I understand there are different theories of grammar. There is the a set of traditional pragmatic grammars aiming at teaching languages, which might not even have names for themselves. Then, there is a set of grammars for academic purpose, two popular subsets are the dependency grammars and the phrase structure grammars.

Whatever the building principles of a certain phrase is depends on the specific grammar it refers to, though there is a common layman understanding of it simply being a few words with a concrete function in a sentence.

main issue

I met different definitions of what adverb phrases/adverbial phrases are.

Some state, they are nothing more but adverbs enhanced by one or more further adverbs

very suspiciously quiet

other say they are prepositional phrases functioning as adverbs

I threw a stone into the bucket

and still others say they consist of an adverb enhanced by other adverbs and prepositional phrases.

He wrote tremendously lively for a mummy of 4000 years

I named just these , but I stumbled upon more , giving me the impression of arbitrarity.

Please shed some light, for instance by explaining how the adverb or adverbial phrase evolved, which term emerged first, when did the semantic explosion occur or however you think would make sense.

  • 2
    'I threw a stone into the bucket' - I don't think this is an adverbial phrase. 'Into the bucket' should be an oblique object. This is indicated by many tests: we cannot say *What I did into the bucket was throw a stone, *I'm gonna throw the stone myself into the bucket, etc. Feb 21, 2017 at 16:12

4 Answers 4


Short answer

An adverb phrase is best thought of as a phrase headed by an adverb, in the same way that a preposition phrase is a phrase headed by a preposition and so forth. An 'Adverbial' is a Modifier within a clause or sentence. In other words Adverbial is a grammatical relation like Subject or Object, whereas adverb phrase is a phrasal category like verb phrase or preposition phrase.

Full answer

The term adverbial is a bane to the principled study of language. It is the epitome of the worst problem in the field of language study - a problem which should by now be regarded as a schoolkid problem - the problem of not understanding the difference between syntactic functions (or grammatical relations) and parts of speech or types of phrase.

For a few principled writers who use the term, an adverbial is a phrase which functions as an Adjunct (read Modifier) in a clause. The important point there is that adverbial in any principled description of language is a type of syntactic function (or grammatical relation). It is not a type of phrase or a type of word.

Syntactic functions (also described as grammatical relations) are the different jobs that chunks of words can do in a sentence or phrase. So for example the chunk of words the elephant you met yesterday, which happens to be a noun phrase, has the function of Subject in :

  • The elephant you met yesterday was coy.

It has the function of Complement of a preposition in:

  • I'm scared of the elephant you met yesterday.

It has the function of Object in:

  • I admire the elephant you met yesterday.

It has the function of Predicative Complement in:

  • That elephant was the elephant you met yesterday.

It has the function of Determiner in a noun phrase in:

  • The elephant you met yesterday's ears were enormous.

So as can be seen from the examples above, a type of phrase, in this case a noun phrase, can have many different types of function. It's also important to realise that the same syntactic function can be realised by many different types of phrase. So, for instance, Predicative Complements can be noun phrases, adjective phrases or preposition phrases:

  • Beth was a doctor
  • Beth was happy
  • Beth was out of sorts

In the examples above we see a noun phrase, an adjective phrase and a preposition phrase functioning as Predicative Complement of the verb BE.

Adjuncts in clause structure

So the important question here is: what's an Adjunct? In terms of clause structure, an Adjunct is an extra phrase in the clause. It is not a Subject or a Complement of the verb. A Complement of a verb is a phrase which fills a special slot set up by the verb. For example, the verb PUT has two special slots for certain types of phrase. Apart from a Subject slot, it has a slot for the thing that is being moved and it has a slot for the destination of that thing. If one of these slots isn't filled the sentence will be ungrammatical or seem a bit odd:

  • *He put the pen. (no destination, wrong)
  • *He put on the table. (no thing, wrong)
  • He put the pen on the table. (grammatical)

In the example above the pen and on the table are two separate Complements of the verb.

