10 I confess ~ adverbial thoughts

The final major category in conventional explanations of the synthetic grammar of English is that of the adverbial. I confess that I am not at all sure that I understand the notion, or the notions, of the adverbial, as it is generally understood within conventional explanations. But, here goes.

Just so that we are on the same ‘page’, in the following example sentence, up the hill is an adverbial:

The train pushed the passenger carriage up the hilladverbial.

Up the hill explains where the train and carriage were going – it explains the context of the action.

One approach to understanding the adverbial

The adverbial is sometimes explained as having the semantic characteristics of an adverb within a sentence. So, let’s try and work with that. To start with, an adverb, of course, is not a feature of synthetic grammar but a category of word within the analytic grammar (in contradistinction with noun, adjective, pronoun, conjunction etc). Adverbs are single words that generally end in ly but far from always. The semantic terrain that adverbs cover are:

manner: She played happily in the garden.

place: I saw him there at Toulouse airport.

direction: Mark was going home carrying a pile of logs in his arms.

time: She arrived home yesterday after a long road trip.

… and so on. Now, an adverb can be an adverbial. So, the highlighted words above are not just adverbs in the analytic grammar, they are also adverbials in the synthetic grammar, in that they are a full sentence-part (an item working at the same grammatical level as subject, object etc). But, in these examples directly below, the highlighted words are still adverbs and yet they are not adverbials, because they are parts of a full sentence-part, they are not a full sentence-part in themselves:

probability: She definitely believes in you. [definitely believes = the verb part of the sentence]

degree: I really like her ideas. [really like = the verb part of the sentence]

What’s more, these highlighted phrases below are not adverbs, they are phrases beginning with prepositions, but they are also adverbials:

She played happily in the garden.

I saw him there at Toulouse airport.

She arrived home yesterday after a long road trip.

So, anything in a sentence that covers the same semantic terrain as an adverb and is a full sentence-part is an adverbial, even if it does not have an adverb in it: in the garden and at Toulouse airport describe a place, just as an adverb can, and after a long road trip describes the time, just as an adverb can.

But, what about the highlighted part of this sentence below?

A) Mark was going home carrying a pile of logs in his arms.

Is carrying a pile of logs in his arms an adverbial? I am not sure it is, because it does not really fit in with the semantic terrain of an adverbial in that it does not really describe the manner of his going. It says what he was doing as he was going. However, if we were to say instead:

B) Mark was going home singing at the top of his voice.


C) Mark was going home, walking in a jaunty fashion.

what is happening in these examples? It seems that we can see something of a cline here; the final part of these three example sentences, that look so similar in their analytic grammar, seem to be non-adverbial in A, borderline adverbial in B and pretty clearly adverbial in C; in C, walking in a jaunty fashion seems to be very like an adverb, in that it describes the manner of his walking and could, indeed, be replaced by the adverb jauntily, as in:

Mark was going home jauntily.

There does seem to be something highly nuanced going on here when trying to determine whether a phrase, such as each of those directly above, are adverbials or not. That seems a bit worrying; for a grammar system to be seen to be describing the synthetic aspect of the language in such a nuanced way feels quite artistic but not very scientific. For me, fundamental grammar description that feels subjective and artistic does not suggest to me a case for confidence in the model of description. Obviously, language is highly nuanced, that is a key part of its beauty and is something that a grammar-system model needs to capture, but it does not really work when such a key and fundamental aspect of the system as the synthetic grammar is vague and impressionistic, as it’s rather like trying to describe moving, fleeting clouds with moving, fleeting clouds.

Another approach to understanding the adverbial

Another, slightly different, approach to explaining the adverbial is to say that, just as an adverb generally adds information to a verb, apparently, so does an adverbial. Okay, so, let’s look at that idea and see if it helps with our little quandary directly above.

There does seem to be some logic here, on superficial inspection: happily adds information to played in she played happily; home adds information to was going in he was going home; home and yesterday add information to arrived in she arrived home yesterday; jauntily seems to add information to was going. But, does walking in a jaunty fashion add information to was going? It’s hard to say ‘yes’ as the inclusion of walking, another verb, seems to set up a quite separate set of information rather than adding to the verb was going directly, and even more so with carrying a pile of logs. So, okay, this approach seems to be working better than the previous one as we seem to be operating better, as in more clearly and precisely, in terms of determining what is an adverbial and what is not. But, is this because this second definition of an adverbial is now clearer?

