How to avoid errors with adverbs #1

targetWhat do the following sentences have in common?

*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.

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc

5 Commentaires

  1. 19 juin 2009 à 8 h 39 min

    A nice short easy to understand explanation. I look forward to #2 and those that follow.

  2. 19 juin 2009 à 8 h 55 min

    Thanks for the feedback Kenny. A number of my students struggle with adverbs and grammar books are often unnecessarily complicated. I am still looking for the best way to teach adverbs simply – these posts contain some of the ideas I have used.

  3. 19 juin 2009 à 11 h 24 min

    This is a very clear and compact explanation, but it’s still going to be one of those things that takes students years to cope with properly. As much as a good explanation, I think it’s important to give them tips on how to actually learn them. Possible methods:
    – On their vocabulary list, write a sentence they have made a mistake with or other example sentence with the adverb taken out and try to remember where it goes each time
    – Try to replace an adverb in a sentence with as many other ones as they can
    – In class, play the sentence extension game, where teams take turns trying to make a sentence longer and longer
    – In class, dominoes with sentences that have been split near the adverb
    – Similar but more boring match the sentence halves activities
    – Sentences with blanks where the adverb would be that they fill to make it true for themselves, then their classmates guess their adverb from the grammar and their knowledge of that person

    That’s all that springs to mind at the mo’

  4. 19 juin 2009 à 11 h 48 min

    Alex your comment will definitely encourage me to write more grammar posts if I get such great suggestions in the comments! Several of these ideas are new to me and I’m looking forward to trying them out.

    I think you’re absolutely right that it’s in using adverbs that students get the hang of them. The explanations are possibly more helpful for teachers than learners – if nothing else than to help us avoid communicating « rules » that are really oversimplifications.

  5. 21 juin 2009 à 11 h 18 min

    Great post and looking forward to the next ones! I think that grammar is necessary but I personally prefer to learn it through listening to the language and then see if it sounds « natural » or « right ».

    For example:

    She speaks very well English –> doesn’t sound natural so my first approach was to change it to:

    She speaks very GOOD English, of course you can change the order of the adverb and say:

    She speaks English very well, which also sounds natural.


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