Adventures with Adverbials: Part 1

Reading audio

15 September, 2016

From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

The 1954 American film On the Waterfront helped make actor Marlon Brando a star.

Brando played the main character, a dockworker named Terry Malloy. In the film, Malloy meets face-to-face with a gangster at a seaport. The two men fight in front of many dockworkers. The fight is terrible, and it lasts a long time.

You may not realize it, but describing this fight scene can teach you a lot about the structure of the English language.

In fact, telling about this fight scene can show you how to use adverbial prepositional phrases. Do not be frightened. This report will be much less painful than the hard punches thrown by Marlon Brando's character!

What are adverbials?

Adverbials are words or terms that give information about time, place, reason or the way something is done. They answer questions like How often? Where? Why? When? They are traditionally defined as modifiers of verbs.

Adverbials take several shapes – adverbs,* verb phrases, and subordinate clauses, for example.

Today, we begin our report on adverbials with one of the most common adverbial structures: the prepositional phrase.**


Adverbials are important because they can change or amend almost any of the basic sentence patterns in English. In other Everyday Grammar stories, we explored five common sentence patterns that form the basic structure of many sentences in English.

You can read about these patterns on our website.

Adverbials are one of the reasons that sentences are longer than the basic sentence structures. Adverbials add more information to a sentence.

One of the most useful ways to include more information is to add a prepositional phrase.

The Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase is a group of words that begins with a preposition and ends in a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. Prepositional phrases generally have two parts: the preposition and the object of the preposition.

Learning and understanding prepositions is important. Of the 20 most commonly used words in English, eight are prepositions.

The object of the preposition is often a noun phrase – a group of words that acts like a noun in a sentence.

Do not worry - all of this sounds much more complex than it actually is!

Think back to the movie from the beginning of the story, On the Waterfront.

On is a preposition. The Waterfront is the object of the preposition.

The name of the film, On the Waterfront, is an example of a prepositional phrase.

Putting together prepositional phrases

English often puts together groups of prepositional phrases to make sentences longer.

Now consider this sentence that tells about the fight scene in On the Waterfront:

Terry Malloy fought.

Do you remember how we told you that adverbials give information about place, time, or reason? If you wanted to describe the fight scene from the movie, you could add a prepositional phrase to tell where Terry Malloy fought.

Terry Malloy fought (where?) on the Waterfront.

You can add a second prepositional phrase to tell about how long he fought.

Terry Malloy fought (where?) on the Waterfront (how long?) for three hours.

Then, you could add another prepositional phrase if you wanted to tell about when he fought.

Terry Malloy fought (where?) on the Waterfront (how long?) for three hours (when?) on Saturday.

Now, you do not want to include too many prepositional phrases in a sentence. That might confuse, or lose, your reader.

However, you can still see that you can build a long sentence from a simple starting point such as "Terry Malloy fought".

You can move adverbial prepositional phrases

Adverbial prepositional phrases are fun because you can move them to different places in the sentence. Moving adverbial phrases lets you emphasize or highlight different words in the sentence.

There is one general rule you should remember: You can move time phrases easier than other kinds of prepositional phrases.

This idea is not as complex as you might think.

Consider our example:

Terry Malloy fought on the Waterfront for three hours on Saturday.

You can move the phrases to say this:

For three hours on Saturday Terry Malloy fought on the Waterfront.

You see that the phrases have moved, but the sentence has all of the same words -- and it still has the same meaning!

Or you could say this:

On Saturday Terry Malloy fought on the Waterfront for three hours.

In these two examples, the phrases that tell about time are in the front of the sentence.

English speakers usually do not put the ‘location' or ‘place' adverbial phrase at the beginning of the sentence. You might read a sentence like this, but it is not as common: On the Waterfront Terry Malloy fought for three hours on Saturday.

This sentence could be used in poetry or writing. However, it has a more artistic feel to it. In general, English speakers do not speak this way.

So, what are the advantages of adverbials?

Recognizing and understanding adverbials will help you with your speaking and writing. You can use adverbials to play up certain words in the sentence – a common strategy in political speeches, for example.

Adverbial prepositional phrases can be difficult, but learning how to recognize and use them will help improve your writing and speaking skills. They will also help you on your next English test, too!

I'm Jill Robbins.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

*There are several types of adverbials. One common type is the adverb. Adverbs modify verbs; the easiest to recognize are the –ly adverbs, such as suddenly, quietly, or nervously.

You can read more about these types of adverbs here:

**Prepositional phrases can modify verbs or nouns. When they are acting as adverbials, they are modifying a verb.


Words in This Story

character – n. a person in a story or play; a person who does funny or unusual things

gangster – n. a member of a criminal group

scene – n. a part of a play or movie in which a particular action takes place

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

prepositional phrase – n. A prepositional phrase is a group of words that begins with a preposition and ends in a noun, pronoun, or

noun phrase – n. a group of words that acts like a noun in a sentence

adverbial prepositional phrase – n. a prepositional phrase that modifies or describes a verb