Words like yesterday, today, and tomorrow are defined as adverbs. However, an adverb is a word modifying an adjective or verb (or another adverb). Words such as yesterday do not seem to modify anything of the sorts.

In reading a book about grammar, a sentence is given as an example of the use of adverbs:

"Yesterday the quite relieved soldier very quickly ran out of the woods when he saw his comrade frantically waving to him".

I'll come back to the word 'yesterday'. Apart from that, the book identifies 'quite', 'very', 'quickly' and 'frantically' as adverbs. Let's make a table of the adverb and the thing it modifies:

Adverb          Modifies
Quite       |   Relieved(adjective)
Very        |   Quickly(adverb)
Quickly     |   Ran(verb)
Frantically |   Waving (verb)

Ok, so back to yesterday (how poetic). Yesterday doesn't actually seem to modify anything. Apparently, it modifies the verb ran, and this is coming from the book. However, we need to note two things here:

  1. Extending the present logic, if it 'modifies' the verb ran, surely it modifies everything else since everything took place yesterday. If it modifies the action of running, then surely it modifies the other action: waving. Perhaps it also modifies other adverbs, and adjectives, too.

  2. What does it mean to modify? Surely the way that an action is executed transcends time. I could run in an identical way to how I ran yesterday or will run tomorrow. Yet the action is supposedly modified depending upon the time it's executed. Well, extending this logic, why not place? And the agent executing the action?

So it doesn't seem correct to say that time modifies adverbs. If anything, it seems more related to pronouns, since a pronoun is a word that stands in for someone else, in the same way 'yesterday' is a word that stands in for everything that happened within the span of 24 hours within the boundaries of our planet earth. So yeah, I don't really see the logic.

  • 4
    "However, an adverb is a word modifying an adjective or verb (or another adverb)." No. Adverbs are not defined that way. Adverbs can also modify verb phrases, sentences, pretty much anything which not already modified by adjectives (like nouns in English). This more or less already answers your question, because most syntacticians would probably reject your definition as too strict and see the mentioned cases of such time adverbs modifying a full sentence as perfectly natural and within the scope of what you would expect of an adverb. – lemontree Nov 15 '16 at 20:06
  • 3
    Admittedly, this "pretty much anything" makes the notion of an "adverb" a rather vague one, potentially turning this word class to a kind of "garbage category" for anything which doesn't really match any of the other word classes, as long as it serves as a modifier in one or the other way. However, I wouldn't know where else to locate such words, and a category of words which generally modify verbs, verb phrases, sentence or similar constituents seems justified to me. – lemontree Nov 15 '16 at 20:11
  • Your definition of pronoun in your last paragraph is too wide. According to it, "chair" would be a pronoun, because it stands for all chairs in the world. More to the point,a pronoun is a word that stands for another word, which is something that "yesterday" doesn't usually (and perhaps ever) do. – Luís Henrique Nov 16 '16 at 9:50
  • @LuísHenrique Perhaps what the OP had in mind was deictic, rather than pronoun/pro-form. – WavesWashSands Nov 17 '16 at 17:41
  • @lemontree Not really, it just means that when it comes to adverbs, what they can modify is not a great diagnostic - that's all. – Araucaria Feb 7 '17 at 9:13

Saying that temporal expressions modify verbs is characteristic of the traditional grammar, adapted from the work of the Greeks and Romans, which has dominated English pedagogy since the 18th century.

One of the hallmarks of traditional grammar is a "dependency" approach which grounds itself in part-of-speech and tends to describe syntax as chains of word-to-word links. In that context the most convenient word in a sentence to attach a temporal expression to is the verb.

Contemporary grammar is oriented more toward grouping words into chunks which can move around together called "constituents"; and contemporary constituency grammarians will say that what temporal expressions modify is not the verb but either the "VP" (or "predicate"), the group of words headed by the verb, or the entire clause.

But it's often difficult to pin down just what, if anything, a temporal "modifies" (and the grammarians I have read mostly acknowledge that difficulty). I myself am currently playing around with a dramatistic analysis (based on the work of Kenneth Burke) which categorizes the gnarlier temporals and locatives as "scenic" components of the clause; but so far that approach has its own difficulties.


I think you are confusing category (part of speech) and function (subject, object, modifier, etc.).

