinating conjunctions provide the bridge from the adverbial clause to the main clause in order to establish a time, a place, a reason, a condition, a concession, or a comparison for the main clause. For example (subordinating conjunction in bold):
  • Keep your hand on the wound until the bleeding stops.
  • (The adverbial clause sets a time.)
  • Steve will sleep wherever there's a bed.
  • (The adverbial clause sets a place.)
Read more about subordinating conjunctions.

Commas with Adverbial Phrases and Clauses

When an adverbial phrase or clause is at the front of a sentence (called a "fronted adverbial"), use a comma afterwards. When it is at the back (called a "post-positioned adverbial"), do not use a comma before it. For example:
  • A crow attacked your cat while I was waiting for the bus.
  • (No comma is required as the adverbial clause at the end of the sentence.)
  • While I was waiting for the bus, a crow attacked your cat.
  • (This time, a comma is required because the adverbial clause at the start.)
Here is another example:
  • It is colder and wetter in the north of Germany.
  • (There is no comma before the adverbial phrase because it comes at the end of the sentence.)
  • In the north of Germany, it is colder and wetter.
  • (Here, we have a fronted adverbial, so a comma is required.)
This "rule" works well with most adverbial phrases and clauses. However, it is not a strict rule. It is best described as guidance that is highly likely to see you right. Here's some more detail.

A fronted adverbial. When your adverbial phrase or clause is fronted, you are safe to use a comma afterwards because the comma is considered useful to show where the adverbial ends and the main clause starts.

A post-positioned adverbial. When your adverbial is at the back of your sentence, you should precede it with a comma if the adverbial is essential (called a restrictive phrase or clause). As most post-positioned adverbials are essential, the rule to not use a comma is nearly always safe. However, it is possible for the adverbial to be non-essential (called a non-restrictive phrase or clause). In this case, you can use a comma.

Read more about restrictive and non-restrictive post-positioned adverbials on the page covering adverbial clauses.
Read more about using commas with adverbial phrases and clauses.

Misplaced Adverbials

Particularly when using adverbial phrases, be careful not to create a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier does not link clearly to whatever it is meant to modify. A misplaced modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous or wrong. For example:
  • Keep looking for the bull elephant with the binoculars.
  • (This adverbial phrase tells us how to keep looking for the bull elephant (i.e., with binoculars). However, it could be taken as an adjective phrase describing a bull elephant with binoculars.)
Read more about misplaced modifiers.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are adverbs? What are clauses? What are phrases? More about adverbial phrases More about adverbial clauses More about commas after sentence introductions