Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Crash Course in Adverbials—Modifiers of Verbs

An adverbial is any structure—a word, phrase, or clause—that performs the function of an adverb: it modifies a verb by telling us how (manner), where (location), when (time or frequency), or why (reason) an action is done. Just like adjectivals, we have several choices of adverbials.

1. Single-word Adverbs
These are the easiest of the bunch! You've seen them, you've used them, and you've known them all of your life—those "-ly" words like nervously, quietly, actually, suddenly, harshly, and slowly as well as "non -ly" words like now, then, today, often, always, sometimes, never, here, there, everywhere, etc. Single-word adverbs like these provide simple information about how, where, when, or how often the action expressed by a verb happens. Furthermore, a great deal of these adverbs are quite versatile with regard to movability. Take this example from a favorite textbook of mine:

Suddenly the wind shifted.
The wind suddenly shifted.
The wind shifted suddenly.

As you can see, single-word adverbs of manner like suddenly can be moved to various positions within a sentence.

2. Nouns and Noun Phrases
You may not realize it at first, but quite often nouns and noun phrases (which are noun "headwords" combined with any determiners or modifiers that may accompany them) take on adverbial roles. Don't believe me? Check out these examples:

Clark works this week.
I walked home.
Every day she studies.
They sent the package airmail.

Do you see how these nouns and noun phrases are functioning as adverbs? In the first example, this week tells us when Clark works. In the second, home tells us where I walked. In the third, every day tells us how often she studies. And in the fourth, airmail tells us how they sent the package. So, be on the lookout for such nouns—if you see a noun or noun phrase that actually tells you when, where, how, or how often a verb happens, you have yourself an adverbial!

3. Prepositional Phrases
That's right: prepositional phrases can put on not only an "adjectival" hat, but also an "adverbial" hat. You remember the parts that constitute a prepositional phrase, right? It requires a preposition followed by an object, which is always a structure functioning as a noun ("nominals," which I'll cover in a future post). Here are some examples of adverbial prepositional phrases:

The team hiked in the woods.
During winter we burn wood.
The smell permeated throughout the theater.
She did it for his sake.

Sometimes adverbial prepositional phrases just pile on one another, as in this example:

Oliver studied at the library for several hours on Saturday.

Again, because all these prepositional phrases are telling us where, how long, and when an action takes place, they are adverbial. One challenge, however, is determining whether a prepositional phrase is playing an adjectival or adverbial role. Take a look at this next example—can you tell which prepositional phrase is adjectival and which is adverbial?

The chariman of the Federal Reserve discussed his views on CNN.

You can do it. :)

4. Infinitives and Infinitive Phrases
Remember these? An infinitive is the particle to followed by the base form of a verb. When this verb is accompanied by a direct object or any modifiers, it is upgraded to an infinitive phrase, and either of these can certainly function as adverbials. Please direct your ocular activity toward these examples:

I went home early to relax.
Jennifer took on two paper routes to earn money for camp.
Mom cashed a check to buy a new TV.
The cat jumped to reach the window.

All the infinitives and infinitive phrases here are providing us with adverbial information—specifically, at least in these cases, why these actions happen. So, the next time you hear someone close to you say something like "I did it to make you happy," be sure to tell them, "Hey! 'To make you happy' is an adverbial infinitive phrase that tells me why you did it!" And then be prepared to endure a long stare of concern.

5. Participles and Participial Phrases
Though not extremely frequently, participle forms of verbs (well, namely, the present participle forms) and, by extension, participial phrases can function as more than just adjectivals—they can be adverbials, too. Check these out:

I rang the bell, and the dogs came running.
My uncle made a fortune selling cars.

While participles and participial phrases more commonly modify nouns in their roles as adjectivals, you should be able to detect when they are actually modifying verbs. In these two cases, we see how (or in what manner) the dogs came as well as how my uncle made a fortune.

6. Subordinate Clauses
Another type of dependent clause, subordinate clauses are groups of words containing a subject and a verb but are introduced with subordinating conjunctions (such as because, since, when, while, after, until, etc.) and therefore cannot stand alone as complete thoughts (they are not to be confused with another dependent clause you saw in my last post—the relative, or adjective, clause, which begins with a relative pronoun). These clauses clearly can function as adverbials, provided that they give adverbial information. Here are some examples:

The audience gasped when the magician thrust his sword into the box.
Before you take that exam, you should eat some breakfast.
Pay close attention to your e-mail because a virus could be lurking there.

Of course, these adverbial subordinate clauses (which, in these cases, tell us where and why these actions take place) can appear either before or after the independent (or "main") clauses to which they are attached. If a subordinate clause appears before an independent clause, the two should be set off from each other by a comma.

And there you have it! If you have any questions about adverbials, feel free to ask in the comments section!


Tisha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tisha said...

Thanks, Chad; this is interesting - and I have a question. In your first example of single-word adverbs, is there a preferred placement for adverbs like "suddenly"? I often wonder whether they should go before or after the verb they modify.

Chad said...

Good question, Tisha. To my knowledge, there isn't necessarily a "preferred" placement for highly movable adverbs of manner like "suddenly." Their placement in a sentence is largely left to the writer's discrection. Whereever you think the adverb would be most effective, go ahead and place it there.

When it comes to adverbs of frequency, however, my understanding is that guidelines regarding placement are a tad firmer. If an adverb of frequency like, oh, let's say "often," is used, it should usually appear after a "be" verb and before an action verb. These examples should illustrate what I mean:

I am often in my room.
I often study in my room.

Of course, I've seen these guidelines violated before, and I don't know that doing so is wrong.

Hope this helps!

Tisha said...

Thank you, Chad!

Chad said...

Yikes. Please disregard any spelling errors you notice in my last comment as the unfortunate result of hunger-induced haste. :(