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).

6 thoughts on “Beware of Google: the case of adverb phrases

  1. Dear Bas Aarts,
    I am Seonkyu Park, who teach English in a Korean high school. Personally, it was really helpful for me to study Syntax by using your great book, English Syntax and Argumentation.

    I have a question about a phrasal structure. The verb phrase is as follows: “operate a player short” For your reference, I show you the whole passage: Ice hockey is unusual among the major sports in that teams frequently play with different numbers of players. Penalties are given for various physical violations that go beyond the sport’s permissive rules of contact. Such penalties result in a player being sent to an isolated area called the penalty box, after which the offender’s team must operate a player short. This period of time, when teams have different numbers of players, is called a power play, and provides an excellent scoring opportunity for the larger team.

    I think, in the VP “operate a player short”, ” short” should be regarded as an advP. Is this correct? Also, based on your analysis regarding “eat the pizza naked” in the book , this VP is a constituent and “naked” is considered an adjunct. So, as your analysis, is it possible to assume that “operate a player short” is a constituent and “short” is an adjunct? I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you!


    • The sentence means, I think, that the team will operate while being ‘short of a player’. The word ‘short’ is definitely an adjective, functioning as the head of an adjective phrase, and ‘a player short’ is plausibly analysed as a small clause.


  2. I found quite interesting that the title of this post reads: ‘Beware of Google’. Google in this case has no responsibility with the actual issue of the adverb phrase described wrong in an independent web page.
    I found your blog very interesting, however I have to say: we all have to be very cautious when delivering information.
    English is my second language and I’m on my quest to use to perfection, your blog helps not only teachers.
    Thank you and I hope you take this comment as a constructive criticism. The blog post is actually very good.


  3. Dear Mr. Aarts

    I have a question concerning the previous question above.

    How about ‘He came an hour late.’ Is ‘late’ here an adjective?
    I think in the sentence ‘He came an hour late.’, ‘late’ is an adverb and ‘an hour late’ is an AdvP.
    In the sentence ‘When he came, he was an hour late.’, it is obvious that ‘late’ is an adjective. But this can’t be an evidence that ‘late’ is an adjective in ‘He came an hour late.’

    By the same token, I think that ‘a player short’ is an AdvP in ” the offender’s team must operate a player short.” What do you think about my opinion?


    • Great question. In the phrase ‘an hour late’ we have an NP modifying the word ‘late’. I agree with you: we’d have to say that in ‘He came an hour late’, the word ‘late’ is an adverb, but in ‘He is an hour late’ it is an adjective. I think you could be right about the other example as well, though you could also argue that ‘a player short’ is an AdjP functioning as a special kind of complement of the verb ‘operate’.


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