Traditional grammar analyses items like "yesterday", "today" "tomorrow" etc, as nouns in, for example, "Today is the first day of my exams" but adverbs in, for example, "They arrived yesterday".

Modern grammars take them to be simply pronouns. They can’t be nouns because of their inability to take determiners, and they can’t be adverbs either for two reasons: consider “Their behaviour yesterday was unacceptable”, where “yesterday” is modifying the noun “behaviour”, which makes it unlike an adverb. And unlike adverbs, they have genitive forms, “today’s”, “yesterday’s” etc.

They have a number of functions, for example modifier (adjunct) as in “They arrive today”, and subject as in “Today is my birthday”. As adjuncts, they modify verb phrases.

  • What traditional grammar analyses "yesterday" etc. as a noun? Can you source your statement? – jknappen Nov 17 '16 at 12:54
  • @jknappen The Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries for starters! Check out these link, link – BillJ Nov 17 '16 at 14:20
  • Strange analysis, IMO, because of the "verb second" rule also active in the German language. Can you really say "the today" or "a today"? – jknappen Nov 17 '16 at 14:26
  • @jknappen As I said, one of the reasons that items like "today", "yesterday" etc. can't be nouns is that they don't take determiners. When used in examples like "Today is Thursday", the claim is that they are pronouns, not nouns. – BillJ Nov 17 '16 at 14:40
  • 1
    @Greg Lee It's much simpler than what aml is saying. It has nothing to do with PPs or adverbs. We're talking here about deictic pronouns in adjunct function. In "Their behaviour yesterday", we have a pronoun modifying a noun, and in "They arrived yesterday", "yesterday" is an adjunct of temporal location realised by an NP with a deictic pronoun as head. – BillJ Nov 20 '16 at 7:19

James McCawley describes time and place adverbs as logical predicates of events or conditions which are grammatically expressed as sentences. He gives some evidence that such adverbs can either modify the sentences that they predicate something of or, through a transformation he calls Raising, they can come to modify the V-bar constituents of those sentences. This is my best recollection of the treatment in his book The Syntactic Phenomena of English.

Haj Ross has observed that multiple time or place adverbs can be, or perhaps must be, organized so as to describe the time or place of an event with increasing specificity or increasing generality. For instance "I eat meals in Honolulu in my cottage near the back in my kitchen at a table". Other adverbs don't work this way. I think he called such groups of related adverbs "trajectories". (I don't know whether Haj has written this down.)

In answer to your question about modification, I'd say that is a grammatical idea about constituent structure, so it is not the sort of thing that has a meaning. When a constituent of a certain category is part of a larger constituent of that same category, this is a modification structure, the smaller constituent is what is modified, and the modifier is what is outside the smaller constituent but within the larger one. This roughly follows McCawley's treatment.

For instance, "yesterday" is a sentence modifier in the structure

[S yesterday [S I ate]]

"cautiously" is a V-bar modifier in

I [V-bar cautiously [V-bar ate my fish]]

and "completely" is a V modifier in

I [V completely [V ate]] my fish 
  • Where can I read up on things like 'raising' and V-bar constituents, the terms seem alien to me. Thanks. Edit: To clarify, I know I could read his book, but I mean, is there a subject that these things fall under, so I could look them up on something like wikipedia? – Jim Jam Nov 15 '16 at 19:44
  • 1
    The subject is "syntax". Wikipedia has lots of good short articles. Some of McCawley's book is available on line using Google. Here, for example: books.google.com/… – Greg Lee Nov 15 '16 at 20:07
  • 2
    @JimJam, "V-bar" is a phrase whose head is a V. Roughly synonymous are "verb phrase", "VP", "predicate" (the part of a sentence not the subject). "Raising" here refers to a generalized version of a rule that moves the subject of a subordinate sentence up to become subject (or object) of a superordinate sentence -- as when the subject "there" of the lower S in "It seemed that there was an explosion" becomes the subject of "seemed" in "There seemed to be an explosion." – Greg Lee Nov 15 '16 at 21:06

Syntactically, these temporal words are [pro]nouns. They are also called adverbs because any adverbial phrase that can be expressed in one word is called an adverb. We know they are adverbial (we assume an elided preposition such as 'at') because they are temporal.

