Many American western movies use a common plot element:
A mysterious man appears in a small, dusty town. He speaks to people in a
short, purposeful way. He shows confidence and strength.
Often, he is looking for revenge.
Exploring this common plot element can help you learn about the structure
of the English language.
In a recent Everyday Grammar program, we explored one common adverbial,
or verb modifying, structure: the prepositional phrase.
In today's report, we will discover two other common adverbials: the noun
phrase and the verb phrase.
Specifically, we will explore how adverbial noun and verb phrases can help
provide information about the mysterious man. This idea might sound
complicated, but we promise: unlike the bad guys in a western, you will survive
What is a noun phrase?
A noun phrase is a group of words that acts like a noun in a sentence.
Think back to the second sentence of this story, "A mysterious man
appears in a small, dusty town." The phrase "A mysterious man"
is an example of a noun phrase.
Noun phrases can take several shapes, but in general, you can recognize
them by looking for common words such as demonstrative pronouns or articles,
among others. For example, the noun phrase "A mysterious man" begins
with the article, a.
Nouns and noun phrases can act as adverbials – that is, they can modify
or add information to a verb. When noun phrases act in such a role, they
describe time, place, quantity, or manner.
So, what do adverbial noun phrases look like?
A couple of examples that describe our western film can help you see that
adverbial noun phrases are not as complex as you might think:
He arrived this morning.
He is riding home.
He travels a great deal.
Tip #1 Ask questions to recognize adverbial noun
Ask yourself what information these noun phrases provide. That can help you
see that these noun phrases are giving adverbial information.
Adverbial noun phrases might look like direct objects at first, but if you
remember the kind of information that adverbials give, you will not have any
Consider our examples:
He arrived (when?) this
He is riding (where?) home.
He travels (how much?) a
What is a verb phrase?
Infinitives are the
most common verb form to play an adverbial role. They consist of the base form
of the verb plus to, which gives a signal that the verb is infinitive.
But remember, infinitive verb phrases are not just verbs with to; they
also have complements and modifiers.
Consider this example:
He went home early to rest before the gunfight.
The infinitive verb phrase to rest before the gunfight is telling
why the man went home early.
You might mistake the infinitive verb phrase for a prepositional phrase.
After all, both types of phrases can use to.
There is, however, one important difference. In prepositional phrases, to
is followed by a noun or noun phrase. In infinitive verb phrases, to
is followed by a verb or verb phrase.
Tip #2 Use the phrase 'in order to' to find
adverbial verb phrases
Infinitive verb phrases often answer a why question. Martha Kolln
and Robert Funk, two English grammar experts, say an easy way to recognize
adverbial infinitive verb phrases is to add the phrase in order to to
This action will show you that the verb phrase is answering a why question.
Consider our example:
He went home early to rest before the gunfight.
You could add the phrase 'in order to' to make this relationship clear:
He went home early in order to rest before the gunfight.
Occasionally, an infinitive operates adverbially without the meaning of 'in
order to.' However, these exceptions are not common in speech.
How can adverbial structures help you?
Remember the mysterious stranger? Here is one way to summarize a typical
beginning of American western movies:
A stranger arrived this morning. He came to get revenge.
These two short, declarative sentences follow a similar pattern. They both
have adverbials after the main verb. The noun phrase this morning gives
information about when the stranger arrived. The infinitive verb phrase to
get revenge tells why the man came.
Once you understand this idea, you can have fun with adverbials. You can
combine these sentences to create a new sentence.
Here is an example:
This morning, a stranger
came to get revenge.
The sentence structure is this: Adverbial + Subject + Verb + Adverbial.
The placement of adverbial information has changed, but it contains almost
all of the same information as the first two examples.
These examples show you that the adverbial structures often come at the
beginning and end of a sentence. Understanding this idea will help you use
longer, more complex sentences with multiple adverbial structures.
Like other adverbials, you can sometimes change the order of adverbials in
the sentence. See our previous Everyday Grammar story to read more about this
Remember: adverbial structures are one of the reasons that sentences in English
are longer than the basic sentence patterns we discussed in previous stories.
Now that you have learned about adverbials, try looking for them when you
are reading or listening to something in English.
For example, try to find the adverbials in this short piece from Edgar
Allen Poe's “The Purloined Letter:”
"The next morning, I stopped at his
apartment to look for my glove. While we were talking, we heard people shouting
in the street. D'Arcy went to the window and looked out. Quickly, I stepped to
the shelf and put the letter in my pocket. Then I replaced it with a letter
that looked exactly like it, which I had taken with me. I had made it the night
With time, you will master adverbials. Like a hero in a western
movie who coolly confronts his enemies, you, too, can meet adverbials
Words in This Story
plot – n. a series of events that form the story in a novel, movie, etc.
confidence – n. a feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something
revenge – n. the act of doing something to hurt someone because that person did
something that hurt you
adverbial – adj. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence
and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree
prepositional phrase – n. a phrase that begins with a preposition and ends in a noun, pronoun, or
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually
form a complete sentence
demonstrative pronoun – n. a word (such as “this,” “that,” “these,” or “those”) that tells who or
what is being referred to
article – n. a word (such as a, an, or the) that is used with a noun to
show whether or not the noun refers to a specific person or thing
infinitive – n. the basic form of a verb
confront – v. to oppose or challenge (someone) especially in a direct and forceful way