‘Adverbing’ merrily

Exploring words that modify adjectives, verbs, other adverbs, and even sentences.

In traditional grammar, there are eight parts of speech (or word classes), one of which is adverb. What is an adverb? The word is derived from Latin ad “to” + verbum “a word” – but the components give no clue as to the meaning of the word, and my use of the word as a verb (which does not exist) does not help matters.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed., 2004) defines adverb as “a word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, or of a sentence” (e.g. gently, very, fortunately)” – my underline, to be followed by some elaboration.

Adverb phrase and adverb clause

An adverb need not be a single word. When expressing notions such as time, reason, condition, concession, etc., a phrase can also function as an adverb, specifically as an adverb phrase, e.g. we’ll be with you in a moment; they arrived last night; no doubt you will attend the concert. Likewise a clause can function as an adverb, specifically as an adverb clause, e.g. I’ll come when I’m ready; they succeeded because they persevered (Chalker, S. & Weiner, E., 1998. Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, p14).

In this article, we shall, however, discuss single-word adverbs.

Sentence adverb

Compare Sentence A (Hopefully, I shall arrive home by half-past five) with Sentence B (Hopefully, it will be fine weather tomorrow). In Sentence A, the adverb, underlined, is associated with the subject of the sentence = I hope to arrive home by half-past five), whereas in Sentence B, the adverb, underlined, cannot possibly be associated with any of the words in the sentence – it modifies the whole sentence; in other words, it is a sentence adverb.

The same consideration holds for the following two sentences: Luckily, she escaped with minor injuries vs luckily, the traffic was light at that time of day.

Types of adverb

“Adverbs typically express some relation of place, time, manner, attendant circumstance, degree, cause, inference, result, condition, exception, concession, purpose, or means” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1989; p21). Our focus is on single-word adverbs, which may be categorised into the following groups: (1) adverbs of time, e.g. now, then, before, ago, soon, today, yesterday; (2) adverbs of place, e.g. here, there, everywhere, above, in, out, far, near; (3) adverbs of manner, e.g. well, badly, quickly, bravely, quietly, increasingly, mistakenly; (4) adverbs of quantity, e.g. exactly, merely, partly, wholly; (5) adverbs of degree, e.g. much admired, more beautiful, most carefully, less slowly, least valuable, too clever; highly successful (6) adverbs of intensity, or intensifying adverbs, e.g. exceedingly large, very tall, quite ripe, utterly hopeless, almost, about, hardly, rather, scarcely; (7) adverbs of frequency, e.g. once, twice, often, habitually, always, sometimes, never; (8) adverbs of order, e.g. firstly, secondly, thirdly; (9) adverbs of certainty, denoting affirmation or negation, e.g. yes, no, certainly, indeed, undoubtedly, verily, nay; (10) adverbs of reason, e.g. he therefore resigned from his job; hence she left him for good; (11) adverbs of interrogation, or interrogative adverbs, e.g. when? where? how? why?; and (12) relative adverbs, which are essentially interrogative adverbs but are used to begin a clause, e.g. the town where I was born; the reason why we exercise.

Adverb or adjective?

Some adverbs have the same form as the adjectives. Examples: (1) he is a fast runner (adjective) vs he runs fast (adverb); and (2) she is well (adjective) vs she is well liked by her peers (adverb). However, there are some adverbs that may cause some difficulty in parsing. Examples include the following:

(1) Pretty. Consider this word in the sentence: This is a pretty big room. Here the word pretty is not an adjective, and the sentence does not mean that the room is pretty and big. Rather the word pretty is an adverb modifying the adjective big. I wonder if there is merit in the adverb pretty considering that it can take several meanings, e.g. “to a large degree” (Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1997), “to a moderately high degree”, “fairly” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004), and “very” (Oxford Advanced Leaner’s Dictionary (2010). Come to think of it, the adverb pretty is pretty confusing.

(2) Very. Consider the word very in the sentence: This is the very unique book that I was looking for. On the face of it, the juxtaposition of the words very and unique is irregular. Unique means “being the only one of its kind”, and is, therefore non-gradable. Putting the adverb very to form the seeming superlative very unique is therefore a grammatical no-no. But no, a different sense is indicated here: the book is indeed unique, but the word very is not an adverb modifying the adjective unique but an adjective, meaning “actual”, qualifying unique book.

(3) Bloody. Normally the word is an adjective, the corresponding adverb being bloodily. However, in slang, it is an adverb, “a swear word that many people find offensive that is used to emphasise a comment or any angry statement” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2010). Examples, as an adverb: (a) He doesn’t bloody care about anybody else; (b) “So go back in your shell, / I can do bloody well / Without (you)” – Outcry from Eliza Doolittle, in the musical My Fair Lady, Act 2 Scene 5.

Formation of adverbs

In several languages, adverbs are mostly distinguished in form, as, for example, by the word-ending -e in Latin (festina lente “hasten slowly”), -ment in French (clairement “clearly”), or -mente in Italian (velocemente, “quickly”).

Malay has single-word adverbs (perlahan “slowly”). It also forms adverbs by reduplication (diam-diam “silently”, tiba-tiba “suddenly”), or, commonly, by a phrase (dengan cepatnya “fast”, sedikit demi sedikit, “gradually”).

In English, certain adverbs share the same form as the adjectives (e.g. fast, well) as shown above. Many adverbs are, however, formed by affixation. Among the affixes used are the prefix a- and the various suffixes, notably -ly, which are noted below.

(1) a-, the reduced form of the Old English preposition on, meaning “on”, “in”, “into”, “to”, “towards”, which forms an adverb when prefixed to a noun (ablaze, aground, ashore), or to an adjective (afresh, alone, aright), or to a verb (adrift, asleep, asunder).

(2) off, not really a prefix but an adjective or adverb or preposition in its own right; nevertheless it forms an adverb when prefixed to a noun (offhand, off-key, offshore, offside)

(3) -ly, a suffix added to an adjective to form an adverb (bad/badly, busy/busily, casual/casually, happy/happily, simple/simply). It is by far the most versatile of the adverb-forming suffixes, being also applicable to nouns converted beforehand to adjectives (accident/accidental/accidentally, spirit/spiritual/spiritually, sleep/sleepy/sleepily, need/needless/needlessly, hope/hopeful/hopefully, hand/single-handed/single-handedly), verbs after conversion to adjectives (continue/continual/continually, continue/continuous/continuously, justify/justifiable/justifiably, force/forcible/forcibly), verbs after conversion to the present participle (increase/increasing/increasingly, surprise/surprising/surprisingly), and verbs after conversion to the past participle (mistake/mistaken/mistakenly, suppose/supposed/supposedly).

(3) -ling, variant -long, an Old English adverbial suffix expressing direction, position, state, etc. (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1989) forming an adverb with a noun (headlong, sideling, sidelong).

(4) -ward, also -wards, a native English suffix, forming adverbs indicating “towards the specified place or direction” (backwards, homeward).

(5) -ways, a combining form of Middle English weyes “ways”, appearing in native English adverbs denoting direction (always, lengthways, sideways).

(6) -wide, a combining form tagged onto a noun to form an adverb indicating “extending or spread throughout” (nationwide, worldwide).

(7) -wise, an adverbial suffix denoting manner, position, reference, etc. (clockwise, lengthwise, likewise, otherwise).

Parting shot

With the above “adverbing” exercise, I fear that the “box” sitting atop my neck is about to go haywire. The dictionaries classify the word haywire, meaning “out of control”, as an adjective. Hey, should it not be an adverb?


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