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While working on developing the lexicon in one of my constructed languages, I encountered a slight difficulty in using standard classifications for words like very, extremely, really, and quite.

To demonstrate this, here is an example sentence with a noun, an adjective, a verb, and an adverb:

The bad dog howled angrily.

If any of those parts of speech is replaced by a word like very, extremely, etc., the sentence does not seem to be grammatical. For example,

The extremely dog howled angrily. --(Extremely does not work as an adjective)

The bad very howled angrily. --(Very does not work as a noun)

The bad dog really angrily. --(Really does not work as a verb)

The bad dog howled quite. --(Quite does not work as an adverb)

Thus, this set of words does not seem to fit any of the main part of speech roles. (A similar experiment could be used to eliminate parts of speech which more obviously do not fit, such as prepositions, demonstratives, articles, conjunctions, and so on.)

(Some of the words do have several meanings where they can be other parts of speech,

The very day you eat of it you will die.

Are you really going to lick that ice cream off of the floor?

Do you like Mozart? Oh yes, quite.

but I am disregarding those other meanings.)

However, I noticed that these words do work when they modify modifiers, i.e. adjectives and adverbs, as can be seen in the following example sentences.

The very bad dog howled quite angrily.

All of the extremely smart girls will very quietly figure out a quite clever solution.

Is he really that stupid?

Just for my purposes of labelling the words in my language, I just invented a term that I think fits their role in the sentence: meta-modifier. I did notice that dictionaries list these words as adverbs.

Since adverbs can modify participles, which can be classified as adjectives,

The filthily clothed man tried to hug me.

it makes a little bit of sense. But, AFAICT, adverbs cannot modify other adverbs or non-participle adjectives, but very, extremely, really, and quite can.

So my question (finally) is, are these words really adverbs, and if not, how can these words be classified?

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Extremely(very, really, Quite) interesting. – user8568 May 20 '11 at 21:46
adadverbs? metadverbs? – FumbleFingers May 20 '11 at 22:15
Chinese speakers often use 'very' when we require 'really', and it was very/really difficult to explain why. It seems 'really' can also modify/intensify a verb, but 'very' cannot. The Chinese use zhen 真。 The student example was 'very enjoyed' - I cannot think of a case where very can modify a verb. Here's how I tried to explain: 'very' and 'really' are intensifiers corresponding to zhen 真。They are used in combination with adjectives or adverbs. Really can be used exactly like 真 in the sentences Really? Really! 真的吗? 真的!but very needs to have an associated adjective or adverb. – laogui Jul 12 '14 at 0:22

5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

One problem is that the entire concept of "part of speech" is very old. How we use it in English, especially in dictionaries, goes back to the study of Latin and Greek. In this view of English grammar "adverb" is the catch-all category where everything that doesn't fit into one of the other traditional categories ends up. (The others being noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection.)

Now there is no one, true description of any language (except perhaps constructed languages such as yours). There are merely alternative or competing descriptions which appear over time as more independent analyses of the language are undertaken. Such descriptions or analyses may be called "grammars".

Most (but not all) grammars include a concept of word class under one name or another. So one problem is that "part of speech" has two meanings. One is the specific set of eight categories from the classical languages, the other is as a synonym for word class, which is a lot looser.

So all your example words are adverbs under this older stricter view of parts-of-speech, but their qualities and quirks can be much more thoroughly investigated in newer ways. And various new ways will have various new terms for the classes they put these various words into.

Unless you are inventing a new language specifically to embrace the classical parts of speech you don't have to worry in which they belong, but if you are inventing a new language to learn more about how language works then it will be worth your time reading up on the many newer grammars and language descriptions and analyses.

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"Part of speech" is not wrong, but rather broad as definition. Basically, anything in a language is a part of speech. – Alenanno May 23 '11 at 11:00

In some contexts So and too are a couple more of these kind of words, but there probably aren't that many altogether.

By current definitions I think they're just adverbs (as 'broadly' defined here). If you want finer granulation in the terminology you can say they're adverbs that modify adverbs, or invent your own term. Or have one on me - adadverbs or metadverbs, take your pick.

I also agree with Alenanno that they're sub-modifiers. Not because I ever came across that usage before, but it seems logical enough. On the other hand, I imagine that linguistic category is somewhat larger than the one we're focussing on.

