What Is an Adverb? Adverbs vs. Adjectives
Updated: Apr 16
An adverb is a word that describes or modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or an entire clause. Adverbs, however, do not describe nouns—this is the job of adjectives.
Many people think of adverbs as words that tell us more about a verb. For example, quickly is an adverb in the phrase “He ran quickly” because it tells us something about the verb run.
This is correct, but adverbs can do more than this. Adverbs also modify adjectives (e.g., “Her clothes were incredibly clean”) and other adverbs (e.g., “He writes concisely, and always quickly”). Additionally, adverbs can modify entire clauses. In the phrase “I go there mostly for the good service,” the word mostly modifies the string of words for the good service. Such an adverb is called a clause adverb.
An accurate definition of an adverb, then, is as follows: An adverb is a word that describes or modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or an entire clause.
What Kinds of Information Do Adverbs Provide?
Adverbs can give us many kinds of information, such as the following:
Aspect: An adverb can tell us about the nature, appearance, or conduct of something. These are the adverbs that tend to end in -ly.
Example: “You sing beautifully.”
Intensity: An adverb can express magnitude or severity.
Example: “You sing very beautifully.”
Time: An adverb can give us temporal information.
Example: “I woke up early.”
Frequency: An adverb can tell us how often something occurs.
Example: “I rarely wake up early.”
Some adverbs do not give the reader information about another word but instead perform a linking function. Such conjunctive adverbs (or linking adverbs) are generally placed at the beginning of a sentence to connect it to the sentence which precedes it. An example of a conjunctive adverb is besides in the following sentence:
“It isn’t in her character to steal. Besides, she has an airtight alibi.”
Adjective or Adverb?
Adverbs can often be distinguished from adjectives by the attachment of an –ly suffix. For example, smart is an adjective, and smartly is an adverb.
However, some words can function as either an adjective or an adverb without having a suffix added. To know whether such a word is an adjective or an adverb, simply determine what kind of word it refers to. If it refers to a noun, it is an adjective. It refers to anything other than a noun, it is an adverb.
The two examples below illustrate how fast can be either an adjective or an adverb.
Adjective: Roger is fast.
Adjective: Roger runs fast.
In the first sentence, fast refers to Roger, which is a noun. Therefore, fast is an adjective. In the second sentence, fast refers to the verb run, meaning that fast is an adverb.
Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.