What is an Adverbial? How It Differs from Adverb?

Most of us have written sentences like these:

I live in Montreal.

We’re going for a picnic next Saturday.

The underlined parts – a prepositional phrase and a noun phrase – are not identified as adverbs like we do honestly, slowly, and fast. But they’re functioning as adverbs in the above sentences because, like adverbs, they’re answering adverbial questions such as when, where, why, in what manner, to what degree, and many more. In the first sentence, in Montreal is answering the adverbial question where, and in the second next Saturday is answering the adverbial question when.

The two phrases are functioning as an adverb (or functioning adverbially), even though they’re not adverbs. They’re part of larger group (than adverb) called adverbial.

What is adverbial?

An adverbial is a word or word group (phrases and clauses) functioning as an adverb in a sentence.

Let’s understand the definition in detail.

We know that words function as adverb

Look for any word in a dictionary, and you’ll find that it belongs to one or more parts of speech, which are nothing but roles the word play in sentences. For example, down can function as a verb (The storm downed several trees), a preposition (The shop is further down the road), an adjective (The team was little down after yesterday’s close loss), or an adverb (The sun went down at 5:45 PM).

Some words, however, may function as a part of speech for which they’re not listed in dictionaries. For example, skiing and Sunday are listed as noun in dictionaries, but they can also function as adverb (We went skiing last weekend and I’ll meet you Friday). All words that function as an adverb, irrespective of whether dictionaries designate them as adverb or not, are adverbials.

But phrases and clauses too can function as adverb

Words as adverb though is just the tip of the iceberg. Phrases and clauses too can function as an adverb. We saw two examples of phrases functioning as an adverb right at the beginning.

To give you quick background information, words, phrases, and clauses are the three fundamental word-units in sentences, but dictionaries classify only words as parts of speech. However, phrases and clauses too function as one or the other parts of speech in a sentence. Phrases can function as four parts of speech; clauses as three.

Coming back to the tip of iceberg, all the phrases and clauses that function as adverb in a sentence are also adverbials. They constitute a much larger proportion of adverbials than words. Phrases that function adverbially are adverb phrases, prepositional phrases, participial phrases, absolute phrases, infinitive phrases, and noun phrases. And clause that functions adverbially is adverb clause.

Put simply, a word or word group (phrases and clauses) functioning as an adverb in a sentence is called an adverbial:


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

Note the terminology in the above image. Adverb words and noun words refer to one-word adverbs and nouns, respectively.

Of these, adverb word, adverb phrase, and adverb clause have just one function, adverbial. All others have more than one function, adverbial being one of them.

The three groups in the above image – adverbial words (barring noun word), adverbial phrases, and adverbial clauses – have been covered separately in depth:

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An analogy to recap what’s adverbial

To recap, common understanding of adverb is that any word that is designated as an adverb in dictionaries functions as an adverb. But few more words outside this definition can also function as adverb. A much bigger treasure though lies in phrases and clauses that function as adverb. All words (including those designated as adverb by dictionaries), phrases, and clauses that function as adverb are called adverbials.

Here is an analogy to understand adverbials.

In soccer, players are categorized as defenders, midfielders, and attackers. Attackers are primarily responsible for scoring goals, but are they the only ones who can score goals. No. Midfielders can. Even defenders can.

In sentences, words are categorized as different parts of speech. Adverbs are responsible for answering adverbial questions, but are they the only ones who can answer these questions. No. Other words can. Even phrases and clauses can.

Adverbial terminology

We’ll use the standard adverbial terminology in this post. Here it is:

We can say following three, which are one and the same, about the prepositional phrase in this sentence I live in Montreal.

  • The prepositional phrase is functioning adverbially.
  • The prepositional phrase is functioning as an adverb.
  • The prepositional phrase is an adverbial.

You can use the same terminology for any adverbial.

There are other umbrella terms similar to adverbial

Adverbial is an umbrella term for words, phrases, and clauses that function like an adverb. Do we have other such umbrellas? Yes. A somewhat smaller umbrella is adjectival, whose members function like an adjective. And a much smaller umbrella is nominal, whose members function like a noun. Learn about them:

Adverbials answer questions but also function as modifiers

You saw that adverbials answer certain questions in a sentence, like adverbs do. But why don’t adverbials also modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, like adverbs do?

They do.

As we’ve seen, adverbials can be understood from the perspective of answers to questions on time, place, manner, reason, etc. But they can also be understood as modifiers of mainly verbs and sometimes adjectives and other adverbs.

There is no dichotomy between the two perspectives: while answering those questions, adverbials modify mainly verbs and occasionally adjectives and other adverbs. They just have dual personality.

Adverb vs. Adverbial

If by adverb you mean adverb word, then adverb vs. adverbial is same as box 1 vs. boxes 1-9 in the image we saw earlier.

