*She speaks very well English.
*I go often to the theatre
*We’re tomorrow leaving for Belgium
*I think we should go early to bed.
Each of the sentences contains an adverb. An adverb is a word that usually answers questions like ‘how?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’ or ‘why?’.
In each of the sentences above, although the sentences are quite understandable, the word order is incorrect. The position of adverbs can be quite a confusing area of English grammar, for a variety of reasons. Many English teachers are influenced by a false idea about adverbs that they probably learnt at school, namely that adverbs are ‘words that modify verbs’. This is only a small part of what the versatile adverb can do. It can also modify adjectives, numbers, clauses, whole sentences and other adverbs. The only thing that an adverb can’t modify, in fact, is a noun. This makes the adverb a kind of ‘catch-all’ category of words that don’t fit in any other category.
Another false idea that you might have learnt: ‘adverbs are words that end in -ly’. It is true that many adverbs do end in -ly, but friendly, lovely, lonely, likely, ugly, deadly, cowardly and silly are all adjectives, and cannot be used as adverbs.
There are also some adjectives in -ly that can be used as adverbs, such as daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, early. For example:
I have to wake up early to catch the early train.
The other confusing thing is that there are three possible positions for an adverb in a sentence:
1. initial position – before subject and verb (Frankly, I think she’s lying.)
2. mid position – between subject and verb (John definitely saw a lion behind that tree.)
3. end position – after subject and verb (As a child I used to be punished daily)
Some kinds of adverbs can only go in one position:
I have to say Fortunately Peter sold his house before the prices went down. It would be unusual to say *Peter fortunately sold… and impossible to say *Peter sold fortunately…
Other kinds of adverbs can go in two of the positions:
Yesterday we took the children to the zoo and We took the children to the zoo yesterday are both possible, but not *We yesterday took…
And still other adverbs can go in all three positions:
Occasionally we go to the cinema, We occasionally go… and We go occasionally… are all possible.
Another thing to realise is that sometimes errors of adverb position are serious enough to cause misunderstanding:
Naturally, she gave birth and She gave birth naturally do not mean the same thing.
But in other situations errors are not serious, just a bit odd.
The problem with lumping all of these very diverse words into one category is that it can make learning the rules about how to use them seem complicated. This post is the first in a series where we will look at some of the different kinds of adverbs and how they behave.
Did you manage to correct the problems in the sentences at the beginning of the post?
She speaks English very well.
I often go to the theatre.
We’re leaving for Belgium tomorrow.
I think we should go to bed early.