What is an Adverbial Phrase? [6 Types]

You must have seen sentences like these.

The snake crept up the stick easily. [Adverb of manner]

I spotted the snake there.  [Adverb of place]

Note: In all the examples, adverb and adverbial phrase have been underlined. Second, all comments that go with examples are enclosed in square brackets.

Both easily and there are adverbs as they answer questions in the sentence: in what manner and where, respectively. Let’s consider more examples, where phrases answer similar questions.

While clearing the trash, I spotted a snake. [Participial phrase as adverbial phrase of time. It answers the question when.]

I spotted a snake in the corner. [Prepositional phrase as adverbial phrase of place. It answers the question where.]

To move the snake away, I guided it to creep on a long stick. [Infinitive phrase as adverbial phrase of purpose. It answers the question with what purpose.]

The snake crept up the stick more easily than I had thought. [Adverb phrase as adverbial phrase of manner. It answers the question how or in what manner.]

In the above sentences, the underlined parts are phrases because they’ve more than one word without having both subject and verb. Second, these phrases answer adverbial questions such as when, where, in what manner, why, and so on in a sentence, thereby functioning as an adverb. Combining the two (phrase and adverb), a phrase that functions as an adverb is called an adverbial phrase.

Before we jump into details of adverbial phrase, here is a quick context. Adverbial phrase is one of the three pillars of adverbial family, the other two being adverbial words and adverbial clauses. In this post, we’re covering adverbial phrase, the middle pillar in the image below:

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What is adverbial phrase?

An adverbial phrase is a phrase that functions as an adverb in a sentence. (In other words, it’s an umbrella term for all phrases functioning as an adverb.) Since only adverb phrase, prepositional phrase, participial phrase, absolute phrase, infinitive phrase, and noun phrase can function as an adverb, they constitute adverbial phrase when functioning as an adverb.

Adverbial phrase

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If you notice, this image is nothing but the middle pillar of the earlier image of adverbial family.

Note: There is similar umbrella term for phrases functioning as adjective. It’s called adjectival phrase.

An adverbial phrase doesn’t necessarily need to contain an adverb in order to be called an adverbial phrase. For example, only the fourth adverbial phrase above contains an adverb (shown in bold).

An adverbial phrase answers questions but also functions as a modifier

An adverbial 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 four examples we just saw, the adverbial phrase answers the questions when, where, with what purpose, and in what manner, respectively.

An adverbial phrase can also be understood from the perspective of modification. As a modifier, it modifies mainly verbs and sometimes adjectives and adverbs. In the above examples, it modifies verbs.

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

Types of adverbial phrase [6 types]

Broadly, six types of phrases function adverbially, with prepositional phrases being the most common.  Like anything adverb, adverbial phrases are generally, but not always, quite mobile in a sentence and can occupy multiple positions.

1. 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. In the sentence below, for example, the phrase has an adverb easily as its head word, and hence more easily than I had thought is an adverb phrase.

The snake crept up the stick more easily than I had thought. [Head word in bold. The phrase can’t be moved around in the sentence.]

Note that an adverb phrase is the only adverbial phrase that must have an adverb in it. Other five may or may not have.

Learn more about adverb phrase:

2. Prepositional phrase

A prepositional phrase is a phrase with ‘preposition + noun’ combination. Unlike an adverb phrase though, which always functions adverbially, it can function adverbially as well as adjectivally, with the former being much more common function. Here we’re concerned only with its adverbial role. They’re the most common adverbial phrases, especially to answer questions on place and time, often appearing at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma.

I spotted a snake in the corner. [Though end position looks more natural, the phrase can occupy front position as well.]

3. Participial phrase

A participial phrase is a phrase that starts with the present participle or past participle form of verb. Like a prepositional phrase, it too can function adverbially as well as adjectivally. Here we’re concerned only with its adverbial role. Participial phrases acting adverbially will often, but not always, start with a subordinating conjunction such as while, after, before, and when. For those who’re aware of reduction of clauses to phrases, adverbial participial phrases result from reduction of adverb clauses.

You may be used to seeing participial phrases starting with -ing form of verb, but even with subordinating conjunctions such as after, since, and while at the beginning, it remains a participial phrase. In fact, these subordinating conjunctions lend the adverbial flavor to the phrase. In this sentence, for example, while answers the adverbial question when.

While clearing the trash, I spotted a snake. [The phrase can occupy end position as well.]

4. Absolute phrase

An absolute phrase is quite similar to participial phrase and is often formed by adding a participial phrase to a noun or pronoun. They, arguably, always function adverbially, modifying an entire clause.

Hours slipping fast, I hurried to meet the 5 PM deadline. [Noun Hours is followed by the participial phrase slipping fast]

These phrases though aren’t common in regular writing; you’ll find them mostly in fiction and literary non-fiction.

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5. Infinitive phrase

An infinitive phrase is a phrase that starts with ‘to + verb’. It can function as a noun, an adjectival, or an adverbial. Here we’re concerned only with its adverbial role. In its adverbial function, an infinitive phrase answers the purpose behind something.

