Standard Article


  1. Leo Francis Hoye

Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0009

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics

How to Cite

Francis Hoye, L. 2012. Adverbs. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 NOV 2012


Adverbs are the “bête noire” of English grammar. Their use attracts praise or censure in equal measure. Henry James remarked: “I'm glad you like adverbs—I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect” (James, 1920, pp. 214–15), a view not shared by the writer Stephen King: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs” (King, 2000, p. 95). While mostly optional in a grammatical sense, adverbs can add meaning to other clause elements, such as adjectives, other adverbs, nouns, verbs, even entire clauses. Concluding an interview with the wife of a suspect, a detective instructs: “‘Perhaps you would notify us, if he returns?’ ‘Oh definitely; surely, absolutely, no doubt about it’” (Furst, 2010, p. 23). Cull the adverbs (italicized) and the exchange sounds lame: “‘You would notify us, if he returns?’ ‘Oh yes.’” The oblique command and the unease it engenders are now gone. Adverbs can be persuasive: The political system is historically good at promoting social over private interests—not immediately, not perfectly, not always, but generally. And sometimes ironical: “Yes Mr. [French President] we [the UK] absolutely, categorically, possibly, maybe, could be going into Europe” (Hoye, 1997, p. 236, 2009, p. 112). Positionally mobile and semantically versatile, adverbs cover a range of meanings and grammatical functions, and several may co-occur. They can be used at best to marked effect; at worst, to create a verbal swamp. Their sheer diversity of use and function has earned them a maverick status as “the most nebulous and puzzling of the traditional word classes” (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, & Svartvik, 1985, p. 438). Adverbs are heterogeneous: Their miscellany of assorted features has bolstered the argument that, where a word cannot be assigned to another word class (such as noun, verb, adjective), it must be an adverb by default, rendering this a “catch-all” or “residual” category (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002, p. 563). Such heterogeneity makes for considerable semantic and syntactic diversity—something of a linguistic smorgasbord! In profiling their main features, this entry seeks to highlight the role and significance of adverbs for our everyday spoken or written communication. The examples that follow are given in italics, and the adverb(ial) forms are underlined. Frequent reference is made to three state-of-the-art grammars of contemporary English: Quirk et al. (1985); Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, and Finegan (1999), and Huddleston and Pullum (2002).


  • discourse analysis;
  • semantics;
  • syntax;
  • grammar