Adverbs modify the meanings of verbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and other adverbs. Adverbial words usually end in -ly. For example, quickly in the clause come quickly is an adverb because it modifies the verb come. But there are many adverbs that do not end in -ly. For example, fast in the clause run fast is an adverb because it modifies the verb run.
Though we often speak of adverbs as single words, phrases and clauses can also function as adverbs. For example, in the sentence, “He writes with his left hand,” with his left hand is an adverbial phrase because it modifies the verb writes. And in the sentence, “He reads after his family has gone to bed,” after his family has gone to bed is an adverbial clause because it modifies the verb reads.
In this sentence, the adverb slowly modifies the verb tied:
He slowly tied his shoes.
In this sentence, the adverb dimly modifies the adjective lit:
The machines are stored in a dimly lit room.
Here, the adverb really modifies the adverb fast (which modifies the verb runs):
He runs really fast.
Here, directly modifies the preposition above:
The plane flew directly above our heads.
And here, the adverb right modifies the conjunction when:
Right when I got there, everyone started yelling.
From most adjectives
Most adjectives can be made adverbs by adding a -ly to the end—for example, coincidental becomes coincidentally, quick becomes quickly, and brilliant becomes brilliantly.
From -ic adjectives
Adjectives ending in -ic are made adverbs by adding -ally. For example, poetic becomes poetically, basic becomes basically, and historic becomes historically.
From adjectives ending in -le
To make an adverb from an adjective that ends a consonant followed by -le, drop the e and add y. For example, gentle becomes gently, and simple becomes simply.
From adjectives ending in -y
To make an adverb from an adjective ending in -y (but not -ly—see the next section) drop the y and add -ily—for example angry becomes angrily, hungry becomes hungrily.
From adjectives ending in -ly
Adjectives that end in -ly can make awkward adverbs—for example, friendlily, likelily, livelily, deadlily, cowardlily, lovelily, jollily, uglily, chillily, and so on. Spell-check may catch some of these adverbs (although ours allows friendlily, jollily, and chillily), but that doesn’t mean the words are technically incorrect.
Still, most writers find ways around using the awkward words. For example, instead of writing she walked lovelily, one might instead write, she walked in a lovely manner, she looked lovely when she walked, she walked with loveliness, and so on.
Writers adverbize -ly adjectives so infrequently that we can hardly find any examples on the web. Here are just a couple:
Instead she added, just a little more chillily … [Independent]
We should talk friendlily and frankly with our partners in Turkey. [Today’s Zaman]
The infrequency of such examples suggests that –lily adverbs aren’t generally considered acceptable, even if they are technically correct.
There are a few -ly adjectives that also function as adverbs. With these, the awkward ending isn’t an issue. A few of the most common ones are daily, early, weekly, monthly, hourly, stately, timely, nightly, and yearly.
Some adverbs don’t change from their adjectival forms. These are known as flat adverbs. A few of the most common ones are close, deep, fast, quick, and right. Some of these have corresponding -ly adverbs with which they are interchangeable—for example, come quick and come quickly mean the same thing. Some have corresponding -ly adverbs that have different meanings—right, for example, has several adverbial senses it does not share with rightly. Other flat adverbs are controversial; for instance, some linguistically conservative people might contend that deep cannot correctly function as an adverb and that it should always give way to deeply in adverbial uses.
Comparative and superlative adverbs
Like adjectives, adverbs in English have three degrees:
- Positive adverbs (e.g., softly) qualify the modified word without comparing it to anything else.
- Comparative adverbs (e.g., more softly) are used to compare two qualities.
- And superlative adverbs (e.g., most softly) are used to indicate that one modified word has a quality to a greater or lesser degree than two or more others.
Forming comparative and superlative adverbs
- Adverbs ending in -ly take the forms of comparative and superlative adjectives—e.g., I arrived early. He arrived earlier than me. She arrived earliest of all of us.
- Comparative adverbs of two or more syllables use more or less—e.g., I finished quickly. He finished more quickly. She finished most quickly of all of us.
- Writers occasionally modify -ly adverbs by changing the -ly to -lier or -liest (e.g., softlier, softliest), but these forms are usually considered nonstandard.
Irregular comparative and superlative adverbs
There are a few adverbs that don’t play by the rules. These are the most common ones:
badly – worse – worst
far – further/farther – furthest/farthest
little – less – least
much – more – most
well – better – best
Adverbs splitting verb phrases
Old-fashioned grammarians sometimes recommend against using split infinitives. For example, they might recommend saying, I don’t know if you presently are employed, instead of, I don’t know if you are presently employed, even though the latter sounds more natural to most native speakers of English.
But the prejudice against split infinitives and other verb phrases is unfounded. It may seem illogical to place an adverb between an auxiliary word and its verb, but it usually sounds better and is more common in both informal and formal speech and writing.
In these examples, the authors’ avoidance of split verb phrases leads to awkward constructions:
Once ashore, the teenagers quickly were loaded into ambulances and rushed to Schneck Medical Center … [The Republic]
Montgomery officials currently are sifting through development proposals for lower Dexter Avenue … [Montgomery Advertiser]
Man and man’s best friend soon can get together for a private meet and greet. [Youngstown Vindicator]
In each of these cases, the author could make the sentence sound more natural by switching the adverb and the auxiliary verb: … the teenagers were quickly loaded … ; … officials are currently sifting … ; … man’s best friend can soon get together … .
Adverbs modifying non-verbs
The text was extremely purple.
We traveled far beyond the border.
Adverbs and intransitive verbs
An adverb modifying an intransitive verb should immediately follow its verb—for example:
The leaves fall slowly to the ground.
The birds chirped languidly.
We make exceptions with the adverbs always, generally, often, never, rarely, and seldom—for example:
The dog only rarely barks.
I seldom go running these days.