Adverbs in English are traditionally defined as “words that describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and clauses.” Adverb phrases are phrases formed by an adverb plus any modifiers. In English, prototypical adverbs and adverb phrases perform seven grammatical functions:
- Adverb phrase head
- Adjective phrase modifier
- Adverb phrase modifier
- Verb phrase modifier
- Adjunct adverbial
- Disjunct adverbial
- Conjunct adverbial
The grammatical functions that a grammatical form can perform are referred to as the “functional potential” of that grammatical form. Functional potentials help distinguish one part of speech from another. The “internal structure,” or grammatical form, also helps distinguish between parts of speech. In the English language, the majority of adverbs show no inflectional variation. English adverbs express three degrees of modification — positive, comparative, and superlative — through periphrasis. However, typically only adverbs of manner have comparative and superlative forms. Other adverbs — such as adverbs of time, place, and purpose — lack comparative and superlative forms.
The majority of adverbs — usually adverbs of manner — in English require the adverbs more and most in the comparative and superlative forms. For example:
- angrily – more angrily – most angrily
- daintily – more daintily – most daintily
- lyrically – more lyrically – most lyrically
- quickly – more quickly – most quickly
- stubbornly – more stubbornly – most stubbornly
- zanily – more zanily – most zanily
The adverbs more and most function as adverb phrase modifiers within the adverb phrases of comparative and superlative adverbs.
For a handful of adverbs without an -ly ending, add the -er or -est suffix to form that comparative and superlative forms. Adverbs with the -ly ending are sometimes referred to as flat adverbs. For example:
- deep – deeper – deepest
- early – earlier – earliest
- fast – faster – fastest
- hard – harder – hardest
- high – higher – highest
- late – later – latest
- long – longer – longest
- low – lower – lowest
- near – nearer – nearest
See Grammatical Form of English Adjectives for the spelling rules for the comparative and superlative forms of flat adverbs.
Some English adverbs have irregular, or anomalous, comparative and superlative forms. For example:
- badly – worse – worst
- well – better – best
- far – farther – farthest
Other adverbs lack comparative and superlative forms. In general, adverbs of degree, time, frequency, and place as well as adverbs that function as adverbials do not express degrees of modification. For example:
English adverbs generally show no inflectional variation. Only some adverbs — mostly adverbs of manner — express degrees of modification. However, most adverbs take more and most in the comparative and superlative forms. Adverbs differ from other grammatical forms more in function rather than form.
Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.