Some, however, use the term adverb for the core adverb family – adverb word, adverb phrase, and adverb clause. If that’s the case, then adverb vs. adverbial is same as boxes 1, 3, and 9 vs. boxes 1-9.

Types of adverbials

As we saw earlier, adverbials answer questions such as when, where, why, in what manner, and to what degree in a sentence. Depending on what question they answer, adverbials can be classified into different types. Adverbials answering the above five questions, for example, are called adverbial of time, adverbial of place, adverbial of reason, adverbial of manner, and adverbial of degree, respectively. Here is a more elaborate – though not exhaustive – list of different types of adverbials:

  • Adverbial of time
  • Adverbial of duration
  • Adverbial of place
  • Adverbial of reason
  • Adverbial of condition
  • Adverbial of concession
  • Adverbial of purpose
  • Adverbial of result
  • Adverbial of comparison
  • Adverbial of manner
  • Adverbial of degree
  • Adverbial of similarity

Examples of some of them are mentioned in the next section.

Examples of adverbials

Following examples, depicting highlights of Mac’s professional journey, cover all eight types of adverbials. (Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

Note: Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.

1. Mac sent his resume to several firms and networked with few insiders to land few interviews. [Infinitive phrase answering with what purpose (adverbial of purpose). The phrase can also occupy the front position followed by a comma.]

2. After applying to several firms, he took a break for few days and went skiing. [Participial phrase answering when (adverbial of time) and noun word answering where (adverbial of place). The participial phrase can also occupy the end position but without a comma.]

3. The interview was tough, but he handled it surprisingly well. [Adverb phrase answering in what manner (adverbial of manner)]

4. He is now working at Citibank. [Adverb word answering when (adverbial of time) and prepositional phrase answering where (adverbial of place). Now can be shifted to the beginning of the sentence followed by comma or to the end.]

5. He was promoted to Associate position last month. [Noun phrase answering when (adverbial of time). The phrase can also occupy the front position followed by a comma.]

6. He got promoted because he played crucial role in clinching few mega deals for the company. [Adverb clause answering why (adverbial of reason). The clause can also start the sentence followed by a comma.]

Different types of words, phrases, and clauses are clearly functioning adverbially in the above examples. If you noticed, adverbials are quite mobile in a sentence. They often come at the end of a sentence but can be shifted to front, where they’re called fronted adverbial, to make them prominent and for other reasons.

See many more examples of adverbial, categorized under nine categories mentioned in the image you saw earlier:

How adverbials help your writing?

In the four images below, read each sentence from 1 to 4, and see how progressive addition of adverb words and adverbials changes the background information in the image. (Adverbials essentially provide background information or context in a sentence by answering questions on time, place, manner, etc. Adjectivals, on the other hand, provide description about participants – or nouns – in a sentence.)

In the fourth, adverbials add three more pieces of background information that wouldn’t have been possible with adverb words. (The fourth sentence is only for illustration. In actual writing, you’re likely to use fewer adverb words and adverbials.) Adverbials, in other words, are a much wider canvas than adverb words, and hence they can cover almost every conceivable background detail that can be added to a sentence.

Now, you would already be using some of the adverbials without knowing that they’re adverbials, but their explicit understanding can help your writing in few ways.

Knowing full range of adverbials expands your options

Knowing full range of adverbials expands your options to answer a particular adverbial question or add particular background detail. In the following sentences, for example, different types of words, phrases, and clauses have been used to answer in what manner.

He came down quickly. [Adverb word]

He came down quickly enough to pick his ringing phone. [Adverb phrase]

He came down as if a lion was chasing him. [Adverb clause]

He came down like a man chased by a lion. [Prepositional phrase]

And like we saw in the fourth image above, quite often adverbials can do what adverb words can’t. Full range of adverbials can significantly increase your power to add background detail in whichever way you want.

Moving adverbials in a sentence can achieve different effects

If you know that adverbials are generally mobile in a sentence, you can move them to add variety to your sentences. In the first example below, the two similar sentences make the writing monotonous. But in the second example, the adverbial moved to the front breaks that monotony.

I have been wanting to quit the job and take a long travel break. I finally mustered courage and took the leap last week.

I have been wanting to quit the job and take a long travel break. Last week, I finally mustered courage and took the leap.

Moving them around can also bring clarity to your sentences when too many adverbials come in succession. Let’s take the example we saw earlier. With several back-to-back adverbials, the first version looks stiff. But with an adverbial moved to the front position, the next two are easier to follow for the readers.

I went to Subway this afternoon to eat Spicy Italian sandwich for lunch.

This afternoon, I went to Subway to eat Spicy Italian sandwich for lunch.

To eat Spicy Italian sandwich for lunch, I went to Subway this afternoon.

More resources:

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