Focusing adverbs are used to draw attention to a particular part of a clause. They frequently point to verb phrases, but they can also draw attention to noun phrases, prepositional phrases, adjective phrases, and adverbial phrases.
When we speak, we often emphasize a particular part of a sentence using stressed intonation. This is sometimes represented in writing by using italics. Both speech and writing can be simplified and ambiguity reduced by using focusing adverbs instead. Let’s see this done both ways:
- Through intonation: “I know Tom is coming to the party.”
- Using a focusing adverb: “I know that at least Tom is coming to the party.”
Both the emphasis through intonation and the use of the focusing adverb at least draw attention to Tom in the sentence. This signals to the listener or reader that this information is important.
Focusing adverbs also often imply some sort of contrast. In the examples above, drawing attention to Tom implies that there are other people who may not be coming to the party.
Types of Focusing Adverbs
We select a focusing adverb according to how we intend to emphasize the word or phrase. There are different focusing adverbs that are used to draw attention to information that is being added, information that is being limited or partially limited, information that is negative, information that presents a choice, or information that is considered surprising. Let’s look at some of the most common focusing adverbs for each function:
When we want to emphasize information that is being added to previous information, we can use the following focusing adverbs:
- as well
- “Tom is coming to the party and is also bringing James.”
The focusing adverb also adds emphasis to the entire verb phrase: is bringing James. This lets the listener know that this information is especially important to the speaker. Let’s look at another example:
- “Tom is coming to the party, and James is coming too.”
Again, using the focusing adverb too adds the information about James coming in addition to Tom and stresses its importance.
When we want to emphasize information that presents limits, we use the following focusing adverbs:
- not only
Observe how these focusing adverbs emphasize limits:
- Example: “Just Tom is coming to the party.”
- Implication: Tom is coming to the party but is not bringing a friend, or nobody else is coming to the party.
- Example: “I’m going to study for exactly half an hour, then I’ll go to the party.”
- Implication: I will study for no more than half an hour.
- Example: “I’m only bringing James to the party.”
- Implication: I am not bringing anybody else.
- Example: “The party starts at precisely 10 o’clock.”
- Implication: The party won’t start earlier or later than 10 o’clock.
Partially limiting information
Sometimes, we want to emphasize information that isn’t completely limited, but rather partially limited. For that purpose, we can use the following focusing adverbs:
- in particular
- at least
- for the most part
- by and large
Let’s see how partially limiting focusing adverbs can work:
- Example: “I want everybody to come to the party, especially James.”
- Implication: I want everybody to come to the party, but I want James to come the most.
- Example: “They played mostly techno music at the party.”
- Implication: They played several types of music, but most of it was techno.
- Example: “A few people were missing at the party, notably Tom.”
- Implication: Several people who were supposed to be at the party did not go. Tom didn’t go, and that was significant.
- Example: “The people coming to the party are going to be predominantly students.”
- Implications: There are a variety of people coming to the party, but the majority will be students.
When we want to draw attention to a negative statement, we can use neither/nor.
- Example: “Neither Tom nor James turned up at the party.”
- “Tom didn’t turn up to the party, and neither did James.”
- Implication: It is significant that neither Tom nor James went to the party.
When we want to draw attention to a choice of two things, we can use either/or.
- Example: “You can either bring Tom or James to the party.”
- Implication: You have to choose one friend to bring. You cannot bring both.
Finally, when we want to show that a particular piece of information is surprising, we can use even.
- Example: “Even Tom was at the party!”
- Implication: Absolutely everybody was at the party, including Tom, which was unexpected.
Focusing adverbs can take the initial, middle, or final position in a sentence depending on what you want them to draw attention to.
According to what you want to emphasize
Changing the placement of the adverb changes which part of the clause is emphasized, and thereby can greatly change the implications of the sentence. Let’s see how this works using the base sentence “Jen can play piano for her friends at the party.” Notice how the meaning changes as we move around the focusing adverb only:
- 1. “Only Jen can play piano for her friends at the party.”
- Implication: Nobody else can play piano for her friends.
- 2. “Jen can only play piano for her friends at the party.”
- Implication: Jen can’t do anything else at the party, or Jen cannot play any other instruments for her friends.
- 3. “Jen can play only piano for her friends at the party.”
- Implication: Jen cannot play any other instruments for her friends.
- 4. “Jen can play piano for only her friends at the party.”
- Implication: Jen can play piano for her friends, but not for anybody else.
- 5. “Jen can play piano for her friends only at the party.”
- Implication: Jen cannot play piano for her friends in other circumstances.
Placement of focusing adverbs around verbs
When the focusing adverb modifies a verb or verb phrase, it is placed before the main verb. For example:
- “We didn’t go to the party. We just stayed at home.”
- “We only went for one hour.”
- “We even danced.”
However, focusing adverbs should be placed after the verb be:
- “It is just Tom.”
- “It was mostly Jen who danced at the party.”
- “I am especially sorry that I missed it.”
When a focusing adverb modifies a verb phrase that includes an auxiliary verb and a main verb, it is placed between them. For example:
- “Jen can only play piano for her friends at the party.”
- “Tom didn’t even go to the party!”
- “They had particularly wanted a DJ instead of a band.”
Too and as well
In exception to the rules above, the focusing adverbs too and as well normally take the final position in a clause. For example:
- “Tom is going to the party, and James is going too.”
- “I want to go to the party as well.”
It’s worth mentioning that the words also and just have varying functions and meanings from the examples given above. Let’s take a closer look:
Also does not always function as a focusing adverb. It can also be used as a conjunctive adverb. For example:
- “Tom is coming to the party. Also, James is coming.”
The word just also has different functions and meanings. We have already seen that when used as a focusing adverb, just can limit the phrase it points to, in the same way as only or merely.
However, it can also mean recently, as in “I just got home”; really, as in “I just love it here”; barely, as in “We just made it on time”; and exactly, as in “It’s just ten o’clock right now.”