Paradoxically perhaps, although I would say that it is working better in the instances listed above, it is very unclear. For example, if we take a sentence such as this, from the ones used earlier:

I saw him there.

isn’t it the case that him adds more information to the verb than does there here; and, so, now, should we be calling him an adverb? But, that would make a nonsense of its actually being an object in this example and very different in its functioning in a sentence from any average adverbial.


I said, at the beginning of this, I felt unclear about adverbials, as conventionally understood. Actually though, I have a sneaky feeling that the problem is not so much in me, in my knowledge and understanding, as in the concept of the adverbial itself, which could be not just variously defined but also ill-defined and therefore unreliable as a tool to use in the analysis of the synthetic structure of sentences. But, we shall see.

David Lott


  1. I would ask why do you need to understand what an adverbial is? What is it about adverbial that makes it useful to know that it is an adverbial and therefore behaves in an adverbial-like way as opposed to object-like way, for instance?

    One way to define an adverbial is to say that it answers to the question How? Why? And I wonder what question do I have to ask in order to get the answer “carrying a pile of logs in his arms” or “singing at the top of his voice”?

    Also, I wonder whether the comma in “Mark was going home, walking in a jaunty fashion” has any relevance to distinguising it as an adverbial, or rather, a subordinate adverbial clause, and if the semantic proximity of “going” and “walking” comes into play as well?

    More questions rather than answers, I am afraid.

  2. Yes, I see what you are saying. Let me try and answer your questions. I feel I need to understand what an adverbial is, because I have a sub-text to my text above, which is: I’m wondering whether to ‘ditch’ the notion of the adverbial from my approach, when I develop it here, to the description of the synthetic grammar of English. But, I want to feel reasonably sure that I haven’t misunderstood it, the adverbial, before I remove it from my synthetic-grammar lexicon.
    To respond to your second question, I am not actually sure that there is anything useful to know about the adverbial, nor that it is a useful concept, but I want to give it an airing before I kind of seek to expunge it (and replace it).
    If we take the notion of the adverbial as something that covers the same semantic terrain as an adverb, then, yes, I think an adverbial can answer the question ‘how’ (though not that of ‘why’ [adverbs don’t answer the question ‘why’, I feel]), but “carrying a pile of logs in his arms” doesn’t answer the question of how he was going home. “carrying a pile of logs in his arms” feels more like a reduced clause, adding more information, as in “he was going home, while carrying a pile of logs in his arms”.
    Moving on to your final para, I think the comma between “home” and “walking” is in response to the fact that, in this case, there is an adverbial at the end of the sentence and that there is something of a need to put a comma in between the 2 adverbials: “home” and “walking in a jaunty fashion”. sequences of adverbials are like lists, they need commas between them, I feel.
    Thank you so much for your thoughts, A, they’re really interesting.
    David Lott

  3. Thank you for your response. I have another question though – do you think that if we take the first approach, since it seems to work better due to the issue with “him” in “I saw him there”, deciding that something is an adverbial is connected to how much adverbiality there is in a clause – that is, in the clause “carrying something” is a verb and object and no adverbial therefore the whole clause cannot be taken as an adverbial, “singing in certain quality of voice” is verb+adverbial as well as “walking in a certain fashion” is clearly verb+adverbial, so it is not only about the grammatical chomskian structure of each word, but also about the semanticity (?) or sentence-structure-loading in each element?

    • Yup, I think you definitely have an interesting point there that the existence of an adverbial within the phrase may well contribute to its being ‘felt’ as an adverbial. But, I don’t think it’s a determiner (or decider) of it in that, in “singing at the top of his voice”, the adverbial “at the top of his voice” doesn’t seem to me to render the whole phrase a clear adverbial. In this case, the phrase can’t be readily reduced to an adverb and the phrase doesn’t seem to describe the manner of his going but what he was doing while going home. I notice that you refer to the sentence item in question as a clause, whereas I would generally see it as a phrase. But, in fact, yes, this phrase does have some of the sense of being a reduced clause, or something half-way between a full clause and a phrase, as in “(while) singing at the top of his voice”. Anyway, overall, on reflection, I think an adverb-like meaning is more important than the internal structure of the phrase/clause in determining the perceived ‘adverbiality’ (nice word!!) or ‘adverbialness’ of a phrase.

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