In contrast with Complements, Adjuncts in clause structure don't fill a special slot set up by the verb. They are syntactically and semantically extra elements. Sentences are well formed with or without Adjuncts. Adjuncts have no special relationship with the verb. In the following example at four o'clock is an Adjunct:

  • He put the pen on the table at four o'clock.
  • He put the pen on the table.

The sentences above are well-formed with or without the phrase at four o'clock. Notice that we can stick this type of phrase on the end of just about any sentence regardless of the verb in the clause. There is no special relationship between PUT and the preposition phrase at four o'clock.

Very importantly for the discussion here, Adjuncts can take many different forms. For example, they can be adverb phrases, preposition phrases or noun phrases:

  • Bob plays football very well (adverb phrase)
  • Bob plays football on Saturdays (preposition phrase)
  • Bob plays football every day (noun phrase)


In the three examples above, for people who use the term in a principled way, the phrases very well, on Saturdays and every day are Adverbials. They are phrases which have a special function in the clause structure. The term adverbial is derived from the old-fashioned (and not very acutely observant) idea that different parts of speech are related to specific different syntactic functions or grammatical relations. Adverbs have traditionally been regarded as having the special function of modifying verbs or verb phrases. The term adverbial, therefore, is used to describe phrases which have the function of modifying verbs, verb phrases or clauses. Remember though that there are many different types of phrase that can modify verb phrases, not only adverbs. The term adverbial then, when used in this way, means something like having an adverbish type of syntactic function. It does not mean that the phrase is an adverb or anything like that.

Of course, even that adverbish type of function idea is misleading. It gives us the idea that Adjuncts are usually adverbs - and they aren't.

Adverbials and preposition phrases

Now, in the examples of the different types of phrase that can function as Adjunct, you will remember that we counted adverb phrases, preposition phrases and noun phrases. Most unfortunately, the term adverbial is often confused with the phrase category preposition phrase. People who use the term adverbial to mean preposition phrase, always also use the term to refer to Adjuncts, whether the Adjunct is a preposition phrase or not. The problem with this is, of course, that not only are not all Adjuncts preposition phrases, but not all preposition phrases are Adjuncts!

Preposition phrases can have many different types of function. For example they can be Subjects:

  • After Christmas would be best.

They can be Predicative Complements:

  • I was over the moon.

They can be Locative Complements:

  • I was in Las Vegas.

They can be Modifiers in a noun phrase:

  • It was an out of the box solution

There are many other types of function that preposition phrases can have. You need to be very careful therefore when you read passages which use the term adverbial. If the writers are thoughtful, careful and principled writers they will use the term to describe a particular type of function, namely Adjunct in clause structure. On the other hand they may be talking about a type of phrase, namely a preposition phrase, as opposed to a noun phrase, for example. However, if you're very unlucky they will be mixing and matching the phrase type and the function without realising it. Nearly every writer who uses the term adverbial to mean a preposition phrase will be guilty of this crime.

The worst problem here is that the people who do this do not understand what they are doing. They will quite happily screw up the line between functions and types of phrase within the same paragraph or even within the same sentence without the slightest idea what they're doing. Perhaps even more gravely than this, the use of the term adverbial is so unevenly used and so confused in terms of whether it is a function or a phrase category, that many writers even substitute the word adverb for the term adverbial. This means that you will see many intelligent people saying ridiculous things such as:

  • In the sentence I go to the gym every day the phrase every day is an adverb.

What to do about this

Ideally we can avoid actually using the term adverbial ever at all. But if we do have to use it, because our peers do for example, we need to be careful that we use it to refer to a function in clause structure. If we absolutely have to use it to refer to a type of phrase (specifically a preposition phrase) we need to make it crystal clear to our readers or listeners that we are using it in this way. Most importantly we need to make sure that when we use it, we ourselves know exactly what we are referring to and that we don't slip between functions and phrasal categories like a hormonally confused teenager.


