This question, What exactly is an adverbial phrase, which did not originally show much research, seems to actually be a very useful and helpful question. I've put the text here for your convenience:

What is an adverbial phrase ?

I recently learnt 'to boot' , meaning in addition, as well. And someone was saying it is an adverbial phrase. I think I know what's an adverb, but never learnt of adverbial phrases.

Edit note [16, 08 2015]:

On the Wikipedia page for Adverbials, it says that an adverbial is an adverb or a phrase functioning like an adverb. It also says that an adverbial is a phrase modifying a verb.

But further down the page it says that in the water is an adverbial phrase in:

  • John put the flowers in the water

In the sentence above in the water is not a modifier of the verb. It is a complement. If we don't have this type of complement the sentence is badly formed:

  • *John put the flowers.

This sentence cannot be grammatical on its own, although it would be ok, perhaps, as a response to the question What did John put in the vase. But that's because this complement has already been supplied by the speaker. In addition to this, we cannot use an adverb in this function. If we use an adverb instead of in the water here the sentence will badly formed:

  • *John put the flowers locally.

The sentence above still needs a locative complement like on the table. The adverb locally won't do.

The same kind of confusing facts exist with phrases like in the water in sentences like:

  • The flowers are in the water.

This phrase in the water is the complement of the verb BE. Also, it cannot be replaced by an adverb:

  • *The flowers are locally.

But people, for example on this site, or on other pages on Wikipedia seem to refer to phrases like this as adverbial phrases.

Lastly, the word almost is an adverb. It is also modifying a verb in the sentence:

  • I almost lost the race.

Is this as an adverbial too? There aren't any examples of adverbs in this position like this being described as adverbials on the Wikipedia page.

To summarise:

  1. What exactly is an adverbial?

As illustration could you also explain:

  1. Why are phrases like in the water an adverbial in sentences like John put the flowers in the water or The flowers are in the water.

  2. If in the water is an adverbial in the sentences above, is regional an adverbial in sentences like The divisions were regional? And how about happy in They made her happy? Why, or why not.

  3. Why is to boot an adverbial?

Adverbial phrases seem to be talked about a lot, but they also seem difficult to understand conceptually.

This does not seem to be a simple "look it up" type of question, but rather one that would help readers a lot, because clear information is difficult to find on this topic. I'm a disbeliever in adverbial phrases and have put my own skeptical answer there. It would be a shame if it was the only answer the Original Poster, or future readers got! Any chance of your re-open vote here? Especially if there is, in fact, a clear and simple answer to the question.

  • John put the flowers down, John put the flowers back, John put the flowers, John put the flowers out. Are these all phrasal verbs put down, put back, put out? We get an awful lot of phrasal verbs that way. Aug 16, 2015 at 12:46
  • @PeterShor Yes, that's true, I don't quite get the thrust of your point though .. :) Aug 16, 2015 at 12:51
  • @PeterShor Did you mean to have one with out a PP complement there, btw? John put the flowers. ? Aug 16, 2015 at 12:53
  • no, that was a mistake. Aug 16, 2015 at 12:54
  • My point is that words like down, up, back, out, around, through, in, off, about shouldn't be called part of a phrasal verb every time they are used, because then we get a zillion phrasal verbs. We have John put the flowers back/down/out, but we can also have Jane put her hair up, Jane put the word around, Jane put the call through, Jane put the boat about, Jane put the man off. The normal classification of them is as adverbs. But these particles can be used for complements where ordinary adverbs cannot. Aug 16, 2015 at 13:12
  • The question has been reopened.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 16, 2015 at 13:12
  • @PeterShor I'd classify down, back, out as intransitive PPs serving (just as transitive PPs like on the table do) as object-locative complements. Aug 16, 2015 at 13:22
  • @PeterShor Yes, that's true. It's also part of Jespersen's (and later Pullum's and Huddleston's) rationale for treating them as intransitive prepositions. I suppose the point is that, as you say, normal adverbs can't seem to be used in that function. Aug 16, 2015 at 16:40
  • @PeterShor Your argument about phrasal verbs doesn't make sense to me. What's the problem with phrasal verbs? Why can't there be zillions of them? That said, part of the confusion is using the term 'adverbial phrase' to refer to 'adjunct phrases'. If you don't want to analyse those examples as phrasal verbs then you could analyse them as verbs which take an adverb as an argument, rather than the adverbs being adjuncts. Aug 18, 2015 at 8:03
  • 1
    @curiousdannii: If ESL students are told "memorize phrasal verbs; there's no way of figuring their meanings out", don't we really need to keep the number of phrasal verbs down to a few hundred, and not have every feasible combination of verb + particle (e.g., got down) count as a phrasal verb? I'd prefer analyzing them by saying that an adverbial particle can be a complement while an ordinary adverb can't, but there are probably several other ways to analyze them. Aug 18, 2015 at 10:49

1 Answer 1


While the question is okay in theory, this specific version of the question is far too concerned with what are obvious mistakes on Wikipedia. Wikipedia does have mistakes, but the place to address them is there, not here.

I see @tchrist has removed all that though, so the question is appropriate again :)

  • Those kinds of "mistakes" have nothing to do with Wikipedia specifically, in my opinion - they are a general kind of confusing problem with the way that the term "adverbial" is used. The original question was indeed perfectly fine, but Tchrist and others closed it because it "needed more research". The Wikipedia excerpts are really just to show why it's easy to be confused about what exactly an adverbial is, and to stop it being closed as general reference. But in any case it's open now. It needs a good answer from someone else though! (someone with a different take on adverbials ...) :) Aug 18, 2015 at 8:12
  • John put the flowers in the water - that's neither an adjunct nor an adverb, so it shouldn't be called an adverbial phrase under either definition. Aug 18, 2015 at 8:15
  • Yes, I agree! Completely! Aug 18, 2015 at 8:16

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