Definition of term Adverbials

Adverbs, Adverb Phrases and Prepositional Phrases can function as a unit known as an adverbial – as can some nouns, Noun Phrases and subordinate clauses. Adverbials modify the verb. They can usually be moved or deleted without leaving the sentence ungrammatical or nonsense, and often answer questions such as why? when? how? where?

Yesterday I went to a meeting at the University of Bristol.

[at the University of Bristol] [yesterday] I went to a meeting.

[0] I went to a meeting [0].

[At the University of Bristol] and [yesterday] tell us something about where and when I went, and are movable and deletable, and so they qualify as adverbials.



links:

BBC’s Learning English webpage on adverbials.

Demonstration of adverbials in action

In this unit there are two demonstrations, the first performed on a relatively direct and straightforward kind of text, and the second on more experimental writing.

Here’s the first demonstration – Read the following extract, and then click below to see the adverbials.

In the text below, adverbials are marked in blue.

He had first met his wife during carnival in a seaside town in Jacmel. His favorite part of the festivities was the finale, on the day before Ash Wednesday, when a crowd of tired revelers would gather on the beach to burn their carnival masks and costumes and feign weeping, symbolically purging themselves of the carousing of the preceding days and nights. She had volunteered to be one of the official weepers, one of those who wailed most convincingly as the carnival relics turned to ashes in the bonfire.

“Papa Kanaval ou ale! Farewell Father Carnival!” she howled, with real tears running down her face.

If she could grieve so passionately on demand, he thought, perhaps she could love even more. After the other weepers had left, she stayed behind until the last embers of the carnival bonfire had dimmed. It was impossible to distract her, to make her laugh. She could never fake weeping, she told him. Every time she cried for anything, she cried for everything else that had ever hurt her.

He had traveled between Jacmel and Port-au-Prince while he was waiting for his visa to come through. And when he finally had a travel date he asked her to marry him.

One New York afternoon, when he came home from work, he found her sitting on the edge of the bed in that small room, staring at the pictures of herself on the opposite wall. She didn’t move as he kissed the top of her head. He said nothing, simply slipped out of his clothes and lay down on the bed, pressing his face against her back. He did not want to trespass on her secrets. He simply wanted to extinguish the carnivals burning in her head.

He had [first] met his wife [during carnival] [in a seaside town] [in Jacmel]. His favorite part of the festivities was the finale, [on the day before Ash Wednesday], [when a crowd of tired revelers would gather] [on the beach] [to burn their carnival masks and costumes and feign weeping], [symbolically] [purging themselves of the carousing] [of the preceding days and nights]. She had volunteered to be one of the official weepers, one of those who wailed [most convincingly] [as the carnival relics turned to ashes] [in the bonfire].

“Papa Kanaval ou ale! Farewell Father Carnival!” she howled, [with real tears running] [down her face].

[If she could grieve] [so passionately] [on demand], he thought, perhaps she could love [even more]. [After the other weepers had left], she stayed behind [until the last embers of the carnival bonfire had dimmed]. It was impossible to distract her, to make her laugh. She could [never] fake weeping, she told him. [Every time] she cried [for anything], she cried [for everything else that had ever hurt her].

He had traveled [between Jacmel and Port-au-Prince] [while he was waiting] [for his visa to come through]. And [when he [finally] had a travel date] he asked her to marry him.

[One New York afternoon], [when he came home from work], he found her [sitting [on the edge of the bed] [in that small room]], [staring [at the pictures of herself] [on the opposite wall]]. She didn’t move [as he kissed the top of her head]. He said nothing, [simply] slipped [out of his clothes] and lay [down on the bed], [pressing his face [against her back]]. He did not want to trespass [on her secrets]. He [simply] wanted to extinguish the carnivals burning [in her head].

Hide explicit adverbials.

Click here to see the adverbials in the above text made explicit.