To move the snake away, I guided it to creep on a long stick. [Though front position looks more natural, the phrase can occupy end position as well.]

6. Noun phrase

A noun phrase too can function as an adverbial phrase, mainly answering question on time.

I spotted a snake last night. [The phrase can occupy front position as well.]

Learn more about noun phrase:

Adverb phrase is not same as adverbial phrase

If you noticed, adverb phrase is one of the six phrases we covered. When functioning as an adverb, the six phrases are collectively called adverbial phrases. And the phrase with its head word (or the most important word) as adverb is called adverb phrase. Adverb phrase, clearly, is one of the adverbial phrases.

In the examples of adverbial phrases that follow, you’ll find fewer examples of adverb phrases compared to other phrases. That’s because adverb phrases don’t lend themselves naturally to answer many types of questions. But with other five phrases joining force, possibilities expand manifold.

Examples of adverbial phrase

Here are examples of adverbial phrases by the question they answer. These are the most common adverbial phrases, but they by no means constitute an exhaustive list. All adverbial phrases have been underlined and head words in case of adverb phrases have been highlighted in bold.

1. Time

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

I’m meeting the doctor at 4 PM. [Prepositional phrase. When is the meeting? At 4 PM.]

Can we meet on Monday evening? [Prepositional phrase. When can we meet? On Monday evening.]

The meeting scheduled for 10 AM has been postponed. [Prepositional phrase]

I’ll prefer meeting only after lunch. [Prepositional phrase]

The zoo makes special arrangements to keep its animals cool in summer. [Prepositional phrase]

Can you send the meeting invite at least two days before the meeting? [Noun phrase]

I’ll be on vacation next week. [Noun phrase]

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, while narrating his growing-up years, mentioned how he learnt resourcefulness from his grandfather. [Present participial phrase]

You can’t directly jump to advanced stuff when learning something. [Present participial phrase]

Since taking up this role, I’ve learnt so much. [Present participial phrase]

2. Duration

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

The press briefing stretched frustratingly long. [Adverb phrase. How long did the press briefing stretch? Frustratingly long.]

I’ll be in my room in ten minutes. [Prepositional phrase. In how long will I be in my room? In ten minutes.]

The player caught the ball in a flash. [Prepositional phrase]

The winter chill continued for weeks. [Prepositional phrase]

He spoke unexpectedly briefly. [Adverb phrase]

This malt whiskey is expensive because it has been aged 50 years. [Noun phrase]

3. Place

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

I sat on the couch, sipping coffee. [Prepositional phrase. Where did I sit? On the couch.]

He lives off the lakefront. [Prepositional phrase. Where does he live? Off the lakefront.]

Niagara Falls is located on U.S.-Canada border. [Prepositional phrase]

I’ll see you in front of the library. [Prepositional phrase]

The cat was hiding under the couch. [Prepositional phrase]

The low-intensity blast near the hospital injured dozens. [Prepositional phrase]

You can go anywhere you want. [Adverb phrase. Where can you go? Anywhere you want.]

Can you keep the new lot separately from what’s already in the warehouse? [Adverb phrase]

The police crackdown left the antisocial elements nowhere to hide. [Adverb phrase]

4. Reason

Adverbial phrase of reason answers why in a sentence. In the examples that follow, participial phrases are in fact reduced form of adverb clauses of reason. The first, for example, has been reduced form of Because I fell ill, I didn’t attend school. Examples:

Falling ill, I didn’t attend school. [Present participial phrase. What’s the reason behind not attending school? Falling ill.]

Not believing what he said, I checked with a doctor. [Present participial phrase. What’s the reason behind checking with a doctor? Not believing what he said.]

Worried about another surge in Covid cases, I canceled my travel plans. [Past participial phrase]

Several restrictions have been placed because of surge in Covid cases. [Prepositional phrase. Because of is a preposition.]

5. Condition

Adverbial phrase of condition answers under what condition in a sentence. Here again, participial phrases are reduced form of adverb clauses of condition. Examples:

I won’t leave without meeting him. [Prepositional phrase. Under what condition would I not leave? Without meeting him.]

It is hard to soar like an eagle when surrounded by turkeys. [Past participial phrase. Under what condition is it hard to soar like an eagle? When surrounded by turkeys.]

You’ve to be at your most polite behavior when communicating with clients, making sure they’re not offended in any way. [Present participial phrase]

6. Contrast or concession

Adverbial phrase of contrast, also called adverbial phrase of concession, contrasts one thing with another. Here too, participial phrases are reduced form of adverb clauses of contrast or concession. Examples:

He won despite insurmountable odds. [Prepositional phrase. What’s the contrast? Despite insurmountable odds.]

In spite of injury, he took the field and took his team to a draw. [Prepositional phrase. What’s the contrast? In spite of injury.]

