An adverb is a word that’s used to give information about a verb, adjective, or another adverb.
- they sang loudly
- she’s very pretty
- he writes really well
When used with a verb, adverbs can tell us about:
how something happens or is done (manner)
- She stretched lazily.
- He walked slowly.
- The town is easily accessible by road.
where something happens (place)
- I live here.
- She’s travelling abroad.
- The children tiptoed upstairs.
when or how often something happens (time and frequency)
- They visited us yesterday.
- I have to leave soon.
- He still lives in London.
- The engines were checked daily for faults.
Adverbs can make the meaning of a verb, adjective, or another adverb stronger or weaker. These are often called adverbs of degree:
with a verb
- I almost fell asleep.
- He really means it.
with an adjective
- These schemes are very clever.
- This is a slightly better result.
with another adverb
- They nearly always get home late.
- The answer to both questions is really rather simple.
Adverbs and Verbs
One of the things adverbs do is modify verbs. This means that they describe the way an action is happening.
- Phillip sings loudly in the shower.
- My cat waits impatiently for his food.
- I will seriously consider your suggestion.
The adverbs in each of the sentences above answer the question in what manner? How does Phillip sing? Loudly. How does my cat wait? Impatiently. How will I consider your suggestion? Seriously. Adverbs can answer other types of questions about how an action was performed. They can also tell you when (We arrived early) and where (Turn here).
However, there is one type of verb that doesn’t mix well with adverbs. Linking verbs, such as feel, smell, sound, seem, and appear, typically need adjectives, not adverbs. A very common example of this type of mixup is I feel badly about what happened.
Because “feel” is a verb, it seems to call for an adverb rather than an adjective. But “feel” isn’t just any verb; it’s a linking verb. An adverb would describe how you perform the action of feeling—an adjective describes what you feel. “I feel badly” means that you are bad at feeling things. If you’re trying to read Braille through thick leather gloves, then it might make sense for you to say “I feel badly.” But if you’re trying to say that you are experiencing negative emotions, “I feel bad” is the phrase you want.
Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs can also modify adjectives and other adverbs. Often, the purpose of the adverb is to add a degree of intensity to the adjective.
- The woman is quite pretty.
- This book is more interesting than the last one.
- The weather report is almost always right.
The adverb almost is modifying the adverb always, and they’re both modifying right.
- “Is my singing too loud?” asked Phillip.
- My cat is incredibly happy to have his dinner.
- We will be slightly late for the meeting.
- This bridesmaid dress is a very unflattering shade of puce.
Adverbs and Other Adverbs
You can use an adverb to describe another adverb. If you wanted to, you could use several.
- Phillip sings rather enormously too loudly.
The problem is that it often produces weak and clunky sentences like the one above, so be careful not to overdo it.
Adverbs and Sentences
Some adverbs can modify entire sentences—unsurprisingly, these are called sentence adverbs. Common ones include generally, fortunately, interestingly, and accordingly. Sentence adverbs don’t describe one particular thing in the sentence—instead, they describe a general feeling about all of the information in the sentence.
- Fortunately, we got there in time.
- Interestingly, no one at the auction seemed interested in bidding on the antique spoon collection.
At one time, the use of the word hopefully as a sentence adverb (e.g., Hopefully, I’ll get this job) was condemned. People continued to use it though, and many style guides and dictionaries now accept it. There are still plenty of readers out there who hate it though, so it’s a good idea to avoid using it in formal writing.
Degrees of Comparison
Like adjectives, adverbs can show degrees of comparison, although it’s slightly less common to use them this way. With certain “flat adverbs” (adverbs that look the same as their adjective counterparts), the comparative and superlative forms look the same as the adjective comparative and superlative forms. It’s usually better to use stronger adverbs (or stronger adjectives and verbs) rather than relying on comparative and superlative adverbs.
An absolute adverb describes something in its own right.
- He smiled warmly
- A hastily written note
To make the comparative form of an adverb that ends in -ly, add the word more.
- He smiled more warmly than the others.
- The more hastily written note contained the clue.
To make the superlative form of an adverb that ends in -ly, add the word most.
- He smiled most warmly of them all.
- The most hastily written note on the desk was overlooked.
Common Errors with Adverbs and Adjectives
Since adverbs and adjectives both modify other words, people often mistakenly use an adjective when they should use an adverb and vice versa. For example, the following sentence is incorrect:
- He behaved very bad on the field trip.
This is incorrect because “bad” is an adjective being used to describe “behaved,” which is a verb. It should read:
- He behaved very badly on the field trip.
On the other hand, this would be correct:
- His behaviour was bad on the field trip.
Here, the adjective “bad” is correctly describing the noun “behaviour.”
Good and Well
The words good and well are common triggers to the adverb vs. adjective confusion. It’s important to remember this:
Good is an adjective that modifies nouns.
- That good boy (n.) just gave his little sister a hug.
Well is an adverb that modifies verbs or even adjectives.
- He listens (v.) well.
- That well educated (adj) woman went on to marry a celebrity.