Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun?



Writers know that an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. They likewise understand it can enhance an infinitive, a gerund, a participle, a phrase, a clause, a preposition, or the rest of the sentence in which it appears.

The question that remains is whether the agile adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun as well. Some observers say yes; others disagree.

Those in the “yea” will cite usage such as almost everybody went to the party and hardly anyone took the test as proving an adverb can augment a noun or a pronoun.

Those in the “nay” will point out that, by definition, a word that modifies a noun or a pronoun is an adjective; therefore, if an adverb is describing a noun or a pronoun, it qualifies as an adjective and needs to be categorized as such.

The Yeas will then counter with two points. First, they will refer to a sentence such as even these numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adverbial modifier of the phrase these numbers.

Compare that usage with these even numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adjectival modifier of numbers.

Second, the Yeas will refer to usage in which an adverb follows a noun to describe it, as in the opportunities here are endless. The word here, an adverb, modifies the preceding opportunities. Similar usage appears in let’s discuss this in the room upstairs.

The Yeas might add to their counterpoints with a sentence such as where are my keys? A purist beholden to definition might argue that where as an adverb modifies the verb, are. In turn, the Yea team could argue that where adverbially modifies the subject keys after the linking verb to be.

Further clouding the issue is that dictionaries vary in their classifications of certain words. For example, ninjawords.com and dictionary.com categorize ahead as an adverb only; merriam-webster.com includes it as both an adverb and an adjective. How then would we label it in the phrase the road ahead?

For the word forward, both dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com seemingly treat it as an adjective when it precedes a noun and an adverb when it follows one. Ninjawords.com likewise identifies forward as both an adverb and an adjective, although its stance on whether it can be an adverb for a noun is less clear.

Though leaving room for uncertainty, this possible accord on forward could unite the Yeas and Nays in allowing that the word adverbially describes a noun in a phrase such as from that moment forward. However, here again the Nays see an obvious opening: forward can also be interpreted as an adverb modifying a prepositional phrase.

In sum, the grammatical house remains divided over whether an adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun. Where disparity appears to erode the most is when the adverb follows the noun, as in the opportunities here and the room upstairs. Here we may someday see usage and classification become common enough to achieve consensus.

Until then, we’ll continue to watch and wait for when, where, and how majorities may or may not form on this issue as American English further evolves.

 

Pop Quiz

Applying the discussion and possible logic in this article, identify whether the emphasized word in the following sentences is an adverb or an adjective.

1. Oddly, the committee voted for the proposition even though it could lose money for the association.
a) adverb
b) adjective

2. You’ll find the box in the closet downstairs.
a) adverb
b) adjective

3) Most kids like to watch cartoons.
a) adverb
b) adjective

4) I want the truth straight. Tell me everything.
a) adverb
b) adjective

5) Do you see the fork in the road ahead?
a) adverb
b) adjective

 

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Oddly, the committee voted for the proposition even though it could lose money for the association.
a) adverb [“Oddly” modifies both the verb voted and the full sentence in which the adverb appears]
b) adjective

2. You’ll find the box in the closet downstairs.
a) adverb [“downstairs” here is used more to modify the closet’s location than the sentence’s verb, find]
b) adjective

3) Most kids like to watch cartoons.
a) adverb
b) adjective [while appearing to be a word that some might interpret as an adverb or an adjective, most in this context modifies the subject kids as an adjective meaning “greatest in size, extent, or quantity.”]

4) I want the truth straight. Tell me everything.
a) adverb
b) adjective [“straight” modifies truth in the context of “frank, candid”; the standard noun phrase would be straight truth; in this quiz question the adjective is emphasized by appearing after the noun]

5) Do you see the fork in the road ahead?
a) adverb [“ahead” here is used more to modify the fork’s (and the road’s) location than the sentence’s verb, see]
b) adjective

Posted on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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9 Comments on Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun?

9 responses to “Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun?”

  1. Rich LaFontaine says:

    I would argue (as I’m sure many would) that “straight” tells me how I want it, thus modifying the verb.

    Question:
    In the sentence “I saw you steal the cookie,” what structure is “steal”?

    • We looked at straight in that sentence as an adjective expressing “without circumlocution; frank; candid.” But we can also see where you’re coming from. Part of the objective of this article was to express that grammar has nuance and is often not a black and white matter.

      Steal is a verb in your sentence.

  2. Anna Benassi says:

    It seems to me that a useful tool might be to see whether “that is” can be inserted into the phrase/sentence in question without bollixing up the meaning.
    1. You’ll find the box in the closet [that is] downstairs.
    2. Do you see the fork in the road [that is] ahead?

    In these cases, you can add “that is” without mishap, and oddly enough, these are listed by the quizmasters as adverbial use.

    I haven’t applied this theory to other text and don’t yet know how widely it works, but I thought I’d throw it out there for consideration.

    Thanks for an excellent newsletter!

    • Your observation that the noun phrases road ahead and closet downstairs include an omitted, understood relative pronoun phrase is an interesting one. It raises a valid question to consider about whether an adverb truly ever modifies a noun.

  3. Robin Taylor says:

    I enjoy reading grammarbook.com and always find it helpful.

    I would like to suggest a topic for review. When starting a sentence such as “First, they will refer to a sentence …” followed by “Secondly, the Yeas will refer …” then we would continue with thirdly, fourthly, fifthly. Can you have a review of why and when we use “….ly” in a list? Can’t we just write first, second, third, fourth, etc.?

  4. Jan H. says:

    I vote for classifying a word by its function in any given sentence. If a word that usually functions as an adverb suddenly functions as an adjective, for me in that sentence that word is an adjective

  5. John S. says:

    Are you sure 5 in the pop quiz is an adverb? Seems to describe it as an adjective!

    • One way to view the word ahead in the quiz question is that it describes where the road or the fork is located, thus suggesting it functions as an adverb. However, another reader questioned whether this is just a matter of omitting a relative-pronoun phrase: i.e., “Do you see the fork in the road [that is] ahead?” In this context, ahead would be classified as an adjective that can describe either “fork” or “road.”

      Complicating the issue is that some dictionaries seem to blur on categorization. For example, both dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com treat ahead as both an adverb and an adjective, and they include similar definitions for each. This keeps us in a gray area.

      We are eager to see how other readers might view and respond to the subject. While still putting forth that ahead here performs as an adverb, we are open to the reasoning that it could be an adjective posing as an adverb.

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