As chance would have it, I came across three unrelated persons each describing the adverb as the

the garbage can among the word classes.

It happened in Germany and the original wording was:

Das Adverb dient als der Abfalleimer unter den Wortart en

Taken the circumstances into consideration, the same metaphora and a background in linguistics in each of them, it is hard to believe in coincidence.

Does anybody know about the origin of this metaphora or why adverbs could be regarded as the garbage can among the part of speeches?

  • I always wondered why they didn't modify only verbs, given their name.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 9:39

1 Answer 1


Traditional grammarians going all the way back to Donatus are accused of classifying as adverb any word they couldn't make fit anywhere else in the canonical parts of speech.

It's a very old criticism. The Stoic grammarians are suspected of having their tongues skewed into their cheeks when they employed the word pandektes ('all-receiver') for adverb. John Horne Tooke, The Diversions of Purley, 1786, called the adverb “The common sink and repository of all heterogeneous and unknown corruptions”, citing the 4th- to 5th-century grammarian Maurus Servius Honoratus:

Omnis pars orationis, every word, quando desinit esse quod est, when a Grammarian knows not what to make of it, migrat in Adverbium, he calls an Adverb.

That’s a joke (what Servius actually says is that every part of speech can be converted into an adverb); but Horne Tooke was one of the first to recognize explicitly that the term adverb doesn’t really tell you much about how a word so designated actually functions syntactically.

Contemporary grammar has of course progressed beyond the classical notion; we no longer call unclassifiable terms adverbs but employ the far more meaningful term particle.

  • 5
    +1 for the last paragraph.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 3:52
  • 4
    ...and if we can't explain its form, we say it contains a laryngeal.
    – fdb
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 11:01
  • 1
    Particles can be classified. Category-wise they are mostly prepositions, and their function is that of complement. And many of the so-called adverbs are now reanalysed as prepositions, at least they are by Messrs H&P.
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 11:31
  • @BillJ Any particular grammarian or school may have a fairly precise definition of 'particle' (or for that matter of anything else); but that's not the same thing as the discipline concurring in that definition. Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 11:36
  • True, but surely the name of the game is to make things as simple as possible. H&P's system works extremely well and is widely accepted. Students love it, believe me!
    – BillJ
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 11:39

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