Is it an adhesive error—the sort that sticks and won’t go away—to tell young children that adverbs usually end in –ly? That is what I was told in the early years of prep school. But later I found that the adverbs most used are actually words like now, soon, never, here, yesterday. These are common words of everyday speech. Fifty years later, my Year Seven pupils, asked about adverbs in September, said, “Oh yes, those are the words that end in –ly.”

What I do for them is make a rough division:

Temporal (when?): now, soon, today, tomorrow, never, sometimes, often.

Spatial (where?): here, there, everywhere, nowhere, hither, hence, back, far.

Modal (how?): justly, hesitantly, suddenly, strongly, scarcely.

This can be useful for the early years of learning Latin and Greek. Not till later do they realise that the matter is more complicated, and that ‘adverb’ is a catch-all for a whole array of words—or particles—that modify, define or extend the meaning not only of verbs but of adjectives, other adverbs, nouns and whole phrases or clauses. And there are particles, usually classified as adverbs, that fall into none of the above groups: almost, very, quite, rather, even, much, perhaps, only. Then there are expressions like at least: in Latin perhaps saltem or certe.

However, the adverbs ending –ly, though not the ones most commonly used, do make up the majority: so perhaps there is no error, if children are being taught how to write English. These words fascinated Logan Pearsall Smith, who, discovering in old age that adverbs were ‘the secret of Style… the fugitive elixir’, revised his book All Trivia, ‘realembicating and readverbalising’ the final edition. He perhaps went too far with abracadabrally (See Hugh Trevor-Roper, The War Journals, pp.288-9).

Apuleius loved using adverbs, and coining them: see the earlier post listing some of his coinages.

It is worth pointing out to pupils that prepositional phrases are normally adverbial in Latin; and so are a great many of the subordinate clauses that constitute the long sentences of the periodic style.

For the linguistics of adverbial use, see Thomas Ernst, The Syntax of Adjuncts, CUP 2006.

Next post: Assonance and alliteration.

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