Definition of term Adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs, and other adverbs, and adjectives, although not all adverbs can do all three jobs. Prototypical adverbs are formed by adding –ly to an adjective: silently, loudly, mostly, disastrously, fortunately, merrily, hopelessly, fantastically:

She sings happily

(modifying the verb sings)

She sings quite happily

(the adverb quite is modifying the adverb happily)

She is truly happy

(the adverb truly is modifying the adjective happy)

Indeed she really is honestly, thoroughly happy

(the adverb really modifies the verb is, and adverbs honestly and thoroughly modify the adjective happy. Indeed is a sentence adverb, modifying the whole sentence.)

In older texts and regional dialect, adverbs do not always take –ly where we might expect:

go careful

exceeding good

I did it quite easy

Adverbs can be gradable:

despicably

very despicably

rapidly

rapidly

Run quick! Go quickly!

Fly very quickly! Zoom absolutely directly!

Very and extremely are themselves adverbs, known as Degree Adverbs because they specify the degree to which an adjective or another adverb applies. Degree adverbs include too, entirely, highly, quite, totally, almost, barely. Degree adverbs are not gradable (*too quite, *very almost).

Adverbs can take comparative and superlative forms:

happily

more happily

most happily

Some high-frequency adverbs are irregular:

much (more, most) [compare Ta muchly]

well (better, best)

badly (worse, worst)

little (less, least)

Further, there are adverbs of place, manner and time:

now, then (adverbs of time)

there, here (adverbs of place)

slowly, well (adverbs of manner)


University College London's
The Internet Grammar of English links:

Formal Characteristics of Adverbs

Demonstration of term adverbs in action

Read these verses about the Great Fire of London in 1666. John Dryden wrote them soon after, then click below to see the adverbs made explicit.

In the poem below, the adverbs are shown in blue.

215

Such was the rise of this prodigious fire,
Which in mean buildings first obscurely bred,
From thence did soon to open streets aspire,
And straight to Palaces and Temples spread.

216

The diligence of Trades and noiseful gain,
And luxury, more late, asleep were laid:
All was the nights, and in her silent reign,
No sound the rest of Nature did invade.

217

In this deep quiet, from what scource unknown,
Those seeds of fire their fatal birth disclose:
And first, few scatt’ring sparks about were blown,
Big with the flames that to our ruine rose.

218

Then, in some close-pent room it crept along,
And, smouldring as it went, in silence fed:
Till th’infant monster, with devouring strong,
Walk’d boldly upright with exalted head.

219

Now, like some rich or mighty Murderer,
To great for prison, which he breaks with gold:
Who fresher for new mischiefs does appear,
And dares the world to tax him with the old.

220

So scapes th’insulting fire his narrow Jail,
And makes small out-lets into open air:
There the fierce winds his open force assail,
And beat him down-ward to his first repair.

221

The winds, like crafty Courtezans, with-held
His flames from burning, but to blow them more:
And, every fresh attempt, he is repell’d
With faint denials, weaker than before.

222

And now, no longer letted of his prey,
He leaps up at it with inrag’d desire:
O’r-looks the neighbours with a wide survey,
And nods at every house his threatning fire.


Hide explicit adverbs.

Click here to see the adverbs in the above poem made explicit.

Commentary

Adverbs of time: first, soon, more late, first, then, now, before, now, no longer

Adverbs of place: thence, there

Adverbs of manner: obscurely, straight, boldly, upright, fresher

In verse 215, obscurely modifies the verb bred, soon modifies the Verb Phrase did aspire, and straight modifies spread. This is a little microcosm of the fire, bred in obscurity, soon taking hold, and spreading straight (westwards, though this is not specified).

In verse 221, but is used as an adverb with the sense of ‘only’ (‘the winds withheld his flames only to blow them more’).

Verse 216 is not about the fire but about the silence of the night. It is not an easy verse to understand, so let’s reorder the components and repunctuate:

The diligence of trades and noiseful gain and luxury were more late laid asleep:
All was the night’s, and in her silent reign, the rest of Nature did invade no sound.

To paraphrase: the noise of trade and commerce and luxury were lately laid to sleep; everything belonged to the night, and in her silent reign, the rest of Nature made no sound. There are two ambiguities: more late, and rest. To take the second first, is it the repose of Nature or the remainder of Nature? Whichever you choose, the soundlessness of Nature is the main semantic point: the night was silent. Were the noises of the day laid to sleep more late, ‘later on in the evening’, or, ‘more recently, lately’? I have chosen the second meaning in my paraphrase, but both senses were operative in 1667; see OED late, adv .

In verses 218 and 219 the adverbs help to personify the fire as an infant monster walking boldly and a murderer reappearing more fresh for new mischiefs, with boldly upright modifying the verb walk and fresher modifying the Verb Phrase does appear. (Alternatively, you could analyse upright as an adjective modifying monster.) In verse 222, having escaped from his prison, the personified fire is no longer letted (meaning ‘baulked’; see OED let, v.2.a ) of his prey, as he spies more houses to burn. No longer modifies letted.

Adverbs, then, do many jobs and sit in many places in the sentence, both in the Verb Phrase and the Noun Phrase. In these verses, the adverbs of place and time are function words [function words have less semantic content and more grammatical function in a text], whereas it is the adverbs of manner that are lexical items. Dryden is more interested in conveying how the flames spread, than when or where.

Literary Exercise

Here is another poem about rapid movement in London, depicting the morning rush-hour in 1800. First read the poem and spot the adverbs then click below to see the adverbs made explicit.

