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Everyday Grammar: Beating Problems with Adverbs


For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

This week, we’re going to talk about some common problems with adverbs. Basically, adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. For example, "I ran quickly to the store." The adverb quickly describes the verb run.

What is an adverb?

If a word is not easy to classify as a noun, verb, or adjective, it is probably an adverb. Some of the most common words in English are adverbs, including up, so, just, then, how, now, also, here, and more.

Adverbs usually describe verbs. They express when, how, where, and why an action is done. Many adverbs are easy to find because they have the –ly ending, such as quickly, surely, and certainly. However, many adverbs do not have the –ly ending.

Everyday Grammar: Beating Problems with Adverbs
Everyday Grammar: Beating Problems with Adverbs

Adverbs can also describe adjectives. For example, "It is really cold today." In this example, really is an adverb that describes the adjective cold.

Adverbs can describe other adverbs. For example, "I will probably never go back." Here, the adverb probably describes the adverb never.

Where do you put the adverb?

Where do adverbs go in a sentence? Well, it depends.

Some adverbs can go almost anywhere in a sentence. Let us look at the adverb sometimes. It can go at the beginning of the sentence as in, "Sometimes, I walk to work." It can go after the subject: "I sometimes walk to work." Or it can go at the end of the sentence: "I walk to work sometimes."

Other adverbs can only go in the middle of a sentence. The adverb probably is an example. "She will probably leave early."

It is incorrect to say, "Probably she will leave early" or "She will leave early probably." Other such adverbs are never, rarely, seldom, and always. These are called mid-sentence adverbs. They usually go between the subject and the main verb. Different types of adverbs have different sentence positions.

What's the difference between adverbs and adjectives?

Adjectives describe nouns, while adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Take the sentence, "She is careful." The adjective careful is describing the noun she. But if you said, "She walks carefully," the adverb carefully is describing the verb walk.

Do you think this is hard? Hardly!

Native speakers sometimes confuse adverbs and adjectives.

The words hard and hardly are especially difficult. Hard is both an adjective and an adverb. You can say "The bed was hard," using the adjective, which means it is "very firm." You can also say, "I worked hard," using the adverb, which means "with a lot of effort."

Hardly is an adverb. A long time ago, it meant "in a hard manner," but its meaning has changed. People used to say "not hardly.” Over time, the word “not” disappeared. Since the 1500s, hardly has meant "almost not" or "barely." For example, "I hardly had time to finish the project." This conflicting meaning of hard and hardly has become the basis for jokes.

Listen to cartoon character Homer Simpson playing with the confusion between hard and hardly. In the scene, Homer’s co-workers are replaced with robots.

"So you guys are my new co-workers. So working hard or hardly working? (laugh). I said, ‘Working hard or hardly working?’ ‘Working hard or hardly working? WORKING HARD OR HARDLY WORKING?’ IT’S A SIMPLE QUESTION!"

Homer is asking the robots if they are working hard (working with energy) or hardly working (only working a little). The robots, with their exact reasoning, do not understand the word play in the question.

We will leave you with a song that uses the adverb softly in an unexpected way. Listen to the Fugees’ version of the classic song "Killing Me Softly with His Song."

Strumming my pain with his fingers

Singing my life with his words

Killing me softly with his song

Killing me softly with his song

I’m Jonathan Evans.

And I’m Ashley Thompson.

See this excellent reference on adjectives and adverbs from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

Adam Brock wrote and produced this story. Dr. Jill Robbins edited it.


Words in This Story

adverb - gramm. term. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree

adjective - gramm. term. a word that describes a noun or a pronoun

classifyv. to consider (someone or something) as belonging to a particular group

word playn. playful or clever use of words