Can the Versatile Adverb Modify a Noun?

Writers know that an adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. They likewise understand it can enhance an infinitive, a gerund, a participle, a phrase, a clause, a preposition or the rest of the sentence in which it appears.

The question that remains is whether the agile adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun as well. Some observers say yes; others disagree.

Those in the “yea” will cite usage such as almost everybody went to the party and hardly anyone took the test as proving an adverb can augment a noun or a pronoun.

Those in the “nay” will point out that, by definition, a word that modifies a noun or a pronoun is an adjective; therefore, if an adverb is describing a noun or a pronoun, it qualifies as an adjective and needs to be categorized as such.

The Yeas will then counter with two points. First, they will refer to a sentence such as even these numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adverbial modifier of the phrase these numbers.

Compare that usage with these even numbers are wrong sometimes. In this context, even is an adjectival modifier of numbers.

Second, the Yeas will refer to usage in which an adverb follows a noun to describe it, as in the opportunities here are endless. The word here, an adverb, modifies the preceding opportunities. Similar usage appears in let’s discuss this in the room upstairs.

The Yeas might add to their counterpoints with a sentence such as where are my keys? A purist beholden to definition might argue that where as an adverb modifies the verb, are. In turn, the Yea team could argue that where adverbially modifies the subject keys after the linking verb to be.

Further clouding the issue is that dictionaries vary in their classifications of certain words. For example, ninjawords.com and dictionary.com categorize ahead as an adverb only; merriam-webster.com includes it as both an adverb and an adjective. How then would we label it in the phrase the road ahead?

For the word forward, both dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com seemingly treat it as an adjective when it precedes a noun and an adverb when it follows one. Ninjawords.com likewise identifies forward as both an adverb and an adjective, although its stance on whether it can be an adverb for a noun is less clear.

Though leaving room for uncertainty, this possible accord on forward could unite the Yeas and Nays in allowing that the word adverbially describes a noun in a phrase such as from that moment forward. However, here again the Nays see an obvious opening: forward can also be interpreted as an adverb modifying a prepositional phrase.

In sum, the grammatical house remains divided over whether an adverb can modify a noun or a pronoun. Where disparity appears to erode the most is when the adverb follows the noun, as in the opportunities here and the room upstairs. Here we may someday see usage and classification become common enough to achieve consensus.

Until then, we’ll continue to watch and wait for when, where and how majorities may or may not form on this issue as American English further evolves.