I am having a real brain fart here, and I would appreciate some help.

Now, I read this here - http://grammartips.homestead.com/adverbs2.html - but for some reason, in several cases my head just can't make the connection between the provided example for an adverb just modifying the verb and not the whole clause.

The example given:

Often the introductory adverb modifies just the verb, as does the word "often" in this sentence.

The cases my brain refuses to compute:

A) Usually it's the age that's a problem.

B) Finally he's had enough and stops me.

C) Eventually my eyes settle on a bottle of whiskey.

My purpose here is to know whether there should be commas after these words or not. And why. My problem is that I could, possibly, see each of these as just modifying the verb: A) it's B) had C) settle

And maybe I am stupid. Right now I feel stupid. Or is it: Right now, I feel stupid? I just don't know, anymore. Commas are really killing me. So if anyone could help me out here, in layman's terms, I would really appreciate it.


2 Answers 2


Despite being the first word in the sentence instead of taking their usual place right before the verb, all the adverbs in your examples — often, usually, finally, eventually — are performing their usual task of modifying the verb or predicate, in this case, about the time or times something occurs.

A sentence adverb, however, is like an editorial comment on the whole sentence:

Hopefully, he'll get to the airport on time.

Ironically, it was his own sister who ran over his foot.

Remarkably, the small Yorkshire terrier began to speak in Mandarin.

Astonishingly, there are still people who despise this construction, but if you insist on using it, hopefully, you'll use a comma.

Conjunctive adverbs like thus, then, hence, therefore, moreover, however, nevertheless will sometimes take commas, with the shorter ones with less contrastive force not requiring one and the big guns like however and nevertheless almost always.

Nevertheless, we decided to carry on after the accident.

Thus we found ourselves stranded in the middle of the jungle with only one bottle of insect repellent between us.

  • Thank you. I would hug you if I could. And I know I am asking possibly very simple questions, but in the above examples, I would be able to leave out the comma, but have the option of using it for emphasis, i.e. a pause? Jan 26, 2018 at 7:00
  • Yes, you can use a comma, but for the little tykes like thus or hence, it's going to look wrong. With adverbs beginning a sentence you may use a comma: "Finally, we managed" sounds more final than without. And always use a comma with a sentence adverb.
    – KarlG
    Jan 26, 2018 at 7:30
  • 1
    In 'He travelled slowly.' the adverb is obviously modifying the verb, telling us how he travelled. In 'He rarely travels to Kenya.', 'rarely' is telling us something about the frequency of his travelling to Kenya, not about the frequency of his travelling per se. Jan 26, 2018 at 9:34
  • KarlG, @EdwinAshworth is right there. Those are modifying the VPs, not the verbs. Jan 26, 2018 at 9:47
  • The "rarely" does include the locative, but how is that distinction paedogogically helpful in this situation?
    – KarlG
    Jan 26, 2018 at 9:58

I can't answer your question as asked, because I don't regard questions about punctuation as being about grammar, but rather as about either writing style or pronunciation. However, I learned a lot about the structure of sentences with various sorts of adverbs that modify various parts of the sentence they go in from McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English. Some of McCawley's book is available on line, and you can get to it through Google. Look at McCawley on adverb type for some of his discussion.

In the reference you gave us, I don't think the author gives any sensible reason for thinking that "often" ever modifies just the verb of its sentence. In the two sections of that reference which I read, all that seems to be going on is the author explaining his terminology, but just because he has definitions for the terms he uses, that doesn't mean that what he's saying is true.

In McCawley's account, a time adverb like "often" can modify either a sentence or a verb phrase, but I think it cannot modify a verb alone. He gives the word "completely" as an example of an adverb that does modify a verb, and notes that "completely" does not occur sentence initially. (McCawley distinguishes adverb types by what is modified -- ad-S modifies a sentence, ad-V' modifies a verb phrase, and ad-V modifies a verb.)

  • A downvote! McCawley's obviously beyond some people. I've long considered that modification is a very complex phenomenon, and that what is often presented as regards modification by adverbs ('modifies either verb or whole sentence') is an inadequate treatment. Jan 26, 2018 at 9:27
  • Visit often! We often/never/sometimes/always fight. If frequency is a property of the verb, it must drag the subject along with it as actor(s), but to say a temporal or frequentive adverb modifies an entire sentence seems absurd. More important, however, is that McCawley's concerns offer absolutely nothing to someone asking about where to put a comma.
    – KarlG
    Jan 26, 2018 at 9:43
  • @KarlG What is clearly demonstrated by the OP's question is that making up non-existent grammatical distinctions in order to guide students with punctuation is confusing for students and doesn't help in any way whatsoever. Jan 26, 2018 at 10:11
  • Then I anxiously await your answer to this question.
    – KarlG
    Jan 26, 2018 at 10:15
  • @KarlG, When something is "dragged along" in modification, does that mean it is part of what is modified? Can every part of a sentence get dragged along without the whole sentence being modified? I don't understand this dragging along of yours unless it means that something dragged is part of the constituent that is modified.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 26, 2018 at 10:26

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