Adverb and adverbial

What is the difference between the terms adverb and adverbial? The two are often confused and this isn’t surprising, given that they sound so similar. Here are the National Curriculum definitions:

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To my mind what the National Curriculum doesn’t make sufficiently clear is that adverb is a form label (more specifically, a word class label), whereas adverbial is a function label (See my earlier blog post about form and function.)

Remember that adverbs typically end in -ly and often indicate the ‘manner’ in which something is done, e.g. quickly, happily, frankly, slowly, reluctantly, etc. However,  not all adverbs end in -ly: we also have very, often, always, sometimes, seldom, maybe, perhaps, and so on. And apart from ‘manner’ they can express a huge range of further different meanings, e.g. ‘location’, ‘time’, ‘reason’.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we also have words like fast which are adverbs in some contexts, but adjectives in other. In the first sentence below it is an adjective that modifies a noun, but in the second it is an adverb that modifies a verb:

  • She loves to travel on fast trains.
  • The new high speed trains travel fast.

Adverbs can form adverb phrases. This is when we have two or more words, the most important of which is an adverb.* Very fast is an example. Here are some more examples:

  • We have always lived together [extremely happily].
  • You will [quite possiblyhave to leave early.
  • She [nearly always] cooks chicken on a Sunday.

In these three examples the adverb phrases perform the grammatical function of adverbial, but it is important to be aware of the fact that this function can also be performed by other kinds of units. The NC Glossary gives examples of three, namely a preposition phrase, a noun phrase and a subordinate clauses:

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You also need to be aware of the fact that the same phrase can perform different grammatical functions, depending on its position in a sentence. Compare the following:

  • Last week was great.
  • I really loved last week.
  • We had a great time last week.

In each of these sentences from the point of view of form last week is a noun phrase, but the function of this phrase differs in each case: in the first sentence it functions as subject, in the second it is an object, whereas in the third example it is an adverbial.

What is a fronted adverbial? This is simply an adverbial that is placed at the start of a sentence, as in the following examples:

  • Over the last few weeks, the train company has apologised several times for the delays. [preposition phrase functioning as fronted adverbial]
  • Last month, we went to the beach. [noun phrase functioning as fronted adverbial]
  • Before the match finished, the stadium emptied. [subordinate clause functioning as fronted adverbial]

(Something to be aware of: the NC insists that children write a comma after a fronted adverbial.)

The italicised phrases would normally occur later in the sentence, so a question that arises here is this: ‘Why would we want to put adverbials at the start of a sentence?’ The answer is that fronted adverbials highlight the phrases that have been placed initially, and hence they can be a useful device for writers to draw their readers’ attention to this part of the sentence. For example, in the sentences above, the fronted adverbials in each case signal that the ‘time when’ things happened is somehow important. Fronted adverbials also offer writers the opportunity to vary their sentence structures, and for this reason teachers often encourage their students to use them. However, as with other stylistic features of writing there’s a danger that the use fronted adverbials becomes a ‘box ticking’ exercise. Obviously teachers should watch out for this.

To finish this post, two further points.

You may be wondering whether last week in the sentence Last week was great is a fronted adverbial. The answer is ‘no’: this phrase does not function as an adverbial, and it’s not fronted either. As we have already seen, this noun phrase functions as subject here, and for that reason cannot have the function adverbial as well, because any unit of language can have only one grammatical function. It is placed in the expected position for subjects, and hence is not fronted.

Finally, a word of warning regarding the term adverbial phrase. It’s best to avoid using this label, because it confuses the function label adverbial with the form label phrase.

*Footnote: in the National Curriculum a word on its own is not regarded as a phrase, so that in the sentence She will arrive soon, the adverb soon functions as adverbial, but is just an adverb, not an adverb phrase. (This is despite the fact that most linguists would say that words on their own should also be regarded as phrases.)

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7 thoughts on “Adverb and adverbial

  1. Thanks for sharing your post, Bas! I am an English Grammar tutor at an online teacher education programme in Argentina, and the unit about adverbs and adverbials includes that distiction. Your explanation and examples are crystal clear, so I think I will send this link to my group of student teachers. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Bas! This is very useful and really clear. And I like the way you preempt any confusion between a fronted adverbial and noun phrase subject.

    The one thing I wonder about, though, is your point about the term ‘adverbial phrase’. I get your point that it juxtaposes function and form. But does this really matter? Don’t a lot of phrases and compounds outside the field of linguistics do the same thing, i.e. combine an object’s function with its descriptive category? Isn’t this what for example, ‘washing machine’ does?

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    • Thanks for your comments, Brian. As regards your question, I guess that so long as you are aware that you are combining function and form in one term, that’s fine, but in my experience, teaching CPD, I have found that for many teachers the distinction between form and function is entirely new. The National Curriculum makes no mention of it.

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      • Since I put up my original comment I have read the training materials that are given to markers of KS tests. I think a section headed ‘Adverbial phrases and adverbials’ illustrates your point!

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  3. Hi
    Dear Sir Bas Aarts

    I’m your big fan and have read your books. My question is that indirect object when it’s used with to or for preposition becomes prepositional phrase, yet many books call it an object. On other hand we say an object must be an NP. Please guide.
    Thank you very much

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    • Thanks, Nauman. In I gave my dog the bone, the NP my dog functions as Indirect Object, but in I gave the bone to my dog, the PP to my dog is usually said to function as Adverbial.

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  4. Dear Sir Bas Aarts,

    ‘Than’ is used both as a preposition and as a conjunction. In almost all dictionaries, it is used as preposition ans conjunction. But in grammar books, it is written informal to use as preposition as “She must be taller than me” by RODNEY HUDDLESTON in A Student’s Introduction to
    English Grammar. Similarly, most dictionary examples are with subjective case of pronouns after than. Though an explanation about it has been given in oxford dictionaries, people support only the idea that than is a conjunction, and give examples as I have mentioned above.

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