LATER - thefreelibrary says you can call them intensifying adverbs, intensifiers, or intensives. Also throws in a few more examples: absolutely, especially, precisely.

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Read my answer Fumble, there is a term for that. :D – Alenanno May 20 '11 at 22:34
@Alenanno: I already had, and was just acknowledging that in an edit as you posted your comment. But wouldn't sub-modifiers include all sorts of things - including whole phrases sometimes? – FumbleFingers May 20 '11 at 22:40
@FumbleFingers: I'm not sure, but I've only seen it referred to such cases... Now, it's true I've seen it in Dictionaries alone, but... would you make an example of what you mean? – Alenanno May 20 '11 at 22:43
@Alenanno: Well I never heard the term before, so I'll try to establish its precise definition before mouthing off about things I'm ignorant of. I just figured that if you can have modifying phrases, why not phrases that modify them? – FumbleFingers May 20 '11 at 22:50
Can very be used as an adverb? That is, can it directly modify a verb? If not, I would be reluctant to call it an adverb that modifies an adverb. – Peter Olson May 20 '11 at 22:51

My impression is that you got confused a bit, I'll go through it using some of your examples.

The bad dog howled angrily.

Now this sentence, as you said, makes sense, it's grammatically correct and all. Why can't you replace any word with it? The reason is that you can replace any word that belongs to the same class. If you have an adjective "bad", you can't expect it to be replaced by some function word belonging to another class (I can't recall of any exception at the moment).

1- The extremely dog howled angrily. --(Extremely does not work as an adjective)

Here, you're right, extremely can't be used as an adjective. Not even "extreme" which is an adjective, unless when it's used as a sub-modifier (can't find a good reference link, if you know of any, feel free to edit), this is the word you needed for those cases when some adverb/adjective modifies another modifier; "meta-modifier" is not needed.

2- The bad very howled angrily. --(Very does not work as a noun)

3- The bad dog really angrily. --(Really does not work as a verb)

In these two: Very can be an adverb, like "very angrily", or an adjective "I saw it with my very eyes". Not being a noun, it can't be used as a noun. Same goes for Really.

4- The bad dog howled quite. --(Quite does not work as an adverb)

Quite is an adverb but, apart from cases like "Quite/Not quite", is not used in the end of the sentence. I'm not aware yet about why this is like this, but the fact remains. Plus it's usually used as a submodifier, "I was quite happy", for example.

Those differences you found out, such as with "very", are due to the fact that it can't be simply assigned to one category. As I said, very can be an adjective or an adverb, so you can't just throw it into one class.

In your last example:

The filthily clothed man tried to hug me.

Clothed is an adjective, which is usually preceded in this case by a sybmodifier, filthily.

So to your final main question:

They can, and in some cases must be, classified as adverbs, but that's not always true, considering what I said in my answer. The way they must be classified depends on the sentence itself.

If an adverb/adjective modifies another adverb/adjective, then it's called sub-modifier, I said it once before, but I wanted to add it here, because I think it's the part you needed.

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I think you can also call these "intensifiers." – Kit Z. Fox May 20 '11 at 22:41
But, do "intensifiers" modify other adverbs/adjectives? If so, then you might be right... – Alenanno May 20 '11 at 22:44
@Alenanno Yes, they do. But I think both terms are correct. – Kit Z. Fox May 20 '11 at 22:47
Extreme can most certainly modify man. E.g. Whereas Bob adheres to a balanced moderate political standpoint, Joe is an extreme man who upholds every right-wing idea out there. Even so, I think you are conflating syntactic grammaticality and semantic usability. – Peter Olson May 20 '11 at 22:56
Really? Uhm... Honestly it sounds odd to me :D I'll correct it. – Alenanno May 20 '11 at 22:59

They work much in same way as a model auxiliary verb does in that they can't be used on their own, only to modify another word of the same class, in this case adverbs. I'd call them model auxiliary adverbs.

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Really? And don't you mean modal? – medica Jun 3 '14 at 5:46

They are adverbs of degree and, in general, they modify adjectives or other adverbs.

Adverbs of degree tell us about the intensity or degree of an action, an adjective or another adverb. Adverbs of degree are usually placed before the adjective, adverb, or verb they are modifying, although there are some exceptions discussed below.

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protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 19:50

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