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I wanted to ask a question about the adverbs away and apart.

  • The villages are miles apart.

  • The exam is only two weeks away.

  • It is three days apart.

  • It is five kilometers away/apart.

Away and apart are supposed to be adverbs right? So they must be modifying either adjectives, adverbs, or verbs -- right?

What do they modify in these examples?

FIrst example, miles apart: does apart modify miles (which is a noun)?

Same thing goes for away, like two weeks away. Two weeks is a noun.

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    I suggest you have a good look at a dictionary, such as Webster or Cambridge, both available online. You will find that ‘apart’ can be used as an adverb, but also as an adjective and even a sort of preposition. – Tuffy Aug 21 at 0:17
  • @Tuffy Actually, these words are never adverbs, but then that's the punishment you get for looking up grammar info in a dictionary. – Araucaria Aug 28 at 20:05
  • @Araucaria Hmm, I wonder. So we have ‘take up’, ‘take down’, ‘take apart’ and ‘take out’: three off the four uses are adverbial but one, ‘apart’, is not. It is, I think, derived from French ‘à part’, which seems pretty adverbial to me. and which, in turn, comes from the Latin ‘ad partem’. – Tuffy Aug 28 at 21:11
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    @Tuffy The Latin is irrelevant, but suppose it wasn't: ad partem is a preposition phrase. (Most of the greatest misunderstandings about English grammar derive from the fact that people think that is should have Latin gramar when it is a different language, and therefore cannot have the same grammar) – Araucaria Aug 28 at 21:23
  • @Tuffy No, none of those is adverbial, old bean, they are all prepositional, and they are all Complements of the verb. A big clue there is that they all describe the location of an object noun phrase. Adverbs don't do any of that – Araucaria Aug 28 at 21:39
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Some call away and apart adverbs. They can be adverbs, but they don't always work that way, and they have different meanings and grammar.

All the examples of away and apart in the Original Question occur in measure phrases -- miles apart, two weeks away, three days apart, etc. These phrases involve a quantifier, either overt like two or understood like _(several) days, and a quantity like distance, time, weight, , and optionally (as here) something that indicates something specific about the quantity that is being measured.

This something extra can be away, which means away from some zero point like now or here, and refers to the distance to be covered or the time to be expended (or the fare money to be collected, as in Chicago is $18 away) in traveling to a place. Away is asymmetric -- it only goes in one direction:

  • Scranton is 30 minutes away (from Utopia)
    means it takes 30 minutes to go (from Utopia) to Scranton. However,
  • *Scranton and Utopia are 30 minutes away
    is ungrammatical. Away requires a singular referent, not plural.

This extra thing can also be apart (as well as long, wide, tall, old, and many more). Apart comes from part and it is used to refer to things that occur together, as in the idioms come apart, rip apart, fall apart, etc.

In a measure phrase, apart requires a plural referent:

  • Scranton and Utopia are 30 minutes apart
    is perfectly grammatical, but
  • *Scranton is 30 minutes apart from Utopia
    is not.

As for what modifies what, don't worry about it.
The definition of adverbs they gave you is full of holes.

  • Tahnk you for the explanation, so as I understand it, you are saying that these constructions like "five miles apart" "three weeks away" etc., are constructed by 1) a quantifier, like a number, 2) a quality, like time and distance, 3) and some extra word like away, apart etc. it is three(quantifier) weeks(quality) away(the extra word) – Sebastian Perez Aug 20 at 23:38
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    @SebastianPerez Don't forget ago, as in two weeks ago looking back, contrasting with two weeks away looking forward. – tchrist Aug 21 at 1:55
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    That's not the only way they're used, and that's not a comprehensive description. The point is that you need to look at constructions, not individual words. Words occur in patterns. – John Lawler Aug 21 at 2:10
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Actually, they aren't adverbs—despite what you might read in a dictionary.

There are a number of clues here:

  • they primarily describe spatial relations, but can also be used to describe temporal ones
  • they can be used to describe noun phrases, and can exist as Complements of the verb BE
  • they can be modified by the specialised adverbs right and straight
  • they don't have any typical adverbial suffix and don't have any homophonous adjectives either
  • the phrases they head can postmodify nouns and noun phrases
  • they can't be straightforwardly modified by the adverb very

One atypical property they have is that they don't occur before noun phrases. This is because they are intransitive prepositions.

In the Original Poster's examples they are do not modify anything—and, indeed, this is an important point. It's because they are Locative Complements of the verb BE, and not Modifiers, that we know they are not adverbs.

For more information about intransitive pepositions, see either of the following:

  • The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey Pullum, 2002.

  • Oxford Modern English Grammar, Bas Aarts, 2014.

  • The reason that the funny a- words cannot appear in the normal "attributive" position to the left but only to the right or predicatively is simply because they began life as normal right-branching prepositional phrases that later got smooshed together into single words--but once done we never switched their syntactic chirality from right to left. That's why you never find asleep people with akimbo legs away three feet from the bed, only ever people asleep with legs akimbo three feet away from the bed. The effaced former preposition was usually on but sometimes other things like at. – tchrist Aug 29 at 0:39

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