In contrast to Antarctic, Arctic abounds with lot more variety of animals. [Prepositional phrase]

Although blistering fast, the storm didn’t cause much damage. [Present participial phrase]

Even after playing well, the team lost. [Present participial phrase]

Despite trying every possible strategy, he lost the match. [Prepositional phrase. This isn’t a present participial phrase; trying every possible strategy is a gerund phrase functioning as object of preposition despite.]

7. Purpose

Adverbial phrase of purpose answers with what purpose in a sentence. Infinitive phrases are the most common adverbial phrases of purpose. Examples:

We’ve 20 security guards to look after our premises. [Infinitive phrase. What’s the purpose of 20 security guards? To look after our premises.]

It’s best to keep a hedge between friends to ensure just the right mix of intimacy and distance. [Infinitive phrase.  What’s the purpose of keeping a hedge between friends? To ensure just the right mix of intimacy and distance.]

I often schedule most of my meetings in the second half of Monday to get similar kind of work done in one go. [Infinitive phrase]

He worked hard to prove a point. [Infinitive phrase]

We’re going to Big Bear Lake for a weekend getaway. [Prepositional phrase]

We hopped on a bus for an affordable tour of Paris. [Prepositional phrase]

8. Manner

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

We cheered loudly and crazily to support the team. [Adverb phrase. In what manner did we cheer? Loudly and crazily.]

The plane landed with a thud. [Prepositional phrase. In what manner did the plane land? With a thud.]

The customer behaved very rudely with the customer care representative. [Adverb phrase]

The sculptor was creating a sand castle with diligence and skill. [Prepositional phrase]

The event was celebrated with much fanfare. [Prepositional phrase]

The deceased’s friend read the eulogy in a low, sad voice. [Prepositional phrase]

He worked hard like a man possessed. [Prepositional phrase]

The politician spoke so spitefully that the House speaker intervened to rein him in. [sothat adverb clause]

9. Frequency

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

I hardly ever read books these days. [Adverb phrase. How frequently do I read books? Hardly ever.]

He is almost always late for meetings. [Adverb phrase. How frequently is he late for meetings? Almost always.]

I almost never get up before 6 AM. [Adverb phrase]

Our group runs a half marathon every month. [Noun phrase]

Off late, I’ve been going there a lot. [Noun phrase]

At times, I felt should quit and go on a long vacation. [Prepositional phrase]

Professionals, unlike wannabes, practice with unflinching regularity. [Prepositional phrase]

10. Degree

Adverbial phrase of degree answers to what degree in a sentence. Examples:

Costs have escalated a great deal. [Noun phrase. To what degree have costs escalated? A great deal.]

After the medication, I’m feeling a lot better. [Noun phrase]

11. Comparison

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

The appliance broke down earlier than promised by the warranty. [How does the time of breaking down compare? Earlier than promised by the warranty.]

12. Sentence adverbial phrases

Sentence adverbial phrases are different from other adverbial phrases in the sense that they don’t modify a verb, adjective, or adverb but either express writer’s view on the entire sentence (comment adverb) or connect two sentences (conjunctive adverb). They mostly appear in the front position followed by a comma. Examples:

Unfortunately for him, the interview didn’t convert into an offer. [Adverb phrase as comment adverb]

Luckily for me, I had a spare key in the bag, so I didn’t get locked out. [Adverb phrase as comment adverb]

To be honest, I don’t give a damn to what others think. [Prepositional phrase as comment adverb]

To be frank, this is time to weather the storm and not spend in uncertain projects. [Prepositional phrase as comment adverb]

Several witnesses have testified against the accused. In addition, documentary evidence, including emails and bank transactions, points towards his abetment to this crime. [Prepositional phrase as conjunctive adverb]

Wherever possible, build on the work of others to gain leverage. Uber, for instance, used Google Map API to build its App. [Prepositional phrase as conjunctive adverb]

Mix of adverbial phrases

Following examples contain more than one type of adverbial phrases. The adverbial type has been mentioned in the square brackets in the same sequence as it occurs in the sentence.

I take stairs almost everyday to reach the tenth floor in three minutes. [Frequency/ Purpose/ Duration]

I could sense lack of warmth and unease when I visited my uncle’s family to stay with them over the weekend. [Purpose/ Time]

Undertrials languish in jail for months. [Place/ Duration]

I won’t be at home on Monday. [Place/ Time]

I lived in Montreal last week. [Place/ Time]

Let’s meet in the passageway behind the canteen. [Place/ Place]

Not hearing anything from my friend in a long time, I gave him a call. [Reason/ Time (in a long time is part of the participial phrase)]

Professionals turn up for practice with unerring regularity. [Purpose/ Manner]

The burglars broke into the bank vault by cutting open the metallic wall. [Place/ Manner]

After losing the key, I broke the lock by hammering it with a stone. [Time/ Manner]

Most birds are awake before dawn and are into their nest by dusk. [Time/ Time]

I went to the café to have coffee. [Place/ Purpose]

I won’t be in office next Tuesday. [Place/ Time]

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