Adverbs are words we use to explain how someone does (or did) something. While adjectives modify, or descrbe nouns, adverbs modify verbs. They can also be used to modify adjectives or other adverbs. So they may strengthen – or weaken – the force of a verb or adjective, and often answer the question how, when, where or how much. In English, an adverb can be almost anywhere in a sentence: before or after a verb, or at the beginning or end of a sentence.
She asked greedily
The fire raged uncontrollably
The words in italics tell us something more about the verbs (arrived, asked, raged).
Adverbs formed from adjectives
The words listed above, as with most adverbs, end in ‘-ly’. They are often formed from a related adjective. This can be confusing to someone learning English as a second language. Consider the following pairs of sentences:
He is a quick runner – He runs quickly
She is a cheerful girl – She laughs cheerfully
I ate a complete bar of chocolate – I ate the bar of chocolate completely
In each of the three sentences on the left, the word in italics is an adjective because it tells us something about the noun: What sort of runner? What kind of girl? How much of the chocolate?
In each of the three corresponding sentences on the right, the word in italics is an adverb, because it tells us something about the verb: How did he run? How did she laugh? How much did I eat?
If you are a native English speaker, you probably use words correctly without thinking about them. Your children are likely to as well. But if you are learning another language (or if English is not your first language) then it’s important to understand the distinction. In some languages, adjectives change their form depending on whether the noun is masculine or feminine, or may have plural terms too. Adverbs, however, do not change their form.
Other words used as adverbs
Some less obvious words can also be used as adverbs. For instance: late, soon, very, still, not, fast. These can also be used in sentences to modify verbs. For instance:
The postman came late
She will arrive soon
He is very tired
I am not going
In these sentences, the words in italics are the verbs. We could say, ‘the postman came quickly’ or ‘the postman came reluctantly’ – so ‘late’ in the first sentence is also an adverb. The word ‘late’ can, of course, also be used as an adjective (‘The late Mother Teresa’) and is a little confusing since it does not change format.
Likewise, ‘soon’, ‘very’ and ‘not’ are adverbs in these sentences, but may be used as other parts of speech in other contexts.
Comparative and superlative adverbs
Like many adjectives, some adverbs have three forms, telling us different intensities of meaning. For instance: Jane jumped high; Janet jumped higher; Janette jumped highest. Higher is the comparative form: it can be used when there are two people to compare. Janet jumped higher than Jane did, in the above example. We might also use the comparative form when we say, for instance: John reads faster than Jessica; Jeremy arrived later than Jackie.
When there are three or more people or items being compared, we can also use the superlative form which tells us which of them fits the particular adjective best. So while John and Jack are both tall, Joel is the tallest of them all. We might say: this is my eldest child; Mount Everest is the highest peak; that’s the coldest winter I can remember.
While most comparative and superlative forms of adverbs – if they exist – are formed in regular ways, adding -er and -est respectively, there are a few irregular ones, for instance: well, better, best; badly, worse, worst.
With longer words, generally those of more than two syllables, we don’t use compararive and superlative forms as such, but (again, like with adjectives) add the words ‘more‘ or ‘most‘ – which are, themselves, adverbs. So we might say: she is the most beautifully behaved girl I have ever seen; our new fridge works more efficiently than the old one.
When to use adverbs
Adverbs, like adjectives, can be useful in giving us extra information, or a better idea of how someone is behaving. So they can work well in descriptive writing. For instance: I was walking rapidly along the street, whistling cheerfully. My nose was suddenly assaulted by a terrible smell. I looked around cautiously, but could not see anything obvious that would account for it. I continued more slowly on my walk, observing carefully all that was around me.
As with adjectives, it is important not to overdo adverbs. The paragraph above could be made tighter by removing some of them, or switching the sentence structure to include more adjectives instead. If you use too many adverbs, your speech or writing can seem exaggerated or sloppy. On the other hand, if you use none at all it can seem unimaginative or bleak.
If you would like further more explanations and examples of adverbs, you might like to visit one of these sites:
The adverb – adverbs and their characteristics, with an exercise if you scroll down the page
Adverbs – a detailed page with many possible uses of adverb; this also has an exercise at the bottom
Adverb list – a lengthy list of most of the descriptive adverbs – more than you are ever likely to need!
BBC Skillwise on Adverbs – a fact sheet, a worksheet and a quiz
For other pages on English grammar on this site, see:
Introduction to grammar – why study the subject at all? An overview of parts of speech
Nouns – the different forms of nouns explained, with plenty of examples
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices of verbs
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adjectives – what adjectives are and how to use them