Here is a nice quote from the second edition of the famous The Syntactic Phenomena of English by James D. McCawley:

"[I]n the many places where I was guilty of the reprehensible and shockingly common confusion of the notions of "adverb" and "adverbial"; these defects, for which I hang my head in shame, I have corrected wherever I have found them". (p. xii)

  • You distinguish your own use of terminology from others' by calling your own use "principled", yet you don't say what the principles are. This all seems to be just a collection of your opinions about terms. Why should anyone believe any of it? I think you're confusing clarity and consistency with truth.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 23, 2017 at 19:34
  • @GregLee Consistency and tansparency are basic principles for any investigative or descriptive enterprise, I'd say ... It doesn't matter so much what the terms themselves are. It's how they're used that matters most. Feb 23, 2017 at 19:44
  • Well, why would you say that? What is important about an empirical theory is whether it's right or wrong. It's not terminology, which may affect how easy it is to say what the theory is, or to judge whether a prediction has counterexamples, but those are just practical concerns. Can you say clearly what dark matter and dark energy are in current cosmology?
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 23, 2017 at 21:42
  • @GregLee Was somebody talking about an empirical theory? I'm talking about the fact that some writers are internally inconsistent in their descriptions. They say things like this is internally a noun phrase but externally an adverb, but of course it isn't really an adverb at all <--- That kind of description is worse than useless. It only makes sense to the person writing it. Feb 23, 2017 at 21:46
  • Modern linguistics is empirical and theoretical. Finding your answer here in a linguistics forum, I jumped to the conclusion that you were talking about linguistics. Sorry about that,
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 23, 2017 at 21:54

I very much dislike the term "adverbial".

I think it is very unsatisfactory to have a function term that is morphologically derived from a category term. Adverb is a word category, and adverb phrase (a phrase headed by an adverb) the corresponding phrase category.

Adverbial is a function and may be realised by an AdvP (He spoke quickly), a PP (He spoke with enthusiasm), an NP (He’s speaking this evening). AdvPs do not always function as adverbials: they may function as modifier in AdjPs (It was quite amazingly expensive), etc.

Adverbial phrase is quite often used for any phrase functioning as adverbial and hence likely to be confused with adverb phrase.

This confusion is overcome by the use of the term "adjunct" as an alternative to "adverbial".

  • 2
    The one advantage adverbial has over adjunct is that adverbial almost always indicates that it's an adjunct of a VP or IP/TP, whereas any phrase can have an adjunct. "Adjunct" is purely structural, whereas "adverbial" is functional.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 20, 2017 at 21:51
  • @curiousdannii The term "adjunct" is used to cover modifiers that occur in clause (or VP) structure, as well as related supplements.The widely accepted term 'modifier" is preferable to adjunct for the corresponding items in phrase structure.
    – BillJ
    Feb 21, 2017 at 11:18
  • It seems to me that the term 'adjunct' has several meanings with only family resemblance. It has a structural sense which curiousdanni seems to have in mind (Chomsky adjunction), a grammatical-functional sense (for example, in the f-structure hierarchy in LFG) which BillJ seems to have in mind, as well as a more general cover term for words which are neither heads nor complements in a phrase (this would include classifiers, articles, etc.). Feb 21, 2017 at 16:03
  • Personally (I don't know if anyone shares this view but) from a cross-linguistic perspective, I think 'adverbial' may be a more useful term. We have many robust tests in English to distinguish adjuncts from oblique objects, but there's no guarantee they exist in all languages, since there may be some where it's more of a scalar property; however, an adverbial clause may be relatively easy to identify. Feb 21, 2017 at 16:08
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    Eherm, "Hear, hear" even. (Got prepositions on the brain ...) Feb 22, 2017 at 14:12

Is the adverbial phrase and adverb phrase identical?

