For those who came in late, a "sentence adverb" is a word that modifies an entire sentence rather than just the verb or predicate. A sentence adverb communicates speaker attitudes about the proposition that the sentence denotes, or discourse information. So "fortunately" is a sentence adverb in the sentence "Fortunately, we found a source of fresh water on the island." Also note "however," the sentence adverb for discourse.

I couldn't find much information on the Internet about sentence adverbs. Here are the three most helpful links I found:

http://www-01.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsASentenceAdverb.htm http://grammar.about.com/od/grammarfaq/f/sentadvqa.htm http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/sentence-adverb

All of the links define sentence adverbs as sentence modifiers. But is this always true? Note the following:

a) The man fell from the tenth story, fortunately onto a pile of pillows.

b) Fortunately, the man fell from the tenth story onto a pile of pillows.

In sentence a), "fortunately" clearly conveys speaker attitude and has the same meaning as it does in sentence b). However, the sentences don't necessarily have synonymous readings.

It can be unfortunate that the man fell from the tenth story onto a pile of pillows, and at the same time fortunate that he landed on a pile of pillows (rather than the hard pavement, for example).

So, if "fortunately" in sentence a) can convey speaker attitude about the state of affairs denoted by the prepositional phrase "onto a pile of pillows," what should we call "fortunately" in this context if not a sentence adverb?

I am assuming that other languages have sentence adverbs, and that this question is therefore not off-topic.

  • Why do you worry about what you "call" it? What's the matter with just describing it?
    – jlawler
    Oct 29, 2013 at 16:40

2 Answers 2


Adverbs have long been called a ‘wastebasket’ category in syntax. Their definition is very general: adverbs are distinguished from adjectives, which modify nouns, by saying that ‘adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs’; to this one can add that they may also modify phrases and clauses as a whole.

If something doesn’t fit nicely in some other word class, it generally gets lumped in as an adverb of some sort. Traditionally, adverbs (and adverbials, which means ‘any chunk that acts like an adverb’ -– not a terribly precise definition) represent qualifications and afterthoughts to ordinary propositions.

And they can occur in many different positions in the sentence, which means they may or may not be close to whatever constituents they focus on. Which allows lots of useful variations and conventions.

"Sentence adverb" is not a type of adverb.
It's a type of adverbial construction, or usage;
one of the things some adverbs can do.
That's all.

And "sentence adverb" is a sloppy technical term, since it doesn't distinguish "sentence adverbs"
from "clause adverbs", or "phrase adverbs", which also exist, but are not mentioned.
So I wouldn't worry too much about "sentence adverbs".

  • I think we basically come to the same conclusion: it's not a very useful label for a word, but merely for a construction. What I tried was going by what are commonly called sentence adverbs and see whether I could make anything consistent out of them (and I couldn't).
    – Cerberus
    Oct 29, 2013 at 18:07
  • Yeah, I kinda thought that was what you intended. That's why I don't think it's worthwhile to pay attention to "what are commonly called X", where X is any grammatical term at all. There simply isn't any consistency to be drawn from commonality, because there is so much BS in the system. It's like discussing comparative religion in Syria at the moment.
    – jlawler
    Oct 29, 2013 at 18:25
  • Don't you think "describes the attitude of the speaker towards his statement" is a common element?
    – Cerberus
    Oct 29, 2013 at 18:59
  • It's a totally ubiquitous element. Every word uttered "describes the attitude of the speaker towards his statement". It's like saying it "is audible to the addressee" or "conveys a meaning". Since it's true of everything, it doesn't serve to distinguish anything special unless "attitude" is pinned down much more clearly in semantic and pragmatic terms.
    – jlawler
    Oct 29, 2013 at 20:44
  • I suggested modal (fortunately) and discursive (however) categories in my answer. I think those describe the attitude of a speaking in the examples given in a special and direct way that other adverbs do not.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 29, 2013 at 23:50

Good question. Your examples are convincing. As I see it, there are four possibilities:

  1. Fortunately is not a real sentence adverb; real sentence adverbs do modify the entire sentence.
  2. Fortunately does in fact modify a sentence, but this is obscured by ellipsis.
  3. The same adverb can be a sentence adverb in some sentences but not others.
  4. The term sentence adverb does not adequately describe the category of adverbs we have in mind.

