What Are Adverbs?

by Craig Shrives
The Quick Answer

What is an adverb?

An adverb is a word that can modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Lots of adverbs end "-ly." For example:
  • She swims quickly.
  • (Here, the adverb "quickly" modifies the verb "swims.")
  • She is an extremely quick swimmer.
  • (The adverb "extremely" modifies the adjective "quick.")
  • She swims extremely quickly.
  • (The adverb "extremely" modifies the adverb "quickly.")

What do adverbs do?

When an adverb modifies a verb, it tells us how, when, where, why, how often, or how much the action is performed. Here are some examples of adverbs modifying verbs:
  • How: He ran quickly.
  • When: He ran yesterday.
  • Where: He ran here.
  • How often: He ran daily.
  • How much: He ran fastest.

Not all adverbs are one word.

In the examples above, every 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.
  • (The bold text is an adverbial phrase.)
  • When: He ran when the police arrived.
  • (The bold text is an adverbial clause.)
  • Where: He ran to the shops.
  • (adverbial phrase)
  • Why: He ran to fetch some water.
  • (This is an adverbial phrase. Look at the list above. There are no single-word adverbs that tell us why.)
  • How often: He ran every day.
  • (adverbial phrase)
  • How much: He ran quicker than me.
  • (adverbial phrase)
Read more about adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses.

Adverbs

When beginners first learn about adverbs, they are often told that adverbs end "-ly" and modify verbs. That is, of course, true, but adverbs do far more than that description suggests. Here are three key points about adverbs:
  • (Point 1) Adverbs modify verbs, but they can also modify adjectives and other adverbs. For example:
    • She sang an insanely sad song extremely well.
    • (In this example, "insanely" modifies the adjective "sad," "extremely" modifies the adverb "well," and "well" modifies the verb "sang.")
  • (Point 2) Although many adverbs end "-ly," lots do not. For example:
    • fast, never, well, very, most, least, more, less, now, far, there
  • (Point 3) In real-life sentences, lots of adverbs are phrases or clauses (i.e., not single words). For example:
    Single-Word AdverbAdverbial PhraseAdverbial Clause
    Sell it quickly.Sell it as soon as possible.Sell it before the market closes.

    A Video Summary

    Here is a short video summarizing this lesson on adverbs.

    Adverbs Modifying Verbs

    An adverb that modifies a verb usually tells you how, when, where, why, how often, or how much 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.")
    • Will you come quietly, or do I have to use earplugs? (Comedian Spike Milligan)
    • (Here, "quietly" modifies "to come.")
    • I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
    • (Here, "thoroughly" modifies "to know.")
    adverbs grammar

    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.
    • (Here, the adverb "quickly" modifies the verb "to finish." The adverb "remarkably" modifies the adverb "quickly.")
    • We're showing kids a world that is very scantily populated with women and female characters. They should see female characters taking up half the planet, which we do. (Actress Geena Davis)
    • (In this example, the adverb "scantily" modifies the adjective "populated." The adverb "very" modifies the adverb "scantily.")

    More about Adverbs

    Types of Adverb

    When an adverb modifies a verb, it can often be categorized as one of the following:
    TypeExamples
    Adverb of Manner
    (how)
    An adverb of manner tells us how an action occurs.
    • The lion crawled stealthily.
    • Will you come quietly, or do I have to use earplugs? (Comedian Spike Milligan)
    (NB: Lots of adverbs of manner end "-ly.")
    Adverb of Time
    (when and how often)
    An adverb of time tells us when an action occurs or how often.
    • I tell him daily.
    • What you plant now, you will harvest later. (Author Og Mandino)
    (NB: Adverbs of time that tell us how often something occurs (e.g., "always," "often," "sometimes") are also known as "adverbs of frequency.")
    Adverb of Place
    (where)
    An adverb of place tells us where an action occurs.
    • I did not put it there.
    • Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it. (Artist Vincent Van Gogh)
    Adverb of Degree
    (aka Adverb of Comparison)
    (how much)
    An adverb of degree tells us to what degree an action occurs.
    • He works smarter.
    • Doubters make me work harder to prove them wrong. (Businessman Derek Jeter)
    These are the main four categories. We'll discuss the others shortly. Don't forget that adverbs can also modify adjectives and other adverbs.
    • To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
    • (The adverb "thoroughly" modifies the adjective "modern.")
    • If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing very slowly. (Burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee)
    • (The adverb "very" modifies the adverb "slowly.")

