Lesson #140 (Part 2): How To Correctly Identify And Position Adverbs

​🍁 ‘Marilla whisked into the kitchen, grievously disturbed, leaving a very much distracted little soul in the porch behind her. Presently Anne stepped out bareheaded into the chill autumn dusk; very determinedly and steadily she took her way down through the sere clover field over the log bridge and up through the spruce grove, lighted by a pale little moon hanging low over the western woods.’

– Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908)

In the first part of this lesson (previous post), we reviewed the function of adverbs and how to identify them in a sentence. 

In this lesson post, we will look at where to place adverbs within a sentence’s word order – placements that can be quite varied, as the quoted passage above shows! The good news is that while there are plenty of options, there are certain clear guidelines on how to place them correctly, which will serve you well if you use them. 

📝 KEEP THE ADVERB AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE WORD IT MODIFIES

As mentioned before, an adverb can modify a verb, an adjective, a phrase or even an entire sentence. As such, it is usually best to place it as close as possible to whatever word(s) it describes. Consider the following example:

📗 ‘… when she told the whole story to Matthew that night, she did laugh heartily over Anne’s tribulations.’

In this line from Anne of Green Gables, ‘heartily’ modifies the verb tense ‘laugh’, so it is placed after it. When modifying a verb, it is common for adverbs to be placed after the verb they describe, whereas with regard to adjectives, it is normal for adverbs to be placed before the adjective they are describing. 

Consider the adverbs in this next, rather amusing sentence from Anne Shirley. Remember: because the highlighted adverbs below are modifying adjectives, they are placed before the adjectives.

📗 ‘Which would you rather be if you had the choice—divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?”

– Anne Shirley in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

📝 THE PLACEMENT OF ADVERBS WITH REFLEXIVE VERBS

📗 ‘Marilla looked at her with a tenderness that would never have been suffered to reveal itself in any clearer light than that soft mingling of fireshine and shadow. The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn.’

You may have wondered about where to place adverbs in relation to modal verbs and reflexive verbs. That is a good question!

With reflexive verbs, as in the text just quoted – ‘should display itself easily’ – the adverb can be placed after the reflexive pronoun, which is placed after the verb: verb + reflexive pronoun + adverb. Alternatively, if you really wanted to emphasise the meaning of the adverb, you could potentially reverse the order by placing the adverb before the verb, which is before the reflexive pronoun: adverb + verb + reflexive pronoun – something like ‘should easily display itself’.

👉 Just remember: while the adverb can be placed at the beginning or end of this construction, it must not come between the verb and its reflexive pronoun.*

📝 THE PLACEMENT OF ADVERBS WITH  MODAL VERB PHRASES

We will revert to this same quotation again as an example:

📗 ‘Marilla looked at her with a tenderness that would never have been suffered to reveal itself in any clearer light than that soft mingling of fireshine and shadow. The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn.’

Modal verbs + verb constructions (examples from this quotation could include: ‘would have been suffered’ or ‘could learn’) generally place the adverb between the modal verb and the verb that the adverb is modifying (this arrangement is especially common in spoken English). Thus the adverb ‘never’ is inserted between the modal form ‘would’ and the verb tense ‘have been suffered to’. (Side note: in this context, ‘suffered’ meant ‘allowed’ or ‘permitted’).

Similarly, ‘never’ being an adverb in the second sentence, it is placed between the modal ‘could’ and the verb that it modifies, ‘learn’.

Now that you understand the general order, here are some more examples of this arrangement, all using the same adverb for illustration purposes:

📗 ‘I have given up all hope of dimples. My dimple-dream will never come true; but so many of my dreams have that I mustn’t complain.’

📗 ‘Jane says it was her first glimpse into high life and she’ll never forget it to her dying day.”  

📗 ‘I thought when it happened I could never laugh again.’

📗 ‘It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier.’

👉 That said, sometimes (especially in written texts, or when you wish the adverb to sound more emphatic) you will see the adverb placed between the subject and the modal verb + verb construction, as in the following examples:

📗 “I never would have thought she’d have turned out so well that first day I was here three years ago,” said Mrs. Rachel.’

📗 ‘But you never can tell about people from their outsides.’

📝 ADVERBS AT THE START OR END OF A SENTENCE

I mentioned in the last lesson post that adverbs can describe or modify a whole sentence. In such cases, the adverb is placed either at the very beginning or the end of the sentence. Again, we will turn to Montgomery’s text for some good examples of this:

📗 Surely he was much grayer than he had been a year before.’

📗 ‘She would not fail before Gilbert Blythe—he should never be able to laugh at her, never, never!’

It is now generally recommended that you add a comma after the adverb if it is at the sentence’s beginning, or a comma before the adverb if it is placed at the sentence’s end. That comma will help to clarify that the adverb is modifying the whole sentence and not just the part of the sentence that it happens to be closest to.

After all, since adverbs are so versatile, we have to be very clear as to what we would like them to modify! 

Thus ends our lesson on adverbs with the help of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s wonderful classic. Montgomery clearly used adverbs to great effect in this novel, since many of them help to reinforce the impression we have of Anne Shirley as a dreamy, eager, flamboyant young girl, who sees a degree of drama and excitement in everything around her. 

Indeed, after this lesson you will probably start to notice more and more adverbs in any English book you happen to pick up. When used thoughtfully and specifically, adverbs raise the standard of any written text or spoken communication. 

Truly, no good writer can afford to go without a select choice of adverbs to enhance their work!

* (But in the cases of intransitive verb phrases like ‘she spoke to herself’, you may insert the adverb between the verb and the preposition: e.g., ‘she spoke quietly to herself’).  


by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)