What is an Adverb Phrase and How to Write One?

In this post, we’ll cover ins and outs of adverb phrase.

What’s an adverb phrase?

An adverb phrase is a phrase that has an adverb as its head word (or the most important word), and it functions as an adverb in a sentence. If you recall, a phrase is a group of words that doesn’t have both a subject and a verb.

Consider these two sentences (comments that go with examples are in square brackets):

He writes slowly. [Adverb]

He writes so slowly. [Adverb phrase]

Note: In all the examples, adverb phrase has been underlined, with its head word in bold.

First things first, so slowly is a phrase because it has more than one word without having both subject and verb in it. And it’s an adverb phrase because it has an adverb, slowly, as its head word. (How to form adverb phrases like these is covered later in the post.)

In simple words, you can understand an adverb phrase to be workers that have come together under the leadership of an adverb to accomplish the task of describing a verb, an adjective, or even an adverb. In the examples above, we looked at only the case of an adverb describing a verb.

In coordinate adverb phrases, there is no head adverb

An adverb phrase can have two or more adverbs joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, etc.). In such cases, the adverbs are weighted equally and hence none is a head adverb. Examples:

He laughed wildly and uproariously. [None of wildly and uproariously are head adverbs as they’re weighted equally.]

The president took the questions calmly and confidently.

We moved uphill cautiously but confidently.

An adverb phrase answers questions but also functions as a modifier

An adverb phrase functions as an adverb.

What does it mean?

Like any adverb, it provides answers to important questions on time, place, manner, reason, etc., providing background information in a sentence. In the example He writes so slowly, so slowly answers the adverbial question in what manner (or how).

An adverb phrase can also be understood from the perspective of modification. As a modifier, it modifies mainly verbs and sometimes adjectives and adverbs. In the same example, so slowly modifies the verb writes.

There is no contradiction between the two: while answering those questions, adverb phrases modify mainly verbs and occasionally adjectives and adverbs. They just have dual personality.

How to identify adverb phrase in a sentence?

A quick, easy way to identify an adverb phrase in a sentence is to see which word in the phrase can replace the entire phrase while still making sense of the sentence. Let’s take the example of sentence we saw earlier.

He writes so slowly.

If you retain one word at a time in the phrase so slowly in the above sentence, only this one would make sense:

He writes slowly.

You can draw two inferences from this:

  • so slowly is an adverb phrase because it can be replaced by an adverb.
  • The adverb slowly is the head word in the phrase so slowly.

How to write an adverb phrase?

An adverb phrase is a phrase that has an adverb as its head word and one or both of a premodifier and a postmodifier. As the names suggest, a premodifier comes before the adverb and a postmodifier comes after the adverb. There is an exception (sothat clause) though which comes partly before and partly after the adverb.

Note that in all the examples, the adverb phrase has been underlined and the head word, an adverb, highlighted in bold.

Premodifier

Only an adverb can be a premodifier in an adverb phrase. Examples:

He writes so slowly. [Adverb as premodifier]

He won the match quite comfortably. [Adverb as premodifier]

Postmodifier

A postmodifier can be an adverb, an adverb phrase, a prepositional phrase, an infinitive phrase, or even a clause. Examples:

Nadal won the match comfortably enough. [Adverb as postmodifier]

Nadal performed easily enough to qualify for the next round. [Adverb phrase as postmodifier]

Luckily for the houseowners, the dog saw the thieves. [Prepositional phrase as postmodifier]

The jet travels too fast to be targeted by missiles. [Infinitive phrase as postmodifier]

She danced better than anyone could imagine. [Clause as postmodifier]

So-that clause

As mentioned earlier, sothat clause, an adverb clause of result, is neither a premodifier nor a postmodifier. Part of it comes before the adverb and part after the adverb. In the example below, so is not a premodifier and that…matchup is not a postmodifier.

He won the match so effortlessly that people started questioning the one-sided matchup. [Clause as modifier]

Examples of adverb phrase

Here are examples of adverb phrases by the question they answer. These are most common adverb phrases, but they by no means constitute an exhaustive list. Try figuring out premodifiers and postmodifiers in the phrases on your own. A premodifier, of course, would always be an adverb.