Analysis

To find the adverbials, I first identified the verb and then tried moving the elements I suspected of modifying it, e.g.:

He had first met his wife: he had met his wife first

He had first met his wife during carnival: during carnival he had first met his wife

He had first met his wife during carnival in a seaside town: he had met his wife first in a seaside town during carnival

He had first met his wife during carnival in a seaside town in Jacmel: during carnival in Jacmel he had met his wife first in a seaside town

This kind of switching elements around allows you to see how the author foregrounded the meeting (coming at the beginning of the sentence) and the setting, Jacmel (coming at the end). The adverbial forms in this sentence are Prepositional Phrases and an adverb (first), and the function is to give information about the verb met – the when and the where this meeting took place.

Often, adverbials are embedded in larger units:

One New York afternoon, when he came home [from work], he found her [sitting [on the edge of the bed] [in that small room]], [staring [at the pictures of herself] [on the opposite wall]].

To confirm that we’ve identified the adverbials correctly, try rearranging them, as, e.g.:

on the edge of the bed, in that small room, staring at the pictures of herself on the opposite wall, sitting, he found her

The second sentence in the extract can be interpreted in two ways:

His favorite part of the festivities was the finale, on the day before Ash Wednesday, when a crowd of tired revelers would gather on the beach to burn their carnival masks and costumes and feign weeping, symbolically purging themselves of the carousing of the preceding days and nights.

either:

... when a crowd of tired revelers would gather ... and feign weeping

or

... when a crowd of tired revelers would gather [to burn their masks ... and feign weeping]

In the first interpretation, the base forms gather and feign are both governed by the modal auxiliary would. In the second interpretation, feign is a base form governed by the preposition to. The form of the highlighted unit in this second interpretation is two non-finite clauses, [to burn their masks] and [to feign weeping], with the second to elided. Both clauses modify the Verb Phrase would gather, expressing purposive meaning.

Is there a difference in meaning? The second interpretation with the adverbial is rather more purposeful; in the first, gathering is just something the revellers do by tradition. Does it matter much? This depends on your literary judgement. Ambiguities in interpretation are always going to be of interest to a literary critic, but in my judgement, not a lot hangs on it here as the main focus of the paragraph is not the revelers – but you may disagree with me. I may have missed a nuance.

Let’s split the adverbials up into how, where, when, why:

How: symbolically, purging themselves of the carousing of the preceding days and nights, most convincingly, with real tears running down her face, so passionately, on demand, even more, staring at the pictures of herself, simply, out of his clothes, pressing his face, simply

Where: in a seaside town, in Jacmel, on the beach, between Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, sitting on the edge of the bed in that small room, on the opposite wall, on the bed, against her back, on her secrets, in her head

When: first, during carnival, on the day before Ash Wednesday, when a crowd of tired revelers would gather, as the carnival relics turned to ashes in the bonfire, after the other weepers had left, until the last embers of the carnival bonfire had dimmed, never, every time, while he was waiting for his visa to come through, when he finally had a travel date, one New York afternoon, when he came home from work, as he kissed the top of her head

Why: to burn their carnival masks and costumes and feign weeping, for anything, for everything else that had ever hurt her

Grouping the adverbials like this reveals that time-frames are detailed whereas causative reasons are not. The anything and everything that has caused the wife’s pain is not described, but the different time-frames convey the duration and intensity of her grief.

 

Here is the second demonstration of adverbial analysis, this time an analysis of a Modernist text. Modernism was an experimental movement, and several of its practitioners liked to experiment with language. In this case, it makes adverbial analysis rather fiendish as there is a lot of modification – remember, adverbials modify the Verb Phrase, not the Noun Phrase. Read the text first, then click below to see the analysis.

In the text below, the adverbial analysis are marked in blue.

At the same great hotel in which they held their Sunday luncheons Mrs Weatherby reserved a private room to entertain old friends in honour of Philip’s twenty firster.

Standing prepared, empty, curtained, shuttered, tall mirrors facing across laid tables crowned by napkins, with space rocketing transparence from one glass silvered surface to the other, supporting walls covered in olive coloured silk, chandeliers repeated to a thousand thousand profiles to be lost in olive gray depths as quiet as this room’s untenanted attention, but a scene made warm with mass upon mass of daffodils banked up against mirrors, or mounded once on each of the round white tables and laid in a flat frieze about their edges, – here then time stood still for Jane, even in wine bottles over to one side holding the single movement, and that unseen of bubbles rising just as the air, similarly trapped even if conditioned, watched unseen across itself in a superb but not indifferent pause of mirrors.