    Even More about Adverbs

    Adverbial Phrases and Clauses

    In all the examples above, the adverbs have been single words, but multi-word adverbs are common too. Adverbs commonly come as phrases (i.e., two or more words) or clauses (i.e., two or more words containing a subject and a verb). Below are some examples of multi-word adverbs. This list also includes adverbs of condition, adverbs of concession, and adverbs of reason.
    TypeExamples
    Adverb of MannerAn adverb of manner often starts with a preposition (e.g., "in," "with") or one of the following: "as," "like," or "the way." (These are called subordinating conjunctions.)
    • Money speaks, but it speaks with a male voice. (Author Andrea Dworkin)
    • (This is called a prepositional phrase. It's also an adverbial phrase.)
    • People who say they sleep like a baby does usually don't have one. (Psychologist Leo J. Burke)
    Adverb of TimeAn adverb of time often starts with a preposition or one of the following subordinating conjunctions: "after," "as," "as long as," "as soon as," "before," "no sooner than," "since," "until," "when," or "while."
    • A company like Gucci can lose millions in a second. (Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri)
    • After the game has finished, the king and pawn go into the same box. (Italian proverb)
    Adverb of PlaceAn adverb of place often starts with a preposition or one of the following subordinating conjunctions: "anywhere," "everywhere," "where," or "wherever."
    • Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings. (Ed Gardner)
    • Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
    Adverb of Degree (aka Adverb of Comparison)An adverb of degree often starts with one of the following subordinating conjunctions: "than," "as...as," "so...as," or "the...the."
    • Nothing is so contagious as enthusiasm. (Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
    • Be what you are. This is the first step toward becoming better than you are. (Writer Julius Charles Hare)
    Read more about comparatives of adverbs (like "more cleverly").
    Adverbs of ConditionAn 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."
    • If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts. (Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein)
    • Age doesn't matter, unless you're a cheese. (Filmmaker Luis Bunuel)
    Adverbs of ConcessionAn 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," or "even if."
  • Although golf was originally restricted to wealthy, overweight Protestants, today it's open to anybody who owns hideous clothing. (Comedian Dave Barry)
  • A loud voice cannot compete with a clear voice, even if it's a whisper. (Writer Barry Neil Kaufman)
  • Adverbs of ReasonAn adverb of reason gives a reason for the main idea. An adverb of reason usually starts with a subordinating conjunction like "as," "because," "given," or "since."
    • I don't have a bank account because I don't know my mother's maiden name. (Comedian Paula Poundstone)
    • Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality. (Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis)

    Why Should I Care about Adverbs?

    Here are the six most common writing issues related to adverbs.

    (Issue 1) Use adverbs ending "-ly" sparingly.

    Professional writers (particularly fiction writers) don't like adverbs that end "-ly." They consider them unnecessary clutter. If you were to attend a fiction-writing course, you would be taught to craft words that render "-ly" adverbs redundant. On that course, you would undoubtedly be shown this quote:
    • The road to hell is paved with adverbs. (Author Stephen King)
    As Stephen King advocates, if you choose the right verb or the right dialogue, you don't need an adverb. Compare these two examples:
    • Extremely annoyed, she stared menacingly at her rival.
    • (Critics on that course would trash this.)
    • Infuriated, she glared at her rival.
    • (This is far sharper.)
    Here are the three good reasons to kill a "-ly" adverb:

    (1) The adverb is a tautology (i.e., needless repetition of an idea).
    • She smiled happily.
    (2) The adverb is "spoon feeding" the reader.
    • She smiled disappointedly.
    • (By the time your readers reach this sentence, they should know from context that it's a disappointed smile. The trick is to show them, not literally tell them, that she's disappointed. It's far more engaging. Less is more.)
    Spoon-feeding with an adverb happens most commonly with verbs like said, stated, and shouted (known as verbs of attribution).
    • "Ow, pack that in," Rachel shrieked angrily.
    • (You can scrap the adverb if it's implicit from the dialogue or context.)
    (3) The adverb is only there because of a badly chosen verb.
    • Sitting dejectedly in its cage, the parrot looked utterly unhappy.
    • (This would cause a click-fest as those critics armed their red pens.)
    • Looking miserable, the parrot lay on the floor of its cage.
    • (This is sharper. Your readers will know that parrots don't ordinarily lie on the floor.)
    Avoiding adverbs is a self-imposed restraint that many writers follow. It's like a game. Upon completing their work, professional writers will often do a text search for "ly " (note the space) to find adverbs and to re-justify their use before submission. Remember though that if your adverb is part of the story, keep it.
    • Your son is surprisingly handsome.

    (Issue 2) Delete "very" and "extremely."

    Professional writers hate adverbs such as "extremely," "really," and "very" (called intensifiers). For them, using an intensifier demonstrates a limited vocabulary. It's a fair point. If you choose the right words, you can avoid intensifiers.
    Don't write…Go for something like…
    very badatrocious
    extremely hungry ravenous
    really old ancient
    incredibly tired exhausted
    Many writers assert that intensifiers are so useless, you should delete them even if you can't find a more descriptive word.
    • Ireland is great for the spirit but very bad for the body. (Actor Hugh Dancy)
    • (The deletion kills a word but no meaning.)
    Writer Mark Twain shared this view:
    • Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very". Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.
    Here's a good tip. Press "CTRL H". Put "very" in the Find box. Put nothing in the Replace box. Click Replace All.

