Beware of Google: the case of adverb phrases

Q: What is an adverb phrase?

A: A group of two or more words whose most important word (called the Head) is an adverb.

Here are some examples in context:

  • They repaired my bike [very quickly].
  • He worked [extremely hard] at the weekend.
  • She did [really well] in her tests.
  • Why are you leaving [so soon]?

The Heads of these adverb phrases are quickly, hard, well and soon.  They are modified by the adverbs very, extremely, really and so. (Remember that adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, as well as entire clauses/sentences.)

Despite this being really straightforward, it is nonetheless very easy to get confused about adverb phrases if you look up the notion using Google.

Here’s an example of the kind of definition of adverb phrase that I found on the web: ‘An adverb phrase consists of two or more words that act as an adverb.’

One particular website I came across offers lists of ‘adverb phrases’, such as the following:

  • adverb phrases describing ‘where’: on the corner, under the table, on the mat, near the sea
  • adverb phrases describing ‘when’: after the summer, in the evening, before they get up
  • adverb phrases describing ‘how’: with a pen, with pleasure

Are you confused by this? If you are, don’t worry, because the definition of adverb phrase given on these websites is wrong. The problem is the wording ‘two or more words that act as an adverb’. In the examples above the italicised units do not ‘act as an adverb’. What the author of this website is trying to say is that each of them can have the grammatical function of Adverbial when they are used in sentences such as the following:

  • I saw her on the corner.
  • We will meet again after the summer.
  • They check their email on their iPad before they get up.

In fact, none of the italicised units in the lists above are adverb phrases. They are all preposition phrases, except for before they get up which is a subordinate clause introduced by the subordinating conjunction before.

There are countless websites that confuse form and function, leading to poor writing on grammar. Here’s a particularly bad example. Can you make sense of it?

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 12.30.58

Conclusion: be careful when you search for grammar terms on the internet: what you find there is often completely unreliable. If you want to be sure to get reliable information about grammar, use Englicious.

On the difference between adverb and adverbial, see my blog post Adverb and Adverbial.

See also: Forms and function (1), Form and function (2).


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