Almost, and I don't see the problem with it.

While, taken precisely, an adverb phrase is something that contains a lexical adverb while an adverbial might (but not needs to) consist of something different, like a PP or an NP, their function is essentially the same: They modify the verb, the verb phrase, the sentence, sometimes adjectives, and in general anything which is not nominal.

In a syntactic structure, what matters are not primarily the precise lexical classes - these can already be encoded in the tree by differentiating between node labels AdvP, PP, NP etc.
Rather, what is relevant in syntactic considerations is what role a constituent plays in a sentence. The reason why it is called adverbial is because they behave the same as adverbs. They occur in all the same positions, they make all the same kind of modifications, and if it wasn't for the lexical categories they consist of, you couldn't tell any syntactic difference between an actual adverb phrase and a general adverbial phrase.
This makes adverbial a useful coverterm for "everything which behaves like an adverb (= adverbial)", which is at the same time more specific than the terms modifier or adjunct, which can as well refer to, e.g., PPs or AdjPs modifying an NP by adjunction, which I would not call adverbials.

To summarize, they are not exactly identical in that an adverb phrase is headed by a lexical adverb while an adverbial phrase isn't necessarily, but they are identical in their syntactic function (modifying verbs, VPs, sentences etc.) and this is what is relevant in syntactic analysis - after all, playing the same role as lexical adverbs in a sentence is the very reason why they are called so.
And as long as they serve to distinguish a certain class of constituents, the mere etymology of a term shouldn't bother one too much.

  • Hmmm. How about AdvPs that occur as Complements or as Subjects, for example. Are they Adverbials? Surely we wouldn't want to say that they are not carrying out functions that are carried out by AdvPs. Feb 24, 2017 at 11:20
  • @Araucaria Since I understand "adverbial" as referring to a function, I would say no - but could you give an example? I can't think of a case where an AdvP occurs as the complement or subject. Feb 27, 2017 at 0:25
  • So in the preposition phrase "untill recently", the adverb recently is usually considered a Complement, for example. An example as Subject might be "Carefully is how I'd like you to drive". Feb 27, 2017 at 0:28
  • @Araucaria See my reply in chat Mar 1, 2017 at 13:01

In his text The Syntactic Phenomena of English, McCawley on page 50, footnote 4, says how he uses several of the terms asked about, giving a few illustrative examples. To read this page on the web, go here: adverbial.

The terms are:

  the part of speech ADV (adverb), "fortunately"  
  'adverb phrase', "fortunately for us"  
  'adverbial phrase', "for no reason" in "For no reason, he insulted me"  

Note that this is just a terminological footnote about McCawley's own use of terms; he does not say they are correct, or that anyone else should use the terms this way. That is appropriate, because his text is an introduction to linguistic theory, and terms are adopted for convenience -- they are not part of a theory, and so they are not the kind of thing that can be right or wrong.

By the way, elsewhere in the book, McCawley says that "adverb" means 'modifier other than adjective', and the illustrations of this footnote fit that definition. So they are also adverbs. The number of words in a constituent has nothing to do with whether it is a "phrase".

  • His footnote does not suggest that 'adverb' is a synonym for 'adverbial' - far from it. Do you have a page number for the "adverb" means 'modifier of something other than a noun'? It would be interesting to read that. Feb 23, 2017 at 22:12
  • You should re-read what I actually said. Another web search finds a passage on page 196 which is probably what I was thinking of: "Traditional definitions of "adverb" all amount to "modifier other than adjective". (I see that he doesn't say whether he himself would do this.) It's here: books.google.com/…
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 23, 2017 at 22:57
  • I did notice this quote fom the link you gave ... "[I]n the many places where I was guilty of the reprehensible and shockingly common confusion of the notions of "adverb" and "adverbial"; these defects, for which I hang my head in shame, I have corrected wherever I have found them". A nice acknowledgement ... Feb 23, 2017 at 23:16

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