    (Issue 3) When an adverb modifies an adjective, don't join them with a hyphen.

    When an adverb modifies an adjective, don't join the two with a hyphen.
    • I don't sleep with happily married men. (Actress Britt Ekland)
    • Ironically, he described himself as "a professionally-qualified grammarian".
    • (Don't join the adverb and the adjective with a hyphen.)
    Remember that not all adverbs end "-ly."
    • The beginning is the most-important part of the work. (translation of Greek philosopher Plato)
    As covered next, this no-hyphen rule applies only to adverbs that are obviously adverbs (e.g., ones that end "-ly").

    (Issue 4) When an adverb that could feasibly be an adjective modifies an adjective, use a hyphen.

    A few adverbs (e.g., "well" and "fast") look like adjectives. To make it clear your adverb is not an adjective, you can link it to the adjective it's modifying with a hyphen. The hyphen says "these two words are one entity," making it clear they're not two adjectives.
    • She's a well-known dog.
    • (The hyphen makes it clear that the dog is famous (i.e., well-known) as opposed to well (i.e., healthy) and known (i.e., familiar).)
    • He sold me six fast-growing carp.
    • (The hyphen makes it clear the carp are ones that grow quickly and not growing ones that can swim quickly.)
    This issue crops up occasionally with "well," and "well" is almost never used as an adjective (meaning healthy) in a chain of other adjectives. So, in real life, there's almost never any ambiguity caused by these adjectivey-looking adverbs. Therefore, the following rule will cover 99% of situations: use a hyphen with "well" when it precedes an adjective.
    • It's a well-known tactic.
    • (This is not really about avoiding ambiguity. It's more about protecting readers from a reading-flow stutter caused by the feasibility of ambiguity.)
    • It's a widely known tactic.
    • (Don't use a hyphen with normal adverbs. They don't cause reading-flow stutters.)
    Read about hyphens in compound adjectives.

    (Issue 5) Make it clear what your adverb is modifying.

    Whenever you use an adverb (a single-word or multi-word one), do a quick check to ensure it's obvious what it refers to. Here are some examples of badly placed adverbs.
    • Singing quickly improved his stammer.
    • (It's unclear whether quickly modifies singing or improved. This is called a squinting modifier.)
    • Peter told us after Christmas that he plans to diet.
    • (Here, after Christmas sits grammatically with told but logically with plans. This is called a misplaced modifier.)
    • I recorded the hedgehog feeding its hoglets cautiously.
    • (It's unclear whether cautiously modifies recorded or feeding.)
    Usually a badly placed modifier can be fixed by putting it nearer to the verb it's modifying. (The top two examples can be fixed by moving the shaded text to the end. The third can be fixed by moving "cautiously" either to the left of "recorded" or to the left of "feeding," depending on the intended meaning.)

    Read more about squinting modifiers.
    Read more about misplaced modifiers.

    It's worth mentioning limiting modifiers (e.g., "hardly," "nearly," "only") because these commonly create logic flaws or ambiguity.
    • I only eat candy on Halloween. No lie. (Actor Michael Trevino)
    • (Logically, this means all he does on Halloween is eat candy; therefore, he doesn't work, sleep, or drink on that day. In everyday speech, we all get away with misplacing "only," but we should try to be more precise in our writing.)
    • I eat candy only on Halloween.
    • (This is sharper. As a rule of thumb, the best place for "only" is never to the left of a verb.)
    The two examples below are correct, but they mean different things.
    • Lee copied nearly all 10 of your answers.
    • (This tells us Lee copied most of the answers.)
    • Lee nearly copied all 10 of your answers.
    • (Here, Lee might have copied none to nine.)
    It's worth spending a second to ensure your limiting modifiers are well positioned.

    (Issue 6) Use a comma after a fronted adverbial.

    When an adverbial phrase or clause is at the start of a sentence, it is usual to follow it with a comma.
    • In colonial America, lobster was often served to prisoners because it was so cheap and plentiful.
    • One April day in 1930, the BBC reported, "There is no news."
    • If you're called Brad Thor, people expect you to be 6 foot 4 with muscles. (Author Brad Thor)
    When the adverbial is at the back, the comma can be left out. Each of these could be re-written without comma and with the shaded text at the end.

    When the adverbial is at the front, it's not a serious crime to omit the comma, but you should use one because it aids reading. When the adverbial is short (one or two words), your readers won't need helping, so you're safe to scrap the comma if you think it looks unwieldy.
    • Yesterday I was a dog. Today I'm a dog. Tomorrow I'll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There's so little hope for advancement. (Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz via Snoopy)
    Read more about adverbial phrases.
    Read more about adverbial clauses.
    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 adverbial phrases? What are adverbial clauses? What are adjectives? What are conjunctions? What are interjections? What are nouns? What are prepositions? What are pronouns? What are verbs?