In your sentence, 'yesterday' modifies 'ran ...'. The main verb is the only word that it needs to be associated with. The other verbs are associated with it only indirectly (by nesting). For example, if you change 'when' to 'after', then the waving may not have occurred yesterday.

  • 1
    This depends on the definition of "adverb" and "pronoun". See this answer: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/12777/… – jknappen Nov 16 '16 at 0:13
  • 1
    Well, "yesterday" may be a noun; there is a day called "yesterday". But this is not true of other "temporal adverbs", such as "now" or "later". – Luís Henrique Nov 16 '16 at 0:53
  • @LuísHenrique While yesterday can be a noun, it still has various peculiar properties you would not expect of a common noun. Yes, it can be the subject or object of a clause or PPobj, but it resists articles and most other determiners just as a personal pronoun or a person’s name does. Many run-of-the-bill noun phrases will not abide having their noun replaced by it, and the temporal deixis built into the word seems to block moving its point of view. It mislikes inflection, despite how all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Cf. yesteryear and OE giestran dæg. – tchrist Nov 16 '16 at 2:35
  • 1
    We're talking here about deictic pronouns in adjunct function. In "Their behaviour yesterday", we have a pronoun modifying a noun, and in "They arrived yesterday", "yesterday" is an adjunct of temporal location realised by an NP with a deictic pronoun as head. – BillJ Nov 20 '16 at 7:23
  • 1
    English allows sentences like "The next day, he went to the zoo." The adverbial phrase is clearly an NP, with nary an adverb. It is congruent to the PP 'on the next day', and it works (with the preposition elided) because 'day' is temporal. – amI Dec 1 '16 at 20:24

As StoneyB says, the idea that adverbs "modify" verbs is characteristic of traditional grammar. More generally, traditional grammar tends to get syntax and semantics entangled, which doesn't really help in understanding what words in general - and adverbs in particular - do in the sentences they take part in.

A better, and more modern, approach would be to investigate the syntatic behaviour of words:

"Yesterday", as many other "adverbs", behaves very differently from, for intance, "quite":

Yesterday the relieved soldier ran out of the woods.

It is easy to see that "yesterday" can be placed in several different places within this sentence:

Yesterday the relieved soldier ran out of the woods.

The relieved soldier, yesterday, ran out of the woods.

The relieved soldier ran, yesterday, out of the woods.

The relieved soldier ran out of the woods yesterday.

While these sentences may imply different emphases, they are basically synonymous.

"Quite", on the other hand, seems firmly attached to the adjective it "modifies":

The quite relieved soldier ran out of the woods.

*The relieved soldier, quite, ran out of the woods.

*The relieved soldier ran, quite, out of the woods.

*The relieved soldier ran out of the woods quite.

And while we perhaps can say

The relieved soldier quite ran out of the woods.

The relieved soldier ran quite out of the woods.

it seems obvious to me that these sentences are not synonymous, either with the original sentence, or with each other.

On the other hand, adverbs like "luckily", "hopefully", "understandably", behave in a similar way to "yesterday":

Luckily the relieved soldier ran out of the woods.

The relieved soldier, luckily, ran out of the woods.

The relieved soldier ran, luckily, out of the woods.

The relieved soldier ran out of the woods, luckily.

Though, as in the last sentence of the example, they seem to have peculiar issues with commas - and with verbal tenses, as shown below:

Yesterday the relieved soldier ran out of the woods.

*Yesterday the relieved soldier will run out of the woods.

*Hopefully the relieved soldier ran out of the woods.

Hopefully the relieved soldier will run out of the woods.

Anyway, it would be possibly convenient to group these "adverbs" for their mobility, ie, for their syntactic behaviour, rather, or at least before, the conventional semi-semantic classification as "temporal", "modal", etc., adverbs. This would avoid the quite awkard grouping of "gladly" and "quickly" as similar words, which they most probably are not.

  • We should distinguish between intensifiers ('quite', 'very', ...) and adverbials. 'Adverb' should mean: an adverbial phrase which is expressed (by elision or morphology) using a single word. 'Sunday' can be used as an adverb, but it is really a deictic noun in the phrase 'on Sunday'. 'Quickly' is always an adverb, but it represents the adjective 'quick' (and can be expressed as 'in a quick manner'). – amI Nov 26 '16 at 17:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.