Into this waiting shivered one small seen movement that seemed to snap the room apart, a door handle turning.

Then with a cry unheard, sung now, unuttered then by hinges and which fled back to creation in those limitless centuries of staring glass, with a shriek only of silent motion the portals came ajar with as it were an unoperated clash of cymbal to usher Mrs Weatherby in, her fine head made tiny by the intrusion perhaps because she was alone, but upon which, as upon a rising swell of violas untouched by bows strung from none other than the manes of unicorns that quiet wait was ended, the room could gather itself up at last.

[At the same great hotel in which they held their Sunday luncheons] Mrs Weatherby reserved a private room [to entertain old friends] [in honour of Philip’s twenty firster.]

[Standing prepared, empty, curtained, shuttered], [tall mirrors facing across laid tables crowned by napkins], [with space rocketing transparence from one glass silvered surface to the other], [supporting walls covered in olive coloured silk], chandeliers repeated [to a thousand thousand profiles to be lost in olive gray depths as quiet as this room’s untenanted attention], but a scene made warm [with mass upon mass of daffodils banked up against mirrors, or mounded once on each of the round white tables and laid in a flat frieze about their edges], – [here] [then] time stood still [for Jane], [even in wine bottles over to one side holding the single movement, and that unseen of bubbles rising just as the air, similarly trapped even if conditioned], [watched unseen across itself in a superb but not indifferent pause of mirrors].

[Into this waiting] shivered one small seen movement that seemed to snap the room apart, a door handle turning.

[Then] [with a cry unheard], sung [now], unuttered [then] [by hinges and which fled back to creation] [in those limitless centuries of staring glass], [with a shriek only of silent motion] the portals came ajar [with as it were an unoperated clash of cymbal] [to usher Mrs Weatherby in], [her fine head made tiny] [by the intrusion] [perhaps because she was alone], but upon which, [as upon a rising swell of violas untouched by bows strung from none other than the manes of unicorns that quiet wait was ended], the room could gather itself up [at last].

Hide explicit adverbial analysis.

Click here to see the adverbial analysis in the above text made explicit.

Analysis

Below I have divided the sentences up into macro-adverbials (that is, larger rather than smaller movable units) and moved them around.  There are many places to move them; as the first sentence is short I’ve presented two options:

Sentence One: Henry Green’s original

At the same great hotel in which they held their Sunday luncheons Mrs Weatherby reserved a private room to entertain old friends in honour of Philip’s twenty firster.

Repositioned adverbials:

a) Mrs Weatherby reserved a private room [at the same great hotel in which they held their Sunday luncheons] [to entertain old friends] [in honour of Philip’s twenty firster.]

b) [In honour of Philip’s twenty firster,] Mrs Weatherby reserved a private room [at the same great hotel in which they held their Sunday luncheons] [to entertain old friends.]

In a) and b), Mrs Weatherby and the party come first, whereas in the original, it is the hotel which is foregrounded. Although Philip’s mother’s party is the reason for the description, the hotel is really the protagonist of the passage.


Sentence Two: Henry Green’s original

Standing prepared, empty, curtained, shuttered, tall mirrors facing across laid tables crowned by napkins, with space rocketing transparence from one glass silvered surface to the other, supporting walls covered in olive coloured silk, chandeliers repeated to a thousand thousand profiles to be lost in olive gray depths as quiet as this room’s untenanted attention, but a scene made warm with mass upon mass of daffodils banked up against mirrors, or mounded once on each of the round white tables and laid in a flat frieze about their edges, – here then time stood still for Jane, even in wine bottles over to one side holding the single movement, and that unseen of bubbles rising just as the air, similarly trapped even if conditioned, watched unseen across itself in a superb but not indifferent pause of mirrors.

