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Not All Forms That Function as Adverbials Are Adverbs

Not All Forms That Function as Adverbials Are Adverbs

The other day I read a tweet that made some claims about adverbs: “The -s in “unawares,” as in “they were caught unawares,” is completely distinct from the pluralizing -s. It’s an adverb suffix, and it’s also in “always” and “nowadays,” and in “nights,” “weekends,” etc., as in “they work nights/weekends.” #FunWithMorphology”

While I agree that the final <s> in unawares and always is different from the <s> in nights and weekends, the claim that nights and weekends are adverbs is unequivocally wrong.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

I recently wrote a post about the words yesterday, today, and tomorrow, investigating whether the three words are adverbs or nouns. Merriam-Webster categories all three as adverbs first and nouns second. While the line between grammatical forms is blurry at best, especially among lexical categories like nouns and adverbs, I provide evidence that yesterday, today, and tomorrow are nouns, not adverbs. Grammatical function and grammatical form distinguish one word class from other. Because both nouns and adverbs can function as adverbials, analyzing function alone fails to distinguish nouns from adverbs. To determine the word class of words like yesterday, today, and tomorrow thus requires further analysis of form.

The internal structures that distinguish nouns from other grammatical forms are number and possession. Prototypical nouns express grammatical number, which is a grammatical category that expresses count distinctions. English nouns are singular or plural. Singular means one. Plural means not one. Prototypical nouns also express possession, which indicates a possession of or some other relationship to another word or phrase. Syntactic tests reveal that yesterday, today, and tomorrow are nouns because all three have plural and possessive forms. For example:

  • She has many yesterdays behind her but not many tomorrows ahead. (plural)
  • We are all accumulations of our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows. (plural)
  • Your todays are a direct result of the sum of all your yesterdays. (plural)
  • All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today. (plural)
  • Can you review yesterday’s schedule? (possessive)
  • What is on today’s and tomorrow’s agendas? (possessive)

Notional grammars define the adverb as “words that describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and clauses.” The internal structures that distinguish English adverbs from other English grammatical forms include degrees of modification. Prototypical adverbs such as early, wonkily, and badly have comparative and superlative forms:

  • early – earlier – earliest
  • wonkily – more wonkily – most wonkily
  • badly – worse – worst

Many adverbs, however, lack comparative and superlative forms. In general, adverbs of degree, time, frequency, and place as well as adverbs that function as adverbials do not express degrees of modification. For example:

  • always
  • just
  • meanwhile
  • never
  • not
  • often
  • rather
  • so
  • too
  • very

Nights and Weekends

As illustrated based on linguistic evidence, both form and function distinguish one word class from other. All languages contain a finite number of language-specific grammatical forms. Grammatical form can be described as “what a word, phrase, or clause looks like.” Traditional grammars refer to grammatical forms as “parts of speech.” All languages also contain a finite number of language-specific grammatical functions. Traditional grammars do not have a term for grammatical function, which can be described as “what a word, phrase, or clause does.” Because traditional grammars a term for grammatical function, many conflate form with function.

Are the words nights and weekends in I work nights and weekends nouns or adverbs? Just as with yesterday, today, and tomorrow, one must study both the forms and functions of the words to determine the part of speech. The Merriam-Webster post “The Adverb: A Most Fascinating POS” erroneously claims that nights and weekends are adverbs, pointing out that such words end in <s>. The post states, “There’s something distinctive about that second group: they end in s. In fact, they look like plural nouns being used as adverbs.” The post goes on to claim, “Their historical provenance becomes clearer if you imagine an apostrophe before that s.”

If the modern nights and weekends developed from an Old English genitive form, such a history strengthens the analysis of nights and weekends as nouns. The genitive refers to a grammatical case. Case is a grammatical category of a noun, pronoun, determiner, adjective, or other nominal form that reflects the grammatical function performed by the word. The genitive indicates an attributive relationship of one nominal form to another or a possessive relationship between nominal forms. Nouns, not adverbs, express the genitive case.

The same tests that identify yesterday, today, and tomorrow as nouns also apply to nights and weekends. Do both words express grammatical number? Yes. One night, two nights, one weekend, two weekends. Can both words express possession? Yes. A good night’s sleep, this weekend’s celebrations. Can both words express degrees of modification? No. *Nighter, *more night, *nightest, *most night, *weekender, *more weekend, *weekendest, *most weekend. (Do not confuse the nominal agent –er suffix with adjectival/adverbial comparative –er suffix.) In form, nights and weekends pass the syntactic tests for nouns but fail the test for adverbs.

Functionally, nouns and adverbs also differ. The ten grammatical functions performed by nouns and noun phrases are subject, subject complement, direct object, object complement, indirect object, prepositional complement, noun phrase modifier, determinative, appositive, and adjunct adverbial. The seven grammatical functions performed by adverbs and adverb phrases are adjective phrase modifier, adverb phrase modifier, verb phrase modifier, prepositional phrase modifier, adjunct adverbial, disjunct adverbial, and conjunct adverbial. Notice that nouns and adverbs both perform just one same function: adjunct adverbial.

Adjunct adverbials are words, phrases, and clauses that modify an entire clause by providing additional information about time, place, manner, condition, purpose, reason, result, and concession. Both adverbs and nouns can function as adjunct adverbials. For example:

  • Enthusiastically she tore open her gifts. (adverb)
  • He strolled into the room lazily. (adverb)
  • We went home. (noun)
  • They travel a great deal. (noun phrase)

Adverb is not a function. Adverb is a form. Adverbial is a function. The Merriam-Webster post conflates form and function. Yes, nights and weekends function as adverbials in I work nights and weekends. Nouns can function adverbially. Adverbs can also function as adverbials. But nouns are not adverbs.

Function is not the only consideration in determining the part of speech of a word. One must look at both form and function. And one must not conflate form with function. Words like nights and weekends are nouns. Both are plural forms of the singular night and weekend. Both also have possessive forms: night’s and weekend’s. Neither have comparative or superlative forms, which are the internal structures that help distinguish adverbs from other forms. Furthermore, just because nights and weekends function as adverbials in I work nights and weekends does not make either word an adverb. Nouns can function adverbially in English.

The claim that nights and weekends are adverbs is unequivocally wrong. Both are plural nouns that function as adverbials. Yes, adverbs can also function as adverbials. But not all forms that function as adverbials are adverbs. Do not conflate form with function. Nights and weekends are nouns.


The adverb: A most fascinating POS. Merriam-Webster. Online:
Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman & Nina Hyams. 2006. An introduction to language. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Dwyer, Bernard T. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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