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What are Adverbials?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Adverbials are elements of a sentence which provide information about the verb. They can take a number of forms, and can be found in various locations within a sentence. In a simple example of an adverbial, if someone says “I am going to run a marathon tomorrow,” “tomorrow” is the adverbial, because it informs the listener when the subject of the sentence is going to be running a marathon.

The term “adverbial” is closely related to the term “adverb,” but the two are slightly different. An adverb is an adverbial, but adverbials are not necessarily adverbs. In the phrase “she ran quickly,” “quickly” is acting as an adverbial which provides information about how fast she ran, and it also happens to be an adverb. Adverbials come in a range of flavors, all of which are intended to add information to a sentence to make it more clear or to change its meaning.

One could think of adverbials as parts of a sentence which provide answers to the classic journalistic interrogative: “who, what, where, when, why, and/or how.” In some cases, adverbials act as adjuncts, providing helpful but not critically necessary information, while an adverbial complement adds critical information to a sentence. Adverbial conjuncts can be used to link clauses together, while disjuncts at the start of a sentence provide information about the sentence which follows, as in “however, this assumes that the data from the experiment is correct.”

The positioning of adverbials can jump around in a sentence. Some come before the verb, some come after it, others occur in the middle of a verb phrase, and so forth. It is also possible to have multiple adverbials in a single sentence. Infinitive phrases, prepositional phrases, and noun phrases can all act as adverbials. It can be helpful to know how to identify an adverbial, as the adverbial can provide important information about what is going on in the sentence or phrase.

Topics such as sentence elements are commonly covered in introductory language classes as part of a grammar tutorial, so that students understand how sentences are constructed and learn about the various ways in which sentence structure can be presented. Rules about sentence structure vary between languages, which can sometimes be challenging for language learners. For example, in some languages, the order in which sentence elements are presented is not very important, while in others, it can be critical to the meaning of the sentence.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ShellM89 — On Jun 21, 2011

@B707 – I agree that it is important to consider the strict rules of English grammar. Letting your writing flow naturally is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be checked against the rules of grammar.

What sounds good may not necessarily be proper grammar; especially in this day and age when people often speak carelessly and we are repeatedly subjected to very poor grammar in popular media.

By B707 — On Jun 21, 2011

@PinkLady4 - I'm not sure I agree with you. In my experience, whenever I write something, I like to look in my grammar book often to look at examples and rules as I write. English is more precise than many other languages, as far as where different kinds of words are placed in the sentence.

On the other hands, your writing can be more natural and relaxed if you just go with the flow.

I guess it depends on who you are writing for.

By PinkLady4 — On Jun 21, 2011

It's sometimes difficult to analyze how an adverb or adverbial usage fits into your writing. It seems much better to go by the way it sounds when you read your composition out loud.

We learned the mechanics of such grammar points as adverb and adverbial phrases and clauses and we practiced them. As adults, most of us know naturally if an adverb or adverbial is in the best place to tell more about a verb, or make a sentence clearer.

By KaBoom — On Jun 21, 2011

@Monika - I vaguely remember learning about adverbial phrases in English class. However the knowledge didn't stick! I think unless you're a writer most people don't know that much about grammar in general.

By Monika — On Jun 21, 2011

Maybe I wasn't paying attention but I don't think I ever learned what an adverbial clause was in English class. It seems fairly straightforward though. Also knowing that adverbials answer the "journalistic questions" is very helpful.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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