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Grammatical Form of English Adverbs: Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Adverbs

Grammatical Form of English Adverbs: Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Adverbs

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 adverb phrase modifiers. In English, prototypical adverbs and adverb phrases perform eight grammatical functions:

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 internal structure that distinguishes adverbs from other grammatical forms is the expression of degrees of modification. However, the majority of adverbs show no inflectional variation. English adverbs express three degrees of modification — positive, comparative, and superlative — through periphrasis. Typically only adverbs of manner have comparative and superlative forms. Other adverbs — such as adverbs of time, place, and frequency — lack comparative and superlative forms.

Positive Adverbs

The first degree of modification that all English adverbs can express is the positive degree. Positive adverbs are identical to the dictionary form of the adverb. For example, the following italicized adverbs are positive:

  • He accidentally performed well on the physical fitness exam.
  • The very young girl, however, treats her baby brother nicely.
  • She innocently asked a rather inappropriate answer.

All adverbs in English have a positive form.

Comparative Adverbs

The second degree of modification that prototypical English adverbs can express is the comparative degree. Comparative adverbs compare only two words, phrases, or clauses. The comparative form of most adverbs is formed by adding the adverb more to the adverb phrase. However, some adverbs such as hard, fast, and early take the -er suffix in the comparative form. Some adverbs have irregular comparative forms as in well and better or badly and worse. For example, the following italicized adverbs are comparative:

  • She arrives at work earlier than him.
  • My mom drives more carefully than my dad.
  • The older sister treats her baby brother more nicely.

Only prototypical adverbs in English express comparative degrees of modification. For example, the most frequent adverbs that function as adverbials such as however, but, and although do not have comparative forms.

Superlative Adverbs

The third degree of modification that prototypical English adverbs can express is the superlative degree. Superlative adverbs compare three or more words, phrases, or clauses. The superlative form of most adverbs is formed by adding the adverb most to the adverb phrase. However, some adverbs such as hard, fast, and early take the -est suffix in the superlative form. Some adverbs have irregular comparative forms as in well and best or badly and worst. For example, the following italicized adverbs are superlative:

  • He arrives the earliest of all the employees.
  • Soap kills germs most efficiently in warm water.
  • Of all the students in the class, Espen studies hardest.

As with comparative forms, only prototypical English adverbs express superlative degrees of modification.

Forming Comparative and Superlative Adverbs

-ly Adverbs

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.

Flat 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: Positive, Comparative, and Superlative Adjectives for the spelling rules for the comparative and superlative forms of flat adverbs.

Anomalous 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

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:

  • always
  • daily
  • just
  • meanwhile
  • more
  • most
  • never
  • not
  • often
  • rather
  • so
  • then
  • too
  • very

English adverbs generally show no inflectional variation. Only some adverbs — mostly adverbs of manner — express degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative. 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.

Summary

Adverbs in English grammar are traditionally defined as “words that describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and clauses.”

Adverb is a grammatical form.

Adverbs function as the heads of adverb phrases. The seven grammatical functions performed by adverb phrases, and subsequently adverbs, are adjective phrase modifier, adverb phrase modifier, verb phrase modifier, prepositional phrase modifier, adjunct adverbial, disjunct adverbial, and conjunct adverbial

The internal structures, or grammatical form, that distinguish adjectives from other grammatical forms include degrees of modification.

References

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.

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