Repositioned adverbials:

[With space rocketing transparence from one glass silvered surface to the other], [supporting walls covered in olive coloured silk], [to a thousand thousand profiles to be lost in olive gray depths as quiet as this room’s untenanted attention], chandeliers repeated [tall mirrors facing across laid tables crowned by napkins], [with mass upon mass of daffodils banked up against mirrors, or mounded once on each of the round white tables and laid in a flat frieze about their edges], [standing prepared, empty, curtained, shuttered], but a scene made warm – [even in wine bottles over to one side holding the single movement, and that unseen of bubbles rising just as the air, similarly trapped even if conditioned], [watched unseen across itself in a superb but not indifferent pause of mirrors], [here] [then] [for Jane], time stood still.

There are many other possibilities of adverbial placement, and this is not an easy sentence to process, but repositioning the adverbials shows that the undeletable, unmovable matter concerns the repetition of the chandeliers in the mirrors, the warmth of the scene, and how time stood still.


Sentence Three: Henry Green’s original

Into this waiting shivered one small seen movement that seemed to snap the room apart, a door handle turning.

Repositioned adverbials:

One small seen movement that seemed to snap the room apart, a door handle turning, shivered [into this waiting.]

The one small seen movement and the door handle turning are simultaneously the subject of the verb shivered, as they are one and the same thing. [that seemed to snap the room apart] postmodifies the noun movement. The repositioning of the adverbial shows that the original ordering foregrounded the waiting rather than the movement of the door.


Sentence Four: Henry Green’s original

Then with a cry unheard, sung now, unuttered then by hinges and which fled back to creation in those limitless centuries of staring glass, with a shriek only of silent motion the portals came ajar with as it were an unoperated clash of cymbal to usher Mrs Weatherby in, her fine head made tiny by the intrusion perhaps because she was alone, but upon which, as upon a rising swell of violas untouched by bows strung from none other than the manes of unicorns that quiet wait was ended, the room could gather itself up at last.

Repositioned adverbials:

[To usher Mrs Weatherby in], [perhaps because she was alone] [her fine head made tiny by the intrusion], [with as it were an unoperated clash of cymbal], the portals [then] came ajar [in those limitless centuries of staring glass] [with a cry unheard], sung [now], unuttered [then] [by hinges and which fled back to creation], [with a shriek only of silent motion], but upon which, [as upon a rising swell of violas untouched by bows strung from none other than the manes of unicorns that quiet wait was ended], [at last], the room could gather itself up.

Again, there are many possibilities, this is just one manipulation. Whichever way the adverbials are repositioned, and despite Mrs Weatherby’s presence in the fourth sentence, deleting or backgrounding the adverbials shows that it is the portals and the gathering unto itself of the room that are of significance here, not the humans.

Let’s look at how they break down into how, why, when and where:

How: [Standing prepared, empty, curtained, shuttered], [tall mirrors facing across laid tables crowned by napkins], [with space rocketing transparence from one glass silvered surface to the other], [supporting walls covered in olive coloured silk], [to a thousand thousand profiles to be lost in olive gray depths as quiet as this room’s untenanted attention], [with mass upon mass of daffodils banked up against mirrors, or mounded once on each of the round white tables and laid in a flat frieze about their edges], [watched unseen across itself in a superb but not indifferent pause of mirrors], [with a cry unheard], [by hinges which fled back to creation], [with a shriek only of silent motion], [with as it were an unoperated clash of cymbal], [her fine head made tiny], [by the intrusion], [as upon a rising swell of violas untouched by bows strung from none other than the manes of unicorns that quiet wait was ended]

Where: [At the same great hotel in which they held their Sunday luncheons], [here], [even in wine bottles over to one side holding the single movement, and that unseen of bubbles rising just as the air, similarly trapped even if conditioned], [into this waiting], [in those limitless centuries of staring glass]

Why: [to entertain old friends], [in honour of Philip’s twenty firster.], [for Jane], [to usher Mrs Weatherby in], [perhaps because she was alone]

When: [then], [then], [now], [then], [at last]

Adverbials of manner dominate, the adverbials which answer the question how – standing, facing, rocketing, supporting, banked up, mounded, watched, with a shriek, by hinges, with an unoperated clash of cymbal, upon a rising swell of violas. These adverbials largely contain -ing and –ed forms of verbs to do with sound and movement. There is an incongruity between the parts of speech and the thing described, a mirrored room. The room and its decorations are inanimate, but they are animated by a prescience of events about to happen.

