If I went home and was happy to do so, I can say that "I went home happily".

If I sent somebody else home and he was happy to do so, can I say that "I sent Johnny home happily"?

This doesn't sound right because it sounds like I was happy to send Johnny.

Is there a way to use an adverb to describe the action of a person that is not the subject of the main verb?

  • 1
    Adverbs modify verbs, not persons. In both your examples, 'happily' modifies the verbs went and sent, respectively. They do not say anything about 'I' or 'Johnny'. Since any verb is, in English, associated with its subject, not some other part of a sentence, there is no way to even denote the action of a person who is not the subject, much less modify it with an adverb. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 11:57
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    Then, there is always "I sent Johnny away/home happy".
    – F.E.
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 19:22

3 Answers 3


Adverb placement is very important. However, it is often flexible, which may lead to ambiguity.

There is also the problem of adverbs and adjectives.

Happily I sent Johnny home. (I'd say we're safe to say this is an adverb.)
I happily sent Johnny home. (This is an adverb.)

Adverb placement of focusing adverbs generally takes place in the middle of a sentence, or in the 'mid-position'. Focusing adverbs put the emphasis on one part of the clause in order to modify, qualify or add additional information. Adverbs of frequency (sometimes, usually, never, etc.), adverbs of certainty (probably, certainly, etc.) and comment adverbs (adverbs expressing an opinion such as 'intelligently, expertly, [happily,] etc.') can all be used as focusing adverbs.

Sam stupidly left his computer at home.
I happily sent Johnny home.
I sent Johnny happily home. (This may be considered an adjective.)

The placement in the last case removes the ambiguity over who was happy.

You can also use an adjectival phrase to make a distinction.

I sent Johnny home a happy man. I sent Johnny home to his delight.

Again, here it's clear who was happy.

Or you can restructure the sentence somewhat to make it clearer still:

I was glad to send Johnny home happily.

Here we know who is glad and who is happy.

  • So "I sent Johnny happily home" is a correct sentence and implies that Johnny was happy to go home? Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 9:18
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    Yes, I believe it is quite acceptable, and the object of happiness is clear. In this case, though, I believe the adverb becomes an adjective. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 9:33

Then you simply say,

"I sent Johnny home and he left happily."

as for using an adverb to describe the action of another person, we do it all the time:

He got up lazily.

She played the piano beautifully.

The children ate slowly.

  • The term "another person" in my question was inaccurate - I meant "a person that is not the subject of the sentence". Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 9:16

'I went home happily' is the simpler example, because there is only one verb ('went') that can be being modified. Even here, it is the 'going home' rather than just the 'going' that is said to be happily done. 'I went/left happily' does not have exactly the same meaning. Here, 'happily' modifies 'went home', and describes 'my' manner of leaving for home (the emotions attaching!)

We aren't through analysing even the simpler example. 'I went home, happily' (or 'Happily, I went home' is a comment by the speaker on the better results that ensued from his choosing to go home. Here, 'happily' is an evaluative pragmatic marker.


'I sent Johnny home happily' doesn't really work, because there is now no overt verb describing Johnny's going, so 'happily' has nothing relevant to attach to.

'I sent Johnny home, happily' and 'Happily, I sent Johnny home' are the pragmatic usage.

'I happily sent Johnny home' is ambiguous between the pragmatic usage and 'I was happy to send Johnny home'.

'I sent Johnny home happy' and Susan's 'I sent Johnny home a happy man' mean something a little different: it might be the $500 I gave him, rather than his going home, that was the cause of his happiness. We're saying Johnny was happy, rather than his going home was a happy event per se.

I think a rewrite (as you suggest) is the best here: 'I told Johnny to go home / he could go home, which he was happy to do.

  • +1 - fair enough, and a much better answer. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 9:46
  • Thank you. I'm trying to resharpen the wits after the seasonal turkey-toxin assault – Sherlock's back in a couple of days. I bet he used a modified dangler to cheat death. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 9:59
  • lol, dangler/jumper? I was just talking about him tonight! We, however, must wait a bit longer. :-( Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 10:01
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    An emoticon will not prevail against the evil forces of the broadcasting network schedulers, Ms Susan. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 10:10

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