Multiple Meanings of Adverbs

MC900320634_partnersA question about adverbs from an advanced learner sent me to my reference books recently. If he had asked about only or fortunately, it would have been much easier. Some adverbs are easy to classify. As Jay Maurer explains, only helps us focus our attention on some element in a sentence (301): I can answer only the first question, not the second. (Focus is placed on “the first quetion.”) Fortunately falls into the category of adverbs that help us express viewpoint (300): Fortunately, I had help. (A favorable opinion is expressed about the main statement.)

However, the student was asking about mostly. The dictionary told me that a similar word was mainly. Although Maurer lists mainly among viewpoint adverbs (300), a larger discussion reveals how nimble this word can be. Consider the following sentences, noting that mainly could be substituted:

  • Mostly I get questions about grammar on my forum.
  • I get questions mostly about grammar on my forum.
  • I get questions about grammar mostly on my forum.
  • I get questions about grammar on my forum mostly.

In some cases, more context is needed to interpret the speaker’s meaning, correct? Is mostly modifying the whole sentence or focusing on one element and somehow limiting its meaning? Now please look at this pair of examples:

  • I really appreciate your help. Really, truly I do, and I want you to know that.
  • I really appreciate your help.  I am so very grateful.

Would you agree that the first “really” expresses the truth of my statement and the second “really” helps me express the extent of my gratitude? It’s interesting to note that word order doesn’t always change the meaning of an adverb; context and intonation play important roles.

When Biber opens the discussion on stance vs. circumstance adverbials, he recognizes ambiguity, particularly with adverbs expressing extent or degree (857). Biber helps shed light on multiple functions of adverbs such as really by noting an epistemic stance meaning (e.g., really meaning “in truth”) in an initial or final position (857): Really, I appreciate your help. Truly I do!

I think mostly, mainly, and really have a high degree of flexibility compared to other adverbs. But instead of confusing students with teacher jargon like “epistemic stance meaning” and “adverbials of extent,” I suggest we let them explore the multiple meanings of a given adverb through use. I offer my Multiple Meanings_handout as a way to guide students’ explorations.

A reasonable amount of terminology could be helpful to label uses of certain adverbs. If you choose to work with my handout, you might also make use of Biber’s Longman Student Grammar of Written and Spoken English, in which intensifiers and diminishers are discussed (209-210). Then everything should be mostly clear!


Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Biber, D., et al.  (2002).  The Longman student grammar of spoken and written English.  London:  Longman.

Maurer, Jay. (2006). Focus on grammar: an integrated skills approach. Book 5. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education Limited.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Arun Goyal says:

    Jennifer, this one on adverbs has taken the words from my mouth. I think you have not covered this part of speech in your videos.
    In fact, the poor adverb is neglected by the web! Adjectives take up too much of the space. They are static and often superfluous. Adverbs are essential for bringing out the meaning.

    1. Hello Arun,

      Indeed, a number of videos could be made about adverbs. It’s on my to-do list. 🙂

      I hope you liked the discussion here. Feel free to comment more. I feel that I have more thinking to do about stance adverbs in particular.

      Kind regards,

    2. Ali Ahmed says:

      Thank you so much Jennifer Teacher

      1. You’re welcome! Thanks for taking the time to read the post.

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