As you’ve seen, an adverb phrase can have more than one adverb (after all, both premodifier and postmodifier can be an adverb). But the category of the phrase (time, place, manner, etc.) is determined by the head adverb. This adverb phrase, for example, is an adverb phrase of manner, even though it contains so, an adverb of degree. Why? Because the head adverb carefully is an adverb of manner. To know the head word in a phrase, you can apply the test we covered earlier.

I walked so carefully across the wet floor but still slipped.

You won’t find examples of adverb phrases of reason, condition, contrast or concession, and purpose. That’s because adverb phrases aren’t well-suited to provide answers to all adverbial questions. For that we need adverbial phrases, the topic covered in next section.

1. Time

Adverb phrase of time answers when in a sentence. Examples:

I reached home very late. [When did I reach home? Very late.]

I saw that movie yesterday afternoon.

We can meet later in the evening.

I went to bed earlier than usual.

2. Duration

Adverb phrase of duration answers how long in a sentence. Examples:

The meeting went unbearably long. [How long did the meeting go? Unbearably long.]

The stranger looked at me long enough to scare me.

A company representative called soon after.

I left shortly thereafter.

3. Place

Adverb phrase of place answers where in a sentence. Examples:

The monkey was right there few minutes back. [Where was the monkey? Right there.]

Can you keep the new lot separately from what’s already in the warehouse?

We looked for him everywhere, but he was nowhere to be found.

Rehearsal is going on downstairs in the next building.

4. Manner

Adverb phrase of manner answers in what manner or how in a sentence. Examples:

The acrobat performed even challenging exercises very easily. [In what manner or how did the acrobat perform? Very easily.]

He talks unbelievably rudely.

I walked so carefully across the wet floor but still slipped.

He came back really fast.

He has eaten quite healthily and exercised quite regularly all his life, yet he had health problems.

The traffic was moving frustratingly slowly.

My father types incredibly slow for an expert.

The artisan worked amazingly skilfully with clay.

This laptop has performed very well for its price.

5. Frequency

Adverb phrase of frequency answers how frequently in a sentence. Examples:

He is almost never away from his phone. [How frequently is he away from his phone? Almost never.]

My brother doesn’t like to play chess with me because he almost always loses to me.

I check my emails and notifications quite often, which is affecting my productivity.

My mother very rarely shops online.

6. Comparison

Adverb phrase of comparison answers how something compares with another thing in a sentence. Examples:

The noodles tasted way spicier than I had thought. [How do noodles taste comparatively? Way spicier than I had thought.]

7. Sentence adverb phrases

Sentence adverb phrases don’t answer any question or modify anything; they express writer’s opinion on the overall sentence. They mostly appear in the front position followed by a comma. Examples:

Unfortunately for him, there was power outage just when he started to speak.

Luckily for the city, the weather improved, clearing the polluted air.

Adverb phrase is not same as adverbial phrase

As you saw, an adverb phrase is a phrase with an adverb as its head word, and it functions as an adverb in a sentence. However, there are other phrases such as participial phrase, prepositional phrase, and infinitive phrase that too can act as an adverb in a sentence. All the phrases – adverb phrase, participial phrase, prepositional phrase, and infinitive phrase – that can function as an adverb are called adverbial phrases. An adverb phrase is one of the adverbial phrases.

Here is a pictorial representation of adverb phrase vs. adverbial phrase.

Difference between adverbial phrase and adverb phrase

Note: Feel free to use the above image, using the link (url) of this post for reference/attribution.

However, some people use the term adverb phrase to mean adverbial phrase, which, strictly speaking, is not correct.

In the examples below, only the fourth phrase is an adverb phrase (that’s the only one with an adverb as the head word). However, all four phrases are adverbial phrases as they all are functioning as an adverb.

After taking up this role, I haven’t had a single vacation. [Participial phrase as adverbial phrase of time]

I haven’t had a single vacation in months. [Prepositional phrase as adverbial phrase of time]

To reach the airport on time, I took the metro train. [Infinitive phrase as adverbial phrase of purpose]

He has moved so fast in his career. [Adverb phrase as adverbial phrase of manner]

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