Agile Adverbs

In English grammar, parts of speech are grouped by type, and it seems as though adverbs are one of the least understood of them all. (See all eight at the end of this post.)

Adverbs are hard-working words that modify (describe) several other parts of speech: verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, clauses, phrases, or entire sentences.

That’s a lot for a single class of word to do, but it gets even worse: adverbs, by virtue of their placement, can cause a sentence to be completely different from another one containing the same words in a different order. (And no; adverbs do not all end in “ly.” That would be too easy.)

You’ve heard that in real estate it’s all about location, location, location — right? Well, the same is true with adverbs.

Let’s look at an example that comes from my “Brush Up on Your American Grammar” workbook (Want a free copy? Just ask.) that usually helps my students understand how an adverb works, in this case, “only.”

1. Only John works at the cleaners.
2. John only works at the cleaners.
3. John works only at the cleaners.
4. John works at the only cleaners.
5. John works at the cleaners only.

“Only” is my favorite one, because it so easily moves around a sentence, and when it does the sentence’s meaning may change. As you can see above, numbers 2, 3, and 5 are the same thought, but the emphasis is slightly different. The other two are completely different from these three and each other.

We writers need to be sure we are writing clearly, so we don’t inadvertently confuse our readers. This means we need to really focus on our adverbs because they can cause such grief!

And to refresh your memory, here are the eight parts of speech (in English / American grammar).

Adjective:  Modifies / describes a noun (and only a noun)
Adverb: Modifies / describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a phrase, a
clause, or a sentence (but not a noun)
Conjunction: Joins words, phrases, and clauses
Interjection: Expresses emotion
Noun: Names a person, place, object, idea, quality, or activity
Preposition: Shows a relationship between a noun (or pronoun) and other
words in a sentence
Pronoun: Takes the place of a noun
Verb: Identifies action or state of being