An adverbial phrase (also known as an adverb phrase) is group of words that functions as an adverb in a sentence. That is, it modifies a verb, adjective, adverb, clause, or the sentence as a whole. Adverbial phrases often feature an adverb (known as the head word) being modified by other elements, but not always.
Here are some examples of adverbial phrases:
- very quickly
- in a while
- just a bit
- surprisingly well
- at the fairground
- slightly close
- as soon as possible
Here are some examples of adverb phrases being used in sentences:
- “Shelia rode her bike very hastily so she could get home sooner.”
- “The farmers worked like a single unit.”
- “The surf at the beach was coming in extremely quickly.”
- “After they woke up, they packed up their things and then went on a hike.”
- “He read the restaurant's menu rather slowly.”
As you can see, different types of word groups can be used as adverbial phrases.
Types of Adverbial Phrases
Adverbs with mitigators and intensifiers
Adverbial phrases are commonly formed when an adverb’s intensity is being modified by another adverb. These modifying adverbs are known as mitigators, which decrease the intensity of the main adverb, and intensifiers, which increase its intensity. For example:
- “The kicker is running somewhat slowly back to the bench. He might be injured.” (mitigator)
- “She performed very well on her exam.” (intensifier)
Prepositional phrases are often used adverbially, though they can also function as adjectives. If the phrase is modifying an adjective, verb, or adverb, it is an adverbial phrase. If it is modifying a noun or a pronoun, it is an adjectival phrase.
We’ll look briefly at both uses so the difference is clear.
Adverbial prepositional phrases
- “We were playing Frisbee at the park.”
In this sentence, the prepositional phrase at the park is an adverbial phrase, because it is modifying the verb playing.
- “All of the employees were filled with excitement because they learned that they might get a raise.”
The prepositional phrase with excitement modifies the adjective filled in this sentence. Therefore it is an adverbial phrase.
Adjectival prepositional phrase
- “The cat on the window sill was orange and had some white spots.”
- “All the people on the boardwalk were wearing sunglasses.”
In these examples, the prepositional phrases modify the nouns cat and people—they are functioning as adjectives and not adverbs.
We can also use infinitives or infinitive phrases as adverbs in a sentence.
Infinitive phrases are groups of words that begin with a verb in the infinitive form (the base form of the verb preceded by the particle to) and typically include an object and/or modifiers.
Similar to prepositional phrases, infinitive phrases can act as adverbial phrases if they modify a verb, adverb, or adjective. However, infinitives can also act as noun phrases and adjectival phrases.
Adverbial infinitive phrases
- “The man brought his fishing gear to catch fish in the river.”
In this sentence, the infinitive phrase to catch fish in the river modifies the verb brought, so it is functioning adverbially.
- “Patricia went to the mountains to go for a hike.”
Here, the infinitive phrase to go for a hike modifies the verb went, so it is also an adverbial phrase.
Adjectival infinitive phrases
- “One of the best things to do if you get lost is to call for help.”
In this sentence, the infinitive phrase to do if you get lost modifies the noun things. Since it is modifying a noun, it is an adjectival phrase.
Infinitive noun phrases
- “I like to go on a walk a couple times a week.”
Here, the infinitive phrase to go on a walk a couple times a week is the object of the verb like, so it is acting as a noun.
Purpose of use
Adverbial phrases typically give descriptions of time, location, manner, or reason. They serve to broaden the meaning of the sentence and enhance the context of the verb, adjective, or adverb that they describe.
- “The player made the shot just before the buzzer.”
The adverbial phrase just before the buzzer is a description of a time that modifies the verb made. It lets you know exactly when the player made the shot.
- “The sun set at around 7:30 PM.”
Here, the adverbial phrase at around 7:30 PM describes the time that the sun set. Because the phrase uses the compound preposition at around, rather than simply at, it implies a level of ambiguity about the exact time that the sun set. Subtleties like this help to create descriptions that are more nuanced and rich with meaning.
Location or direction
- “Stuart ran five miles around the track.”
Around the track is an adverbial phrase that establishes a location and direction for the verb ran.
- “The large wind turbines stood on top of the hill.”
In this sentence, the adverbial phrase on top of the hill tells where the wind turbines stood.
- “The leopard climbed the tree quite gracefully.”
Here, quite gracefully describes the manner in which the leopard climbed the tree.
- “The figure skater leapt in a beautiful arc.”
The adverbial phrase in a beautiful arc describes how the figure skater leapt.
Reason or purpose
- “The woman went to the store to get some lettuce.”
In this sentence, the infinitive adverbial phrase to get some lettuce explains the reason why the woman went to the store.
- “The hockey team prepared for the championship match.”
The adverbial prepositional phrase for the championship match lets you know the purpose for the team’s preparation.