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Here comes a very stupid question. I always wondered what type of grammatical phenomenon allows adverb phrases to be placed right next to each other repeatedly. So something like this.

I ate a bag of popcorn [at 8'o clock] [in a movie theater] [to get rid of my hunger].

All the bracketed phrases are adverb phrases, and it seems to me that all of them modify verb "ate". Now here is the stupid part. Is the reason they are able to come right next to each other without any thing that actually connects them (for example, conjunction) because those adverb phrases modify the one that comes right next to them? I know for sure adverb phrases can modify other adverb phrases, just like how adverbs are able to modify other adverbs.

So "at 8'o clock" modifies "in a movie theater" and "in a movie theater" modifies "to get rid of my hunger". But all of them also modify verb "ate" at the same time. Is my explanation grammatical, or is it plainly wrong?

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You're asking a good question, but you're making a bad assumption which makes it impossible to answer. What sort of sentence structure can allow many adverbs to occur together? The answer is that they are modifiers, and the nature of modifiers is that many can occur together. Adjectives are the most familiar case of this, where a single noun can be modified by a large number of adjective modifiers. Adverbs are also modifiers, and a number of them can occur together to modify one thing.

The bad assumption you're making is that adverbs modify verbs. With the exception of one special type of adverb, they don't. At least, the two prepositional phrases in your example modify verb phrases. The structure is this:

I [VP [VP [VP ate a bag of popcorn] [PP at 8'o clock]] [PP in a movie theater]]

That is "ate a bag of popcorn" is a VP (verb phrase), it is modified by the PP "at 8 o'clock" forming a larger VP, and that VP is modified by the PP "in a movie theater", forming a still larger VP. So far, there are only two VP modifiers, but you can construct examples with any number of further such modifiers, just as nouns can be modified by many adjective modifiers.

I'm not sure about the last purpose phrase "to get rid of my hunger". It might be another VP modifier, like the two PPs before it, or perhaps it is a sentence modifier.

McCawley's book TSPE gives a good account of this sort of modification. PPs can also, optionally, occur as sentence modifiers, he argues.

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"In a movie theatre" is a prepositional phrase. In theory, "at 8 o'clock" is your only adverbial phrase because it modifies "ate." "[T]o get rid of" is a verb phrase with it's own object, "hunger." Typical adverbial phrases are "in the meantime" and "for a while." "In a movie theatre" seems to be operating as a conjunction, but you can see if you start moving clauses around, you might need some commas.

  • I don't think so. All of them are adverb phrases for sure. See here grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adverbs.htm Scroll all the way down, and you will see adverbs of places, purposes, etc. – chonops Oct 28 '15 at 2:54
  • Hmm, it appears that ccc is calling prepositional phrases and infinitive phrases adverbial. I use "The Chicago Manual of Style," which does not qualify the aforementioned. But I see your point. "In the movie theatre" is still being used in the context of a conjunction, I think. Consider: At 8 o'clock, I ate a bag of popcorn in a movie theatre to get rid of my hunger. Now switch your last two clauses. They are not interchangeable (at least contextually). Or maybe I'm the one that's just wrong – Stu W Oct 28 '15 at 3:12
  • @StuW if you put them first, yes, you need a comma for the adverbial phrase, but you can swap these all over the place. It would sound more natural to me to say "to get rid of my hunger in the movie theater" than "in a movie theater" in that case, but it can be swapped around. – NadjaCS Oct 28 '15 at 3:23
  • About switching -- even though I am not quiet sure what you mean by two clauses (I assumed that you are referring to in a motive theater and to get rid of my hunger)-- they are not interchangeable because "in movie theater" will become an adverb phrase that modifies "get rid of" in "to get rid of my hunger". Basically, the sentence means that you were getting rid of your hunger in movie theater. At 8 o'clock, I ate a bag of popcorn to get rid of my hunger in movie theater. :) – chonops Oct 28 '15 at 3:24
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All of them are modifying ate. You can string them together like this without a conjunction because they are each answering a different question -- when, where and why in your example. If you had two answers for any of those questions, you'd need a conjunction for two of any given type (or a conjunction and commas for more than two). If you have lots of them, it matters where you put your conjunctions.

I ate a bag of popcorn [at 8 o'clock and at 10 o'clock]/[in a movie theater and in the kitchen]/[to get rid of my hunger and to be social]/[quickly and noisily].

OK:

I ate a bag of popcorn quickly at 8 o'clock in the kitchen on my own to get rid of my hunger and slowly at 10 o'clock in a movie theater with friends to be social and to savor the experience.

  • That makes so much sense! So they appear right next to each other because they answer the different questions. Thank you! – chonops Oct 28 '15 at 3:06

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