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:



To my mind what the National Curriculum doesn’t make sufficiently clear is that adverb is a grammatical form label (more specifically, a word class label), whereas Adverbial is a grammatical function label (and hence spelled with a capital letter on this blog). See my earlier blog posts about form and function (1) and form and function (2).

Remember that adverbs typically end in -ly and often indicate the ‘manner’ in which something is done, e.g. quickly, happily, ruthlessly, 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:

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 14.23.33.png

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.)


28 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?


    • 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.


      • 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!


  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


  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.


  5. Pingback: Form and function (2) | GRAMMARIANISM

  6. Pingback: Form and function (1) | GRAMMARIANISM

  7. Pingback: Beware of Google: the case of adverb phrases | GRAMMARIANISM

  8. Love your explanation on adverb and adverbials infact you did justice to the confusions in a simple and clear explanation.


  9. Thanks Mr Bas I used to learn a number of important and clear issues in your post. Am a university student in Tanzania taking linguistics and kiswahili. I repeat saying thanks for your post, because it has made me aware of the difference of the two concepts you’re talking about. Good work and keep on doing such a like.


  10. Thank you. This is a very useful explanation. As a yr 6 teacher, I will be looking to your blog for answers again as it seems to be hard to find decent explanations!


  11. Hi Bas,
    I hope you are still replying to comments here. I have a question about the grammatical level at which an Adverbial falls. You mention that it is above the level of subordinate clauses because a subordinate clause is a kind of Adverbial. It is above the level of phrases because it consumes prepositional phrases. If we are describing language as being a subordinate clause or prepositional phrase, is there any need to label the language as an Adverbial? I’ve been trying to fathom the value and level that an Adverbial has. Thanks,


    • Hi Aaron,

      Adverbials can occur in main clauses or in subordinate clauses.

      It’s not correct to say that “a subordinate clause is a kind of adverbial”. Some subordinate clauses function as adverbial, as in the following example:

      I was watching television [while I was cooking].

      But other subordinate clauses have different functions, e.g. subject or direct object:

      [That it will be a cold day] is obvious.
      I think [that it will be a cold day].

      As for your other queries, have a look at my posts ‘Form and function’ (1 and 2).


      • Thanks – it has been useful to read that an Adverbial is a function alongside subject, predicate, object and compliment. At what point does a simple sentence become a complex sentence if a main clause can consist of subordinate clauses functioning as Subjects, or if the main clause can include adverbials such as subordinate clauses? In your example ‘I was watching television [while I was cooking]’, I might label this a complex sentence because of the inclusion of the SubClause. but calling this an Adverbial suggests it is just a function of a simple sentence with one main clause.


  12. Yours is about the seventh treatment of this topic that I’ve read–including the Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford English Grammar–and I remain completely befuddled. Are you saying that all adverbs in sentences are per force Adverbials because they are functioning as adverbs? What I’m confused about it when to call a single word in a sentence an adverb and when to call it an adverbial. By your definition, form v. function, all adverbs in sentences are functioning as Adverbials.


    • Hi Heather,

      You ask: “Are you saying that all adverbs in sentences are per force Adverbials because they are functioning as adverbs?”

      No, you are not seeing this in the right way. Remember that the term ‘adverb’ is a form label and ‘Adverbial’ is a function label (see my two posts on Form and Function).

      Some adverbs do not function as Adverbials, e.g. in ‘I ran home very quickly’, the adverb ‘very’ modifies another adverb inside the adverb phrase ‘very quickly’. Do also have a look at the Englicious page on Adverbials:


  13. Hello Mr Aarts,

    Thank you for this post! Adverbs and Adverbials have always been a tricky thing for me. I wondered if I might ask a question to see whether I have gotten it right? In the following sentence, is the word ‘places’ considered an adverb of place, or an Adverbial of place?

    ‘He takes it places.’

    This sentence is from a children’s book about a dog and its bone. I think the preposition ‘to’ is potentially elided here, but would this still result in ‘places’ being a preposition phrase functioning as Adverbial?

    Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it!


    • Hi Rio,

      That’s a really interesting example.

      I would say that ‘places’ in ‘He takes it places’ has more of the feel of a complement (in the wider sense of that term described here: The reason is that if you leave it out the sentences changes in meaning. This suggests that ‘places’ is ‘selected’ (or, equivalently, ‘licensed’) by the verb ‘place’. Adverbials (as optional units) are never licensed by a verb.

      Hope this makes sense.



      • Hello Mr Aarts,

        Thank you so much for your explanation and sharing links. I have not heard of a complement before and so I am very eager to look into it – thank you!

        A language exchange friend asked me about this sentence and whether ‘places’ was an adverb. To be honest, I thought it was just acting simply as a plural noun in this sentence. Now I see it is more indeed more!

        Again, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to keeping up with your blog.

        Best regards,



      • Hello Mr Aarts,

        Thank you so much for your reply and explanation. I have not heard about a complement before and so I am very grateful that you supplied a link. I am eager to read more on this!

        A language exchange friend had sent this sentence to me and asked whether ‘places’ was an adverb. I had simply thought it functioned as a plural noun only. I can see now it’s more than that!

        Thank you so much again for your time, I’m very appreciative.

        Best regards,



  14. Pingback: Fronted adverbials: the bugbear of English grammar teaching | GRAMMARIANISM

  15. Pingback: Confusing grammar in the Australian and New South Wales English Curricula | GRAMMARIANISM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s