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Concourse 2

Adverbials: the essentials


Adverbials are words or phrases which tell us more about the verb.  For example:
    John walked
is a perfectly comprehensible sentence standing alone.  However,
    John walked quickly to work this morning in the rain because his wife had the car
tells us much more about the verb walk including:
    where John walked (to work, in the rain)
    how he walked (quickly)
    when he walked (this morning)
    why he walked (because his wife had the car).
All the words and phrases in brackets above are adverbials of some kind.  They come in this order:

  1. spatial:
        to work
    telling us where or in what direction.
        in the rain
    telling us the surrounding circumstance.
  2. manner:
    telling us how.
  3. temporal
        this morning
    telling us when.
  4. causal:
        because his wife had the car
    telling us the reason.

There are, as we shall shortly see, different ways that English can communicate the information.

test As a quick check, try this test to see if you can match the adverbials to the types.

If you got that right, it's safe to move on.


What's the difference between an adverb and an adverbial?

The short answer is that all adverbs are adverbials but not all adverbials are adverbs.
This is what is meant:
The term adverb refers to a class of words in English which often function as adverbials.  For example, all the words in black in these sentences are adverbs and they are all functioning as adverbials (because that's one of the things that adverbs do):

  1. She frequently contradicts me
  2. Mary went slowly into the room
  3. They greatly enjoyed the party
  4. He looked upwards
  5. He is coming soon
  6. They arrived late

Many adverbs in English are formed by adding -ly to the adjective (slowslowly etc.) but as the last three examples show, this is not always the case and adverbs cannot always be recognised by what they look like or even what they mean.  We have to see what they do.

Here are the same concepts but expressed using adverbials which are not adverbs:

  1. She contradicts me from time to time
  2. Mary went into the room without rushing
  3. They enjoyed the party a lot
  4. He looked to the sky
  5. He is coming in a moment
  6. They arrived after the dinner had started

In most of these cases, the adverbial is a prepositional phrase but in 3. it is a noun-phrase quantifier, a lot and in 6 it is an entire clause.

There is a separate guide to adverbs on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end which will tell you more about adverbs in general.  What follows here concerns some other forms of adverbials.


3 types of non-adverb adverbials

Apart from adverbs, English has three main ways of modifying (i.e., adding information to) a verb.


Prepositional phrases

Go over the bridge  

Prepositional phrases are the most common type of non-adverb adverbial.  They are, in fact, even more common as a way of adding information to a verb than adverbs themselves.
They are formed by the preposition (over, under, round, through, by, before, after, to, from, in front of, because of etc.) and its complement (or object) which is usually a noun phrase.  Like this:

Preposition Noun-phrase complement / object Example Function
before lunch They went for a walk before lunch a time adverbial adding information to went for a walk
to my house She came to my house a place adverbial adding information to the verb came
round the shopping centre They walked round the shopping centre a place adverbial adding information to walked
in French She spoke to me in French a manner adverbial adding information to the verb spoke
because of the rain They stayed at home because of the rain a causal adverbial telling us the reason for an action or state

Often, in almost all languages, sentences will contain a combination of prepositional phrases which each supply different sorts of extra information about the verb so we can have, for example:
    He walked over the hill to my house in the morning
which contains three prepositional phrases:
    over the hill (a prepositional phrase adverbial of place, specifically direction)
    to my house (ditto)
    in the morning (a prepositional phrase of time)
The first example in the table above also has two prepositional phrases, the first of which tells us why they went: for a walk.

It is important that you know that the prepositional phrases in, for example:
    She went to the house on the corner
are not both adverbials because
    to the house
tells us where she went and is an adverbial but
    on the corner
does not tell us where she went, it tells us where the house is so it is modifying the noun, not the verb.

Prepositional phrase adverbials normally tell us when or where (i.e., they are time or place adverbials).  That is not always the case because they can tell us other things.  For example:
    She muttered under her breath
tell us how she spoke, not where or when.

house next door

Noun phrases

He lives next door  

Noun phrases as adverbials are not very common but there are times when we do not need a preposition and the noun phrase can stand alone to tell us more about the verb.  Here are three examples:
    He arrived yesterday evening (a noun-phrase time adverbial)
    He speaks a great deal (a noun-phrase adverbial of extent)
    They went home (a noun-phrase adverbial of place)

Be careful here not to confuse noun phrases acting as the object of the verb with noun phrases acting as adverbials or modifying another noun.  For example, in:
    Last week she bought the house next door
the phrase next door is not an adverbial, it is modifying the house, not the verb, and the house is a noun phrase but not part of an adverbial because it is the direct object of the verb.
However, in that example, last week is and adverbial of course, because it tells us more about the verb, specifically when the action happened.



Spending time where she likes  

A clause, by some definitions, is a group of words which contains at least one verb.

Clauses can act as adverbials in many ways: how, where, when and why.  For example:
    They are doing it the way I told them to
tells us how they are doing it
    I am living where I want to be
tells us where I am living
    She went to the cinema after she left work
tells us when she went
    He asked because he needed the money
tells us why he asked

Clauses can also tell us other things about the verb.  For example:
    They will come if they have time
tells us what the coming is dependent on
    She went to the party although she was feeling ill
tells us what is conceded
    He speaks French as well as he speaks German
compares two verb phrases
and so on.
However, these sorts of adverbials are usually analysed and taught from the point of view of the conjunctions (if, although, as well as etc.).

There are a number of guides on this site which consider the forms of adverbials separately.  For the in-service guide, which contains much more technical information and has links to other areas, use the first link below.

Try a test of your understanding.

Related guides
adverbials for the in-service guide which is much more technical and detailed
adverbs essentials for the essential guide to this word class
adverbs for the more technical in-service guide to this word class
prepositions essentials for consideration of how preposition phrases work
prepositional phrases for more in the in-service section, more technical and detailed
conjunctions essentials for more on the way clauses are connected