1) Does fortunately happen to be a bad example? Let's take a few other, similar words, then.

a) The cat became agitated. However, the mouse was absent from the kitchen.

b) The cat was in the kitchen. The mouse, however, was not.

c) I bought a pair of hopefully unused socks at the market.

Here it can be seen that however modifies the entire sentence in a), but only the mouse in b) (contrasting it with the cat). And hopefully clearly modifies only unused in c), which is perhaps a bit informal, but not uncommon.

2) One could say your example is really an elliptical form of a full secondary sentence:

a) The man fell from the tenth story; fortunately [it was / he fell] onto a pile of pillows.

I find this doubtful.

b) The cat was in the kitchen. The mouse, however, was not.

It seems impossible to reconstruct this as ellipsis.

c) I bought a pair of — hopefully [they are] unused — socks at the market.

This perhaps possible, but it seems weak. And it cannot work for however. It seems far more likely that the subconscious sometimes wants to treat hopefully like other -ly words and have it modify an adjective. I hear an English monk sharpening his razor.

3) Perhaps the same adverb can sometimes be a sentence adverb, but at other times modify only a single constituent. This would then have to apply to most sentence adverbs. The problem or issue is that most adverbs that we normally do not consider sentence adverbs can also do this:

d) The mouse was often absent from the kitchen.

e) The often absent mouse was dearly missed by the cat.

What makes this different from fortunately and however? The main difference seems to be that the latter are about the attitude of the speaker towards the text, modality, whereas often is not. In the case of fortunately, its meaning does not change between its use as a sentence modifier and its use as modifying a constituent. It would not seem warranted to call the word a sentence adverb in one sentence and a normal adverb in another, if its meaning does not change; then we could just as well call often a sentence modifier in d), which seems trivial.

4) It doesn't seem to make sense to use sentence adverb at all, because it suggests that certain adverbs modify only whole sentences and other adverbs do not. Instead, the essence of what makes fortunately etc. special is that they express the attitude of the speaker towards the text, somewhat like modal verbs. Perhaps the intended category should be called modal adverbs instead. Or perhaps we are dealing with more than one category: however could be called a discursive adverb, as it does not really express a modal attitude, but rather the speaker's attitude towards the ordering of the text (in casu a contrast). An attitudinal adverb?

Note that the word disjunct has similar problems, because it implies that the adverb is entirely separate from the rest of the clause and does not modify a constituent.

  • 1
    I don't think it makes sense to say that in (b) however modifies only the mouse: an adverb can only modify a predication, not a single referent by itself. It seems clear to me that (despite its position) however in that example is modifying the entire sentence The mouse was not (in the kitchen). (Which makes the ellipsis question irrelevant for that example, as there's already a finite verb.)
    – TKR
    Oct 29, 2013 at 16:20
  • I agree. However virtually always modifies a clause, though the clause may be deleted, because syntax. And I don't think these are the only 4 possibilities. Any more than I think "sentence adverb" is anything more than a nonce term for some particular uses of certain adverbs. There are lots of others.
    – jlawler
    Oct 29, 2013 at 16:48
  • Tim Stowell has done some work recently on sentences like your 2(a), which he calls 'parenthetical adjuncts' - an ellipsis analysis is argued for, i.e. The man fell from the 4th story, fortunately [onto a pile of pillows]i <he fell from the 4th story ti>, where [onto a pile of pillows] is a focused adverbial which moves to the left-periphery of the adjunct, thus licensing clausal ellipsis. Unfortunately there isn't anything online (this was a talk from last week), but i found the arguments convincing enough.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 29, 2013 at 17:11
  • 1
    Also @jlawler "...though the clause may be deleted, because syntax." <-- i love this comment.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 29, 2013 at 17:12
  • 1
    @jlawler: Why do you call however subordinating (or even a conjunction)? I don't see The mouse, however, was not in the kitchen. as a subordinate clause, but as an independent sentence.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 29, 2013 at 18:58

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