In this sentence, what does probably modify? "I am probably not going to the party." Also, do adverbs modify verb phrases or just the main verb? For example, in, "I am walking quickly." Does quickly modify "am walking" or "walking?"

  • I'd say that "probably" is a matrix clause adjunct, not a subordinate clause adjunct, on the grounds that it can be moved to the left of the auxiliary verb "am". In your other example, "quickly" cannot be moved to the left of "am" and hence is a subordinate clause adjunct. – BillJ Mar 25 '17 at 18:11
  • I see you're asking a lot of questions like this---first on Garmmarly Answers and now here on English SE. Thanks for doing that---I'm learning a lot trying to answer them! Just one overall thought: perhaps it would help if you clarified what you mean by modify: are you asking principally about semantics (the meaning) or principally about syntax (the grammar)? The two are of course not independent, but they are nevertheless quite distinct. – linguisticturn Mar 27 '17 at 22:17

There is a consensus among linguists that "probably" is a sentence adverb. In your example, it modifies the sentence "I am not going to the party." The best reference I know is the chapter on adverbs in McCawley's book The Syntactic Phenomena of English.

Here is an interesting paper from 1970 by George Lakoff on the logic of adverbs: Adverbs and modal operators.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Apr 1 '17 at 23:01

This is an example of how the grammar that people have been taught makes them look at a very simple phenomenon in an unnecessarily complicated way. Your question comes from a way of thinking about grammar that is akin to assuming that you have to study knives before you can remove the skin from an apple, and that you also have to be fully aware of all the different types of apple that there are before you can be sure that you are actually removing the skin.

Look at the sentence in terms of "pieces of meaning." Sentences are made up of small pieces of meaning that are combined together into a whole.

What is a "piece of meaning?" Common sense will tell you that "to" on its own has no meaning. The word "not" carries a little more meaning, and "am" none without "I." But "party" on its own does have more meaning or "lexical content."

Individual words combine together into meaningful groups which themselves form parts of the larger, meaningful "whole" that we call a sentence.

There are many different ways we could divide this particular sentence into meaningful word groups. We could say that the following, just for example, are all meaningful: party / the party / to the party,

But for the purpose of answering your question we do not need to define all the possible meaningful units in this sentence. This is because by simply removing the single word "probably" you are left with a single meaningful "whole" that is composed of all the other words: "I am not going to the party tonight." It is definitely this piece of meaning that "probably" is modifying.

Can you see what "definitely" is modifying in the previous statement?

  • 1
    Your reasoning tells us that "probably" is a modifier, but it doesn't tell us what it modifies (which is what was asked). – Greg Lee Mar 25 '17 at 14:23
  • @Greg Lee Thanks. I moved "It is definitely this piece of meaning that "probably" is modifying." so that it is now at the end of the preceding paragraph. Can you see what I am saying now? In the process I noticed that I had, in the last sentence, mistakenly written "question" instead of "statement." – Kevin Mark Mar 25 '17 at 14:46

In the case of your second sentence, I am walking quickly, I think the answer is quite clear: quickly modifies walking. The reason is that in your sentence, walking quickly is a syntactic constituent, so that am walking is not one. And it makes little sense to talk about modifying something that is not a constituent.

The arguments that walking quickly is a constituent are as follows:

  1. It can be fronted:
    I say I am walking quickly, and walking quickly I am.

  2. It can be coordinated with like word sequences:
    I am walking quickly and singing loudly.

  3. It can be extracted by right node raising:
    John knows that I am, but doubts that Sue is, walking quickly.

  4. It can stand alone as a short answer:
    'What are you doing?' 'Walking quickly.'

  5. It can be replaced by the pro-form doing so:
    I am walking quickly and Sue is doing so, too.

More generally, CGEL has a long defense of 'an analysis of the modal, tense, aspectual and voice auxiliaries as catenative verbs taking non-finite complementation' (p. 1214). For example, according to that analysis,

[6] He was writing a letter.

consists of a VP was writing a letter, which itself has another VP as a constituent, writing a letter (CGEL, p. 1218). This 'inner' VP, moreover, is a non-finite clause, of the 'gerund-participial' type (p. 1173).

Traditional analysis, which CGEL calls 'the dependent-auxiliary analysis' (pp. 1210-1214), would say that in [6], was writing is a constituent. As I said, CGEL dedicates a lot of space to explaining why they favor 'the catenative-auxiliary analysis' instead (pp. 1214-1220). And one of the arguments for the latter analysis is that writing a letter in [6] passes a lot of constituenthood tests. Thus it probably indeed is a constituent. But if it is, then was writing is not a constituent, contrary to what the dependent-auxiliary analysis would say. Note that in [6], either was writing is a constituent, or else writing a letter is a constituent, but they can't possibly both be constituents---constituents are either disjoint or else one wholly contains the other; they cannot only partially overlap.

I am not yet sure what to say about your first example, but I hope to have an exchange with Greg Lee (in the comments following his answer to your question) that may clarify things for me. (This is why I couldn't answer your question over on Grammarly Answers.)


An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. In the sentence "I am probably not going to the party" there is nothing for the adverb "probably" to modify other than the verb phrase "am not going".

In the sentence "I am walking quickly", the adverb quickly modifies the verb phrase "am walking". If 'am' is not included and only "walking" is modified, the sentence will become ungrammatical and meaningless like I am a/the (walking quickly).

  • So you would say that in I am not walking quickly, the adverb quickly modifies am not walking? If you're not walking, how can I tell whether you're not doing it quickly or slowly? – Peter Shor Mar 25 '17 at 14:51
  • If "am not walking" is the verb (phrase) and the adverb "quickly" modifies it, it means "am not walking quickly". Then you can tell the walking is slowly and not quickly, cant' you? – mahmud koya Mar 25 '17 at 15:17
  • So despite the fact that the meaning clearly parses as am not (walking quickly) – or maybe not (am walking quickly) – the grammar actually parses as (am not walking) quickly? Do you have a reference for this? – Peter Shor Mar 25 '17 at 15:39
  • Reference for what? I would like know from you, in the OP's sentence "I am walking quickly", what is the verb? Is it am walking or only walking? I believe 'walking' is the present participle form of the verb 'walk' and a verb 'be' form with a present participle form can create a progressive tense. Here it's 'am walking', a present progressive tense which is modified by the adverb 'quickly'. I do believe 'quickly' is modifying the present progressive verb 'am walking' in this sentence. If it's otherwise, you may please cite references. – mahmud koya Mar 25 '17 at 16:36
  • @PeterShor I agree with you. In I am walking quickly, the word sequence walking quickly is a constituent. From this it follows that am walking is not a constituent. So in that sentence, am walking is not a VP at all, so it makes no sense to say that it is modified by anything. In other sentences (e.g. I am walking, it (am walking) is indeed a VP. Nevertheless, in our sentence of interest, it just isn't one. (Continued below) – linguisticturn Mar 27 '17 at 17:15

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