In the poem below, the adverbs are shown in blue.

London Summer’s Morning

WHO has not wak’d to list the busy sounds

Of Summer’s Morning, in the sultry smoke

Of noisy London? On the pavement hot

The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face

And tatter’d covering, shrilly bawls his trade,

Rousing the sleepy housemaid. At the door

The milk-pail rattles, and the tinkling bell

Proclaims the dustman’s office, while the street

Is lost in clouds impervious. Now begins

The din of hackney coaches, waggons, carts;

While tinmans’ shops, and noisy trunk-makers,

Knife-grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters,

Fruit-barrows, and the hunger-giving cries

Of vegetable venders, fill the air.

Now ev’ry shop displays its varied trade,

And the fresh-sprinkled pavement cools the feet

Of early walkers. At the private door

The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,

Annoying the smart ’prentice, or neat girl,

Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun

Darts burning splendour on the glitt’ring pane,

Save where the canvas awning throws a shade

On the gay merchandize. Now, spruce and trim,

In shops (where Beauty smiles with Industry,)

Sits the smart damsel, while the passenger

Peeps thro’ the window, watching ev’ry charm.

Now pastry dainties catch the eyes minute

Of humming insects, while the limy snare

Waits to enthral them. Now the lamp-lighter

Mounts the tall ladder, nimbly vent’rous,

To trim the half fill’d lamp; while at his feet

The pot-boy yells discordant ! all along

The sultry pavement, the old-cloathsman cries

In tone monotonous, and side-long views

The area, for his traffic. Now the bag

Is slily open’d, and the half-worn suit

(Sometimes the pilfer’d treasure of the base

Domestic spoiler), for one half its worth,

Sinks in the green abyss. The porter now

Bears his huge load along the burning way,

And the poor Poet wakes from busy dreams,

To paint the Summer Morning.



Hide explicit adverbs.

Click here to see the adverbs in the above poem made explicit.


How do the adverbs compare with the adjectives in the poem above? – which type of modifier is doing the most work? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

Commentary

Adjectives predominate by 56:18 –

Adjectives and their Nouns Adverbs and their Verbs

busy sounds

shrilly bawls

Summer’s Morning

now

sultry smoke

now

noisy London

tripping lightly

pavement hot

now

sooty chimney-boy

where

dingy face

now

tatter’d covering

where

sleepy housemaid

now

tinkling bell

nimbly vent’rous

dustman’s office

yells discordant

clouds impervious

all

hackney coaches

side-long views

tinmans’ shops

now

noisy trunk-makers

slily open’d

Knife-grinders

sometimes

squeaking cork-cutters

now

Fruit-barrows

hunger-giving cries

vegetable venders

varied trade

fresh-sprinkled pavement

early walkers

private door

ruddy housemaid

busy mop

smart ’prentice

neat girl

band-box

burning splendour

glitt’ring pane

canvas awning

gay merchandize

spruce and trim (damsel)

smart damsel

pastry dainties

eyes minute

humming insects

limy snare

lamp-lighter

tall ladder

half fill’d lamp

pot-boy

sultry pavement

old-cloathsman

tone monotonous

half-worn suit

pilfer’d treasure

base Domestic spoiler

green abyss

huge load

burning way

poor Poet

busy dreams

Summer Morning

Adverbs of time: now, now, now, now, now, now, now, now, sometimes

Adverbs of place: where, where

Adverbs of manner: shrilly, lightly, nimbly, discordant, side-long, slily

Word-order is not always as expected. This is known as inversion:

side-long views rather than views side-long

eyes minute rather than minute eyes

clouds impervious rather than impervious clouds

tone monotonous rather than monotonous tone

pavement hot rather than hot pavement

Inversion is typical of poetry of the period, and some critics found it annoying. Also, some of the vocabulary has changed slightly over the intervening two hundred years; click to see OED entries for:

bandbox, n.

area, n. 2

damsel, n.

impervious, adj.

spoiler, n.

Note OED’s first-attested date of damsel fly (1817): given the references to insects in this part of the poem (eyes minute, humming insect, limy snare), both the senses ‘young woman’ and ‘insect’ might be operative, although it is frankly unlikely that a damsel-fly would be in a London shop, even in 1800. The base domestic spoiler is a robber; the area into which the old-clothesman peers sidelong, looking for a servant to emerge, is the well between the railings and the house frontage. The green abyss might be the area, green with plants, where the transaction takes place, or the green abyss might be the inside of the old-clothesman’s bag. Notice how adverbs in –ly have still not settled down to one immutable form: compare yells discordant with come quick, go slow, look sharp.

Although the poem is full of noisy movement, this is largely conveyed via the Noun Phrase, either [adjective + noun] or [noun + adjective]. But the poem is about the moment of waking and hearing all the hubbub, and whilst the adverbs of manner are relatively striking (especially when inverted or lacking an expected –ly), the eight tokens of now, easily overlooked, point to the last couplet where the poet wakes to write her poem.

Teaching Point

Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.  You might expect topics dealing with movement (like the rapid spread of fire or the rush-hour) to take many verbs and adverbs, but, (and this is a generalization against which individual texts may fail), literary texts usually contain many more adjectives modifying nouns than they do adverbs modifying verbs, regardless of subject.  The smaller adverbs (now, there, here) tend to preponderate and, like prepositions, serve to anchor a text in time and space.

For more about Mary Robinson, see her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Saglia, Diego. 2009. Commerce, Luxury, and Identity in Mary Robinson’s Memoirs. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol 49, No. 3.

Portrait of Mary Robinson by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781.