You will have noticed that adverbials are default, that is, removing them reveals the skeletal core of a text. Dividing them up into how, where, why, when allows you to see what the author has focussed on most.

Literary Exercise

Here is the beginning of Chapter Three from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which also describes a party venue. What work are the adverbials doing in this text?
Identify the adverbials in the extract below. First read the text, then click below to see the adverbials made explicit:

In the text below, the adverbials are shown in blue.

There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were to young to know one from another.

There was music [from my neighbour’s house] [through the summer nights]. [In his blue gardens] men and girls came and went [like moths] [among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars]. [At high tide in the afternoon] I watched his guests [diving from the tower of his raft], [or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach] [while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound], [drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam]. [On week-ends] his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, [bearing parties to and from the city] [between nine in the morning and long past midnight], [while his station wagon scampered [like a brisk yellow bug] [to meet all trains]]. [And on Mondays] eight servants, [including an extra gardener], toiled [all day] [with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears], [repairing the ravages of the night before].

[Every Friday] five crates of oranges and lemons arrived [from a fruiterer in New York][every Monday] these same oranges and lemons left his back door [in a pyramid of pulpless halves]. There was a machine [in the kitchen] which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges [in half an hour] [if a little button was pressed [two hundred times] [by a butler’s thumb]].

[At least once a fortnight] a corps of caterers came down [with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden]. [On buffet tables, [garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre]], spiced baked hams crowded [against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold]. [In the main hall] a bar [with a real brass rail] was set up, and stocked [with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were to young to know one from another].


Splitting up the adverbials into how, why, when and where:

How: [like moths], [diving from the tower of his raft], [or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach], [drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam], [bearing parties to and from the city], [including an extra gardener], [with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears], [in a pyramid of pulpless halves], [if a little button was pressed [two hundred times] [by a butler’s thumb]], [with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden], [garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre], [against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold], [with a real brass rail], [with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were to young to know one from another].

When: [through the summer nights], [at high tide in the afternoon], [while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound], [On week-ends], [between nine in the morning and long past midnight], [while his station wagon scampered [like a brisk yellow bug] [to meet all trains]], [And on Mondays], [all day], [Every Friday], [every Monday], [in half an hour], [At least once a fortnight]

Where: [from my neighbour’s house], [In his blue gardens], [among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars], [from a fruiterer in New York], [in the kitchen], [On buffet tables], [In the main hall]

Why: [repairing the ravages of the night before]


Hide explicit adverbials.

Click here to see the adverbials in the above text made explicit.


What work are the adverbials doing in the text above? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

Commentary

Here, the rooms and their contents do not figure, and although the men, girls and guests are mentioned in the unmovable and undeletable content, the main focus of the undeletable subjects is the service personnel and their machines: the Rolls-Royce, the eight servants, the catering corps and their tools, the food and drink. (Notice how adverbial-analysis leads straight to the essential core of a text.) Splitting the adverbials into their functional purpose reveals that the passage is mainly concerned with how, the mechanism and logistics of how the parties functioned. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text, Gatsby’s parties, although sounding glamorous and pleasurable, are shown to be a lot of work for a lot of people.

Teaching Point

You will recall that premodification in the Noun Phrase is optional, and so are adverbials. It is conceivable that a literary text could be written without any, although it would be rather stark. However in reality adverbials are extremely common. They are one of the main components of spontaneous speech, and this is one of the ways in which speech and writing really are rather different. Sentences written in Standard English have finite verbs, but conversation is constructed less in sentences and more in adverbials. Positioning adverbials allows writers to foreground or background material, adding what can be quite a subtle nuance to a text’s meaning.

1926 vintage Rolls Royce.