In the sentence

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman

which word does the adverb usually modify?

  • 4
    It doesn't modify a word or even the predicate but at least the core clause the witch is a homely woman; it's arguable whether it takes the other clausal modifier in stories within its scope. – StoneyB Sep 18 '16 at 12:39
  • @StoneyB Can it be argued that usually modifies is? – Alan Carmack Sep 18 '16 at 12:47
  • 1
    @AlanCarmack That would be the strategy in traditional grammar. But TradGram was a sort of primitive dependency approach, pretty unconscious of phrasal constituents. – StoneyB Sep 18 '16 at 13:12
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    @P.E.Dant Well, this one's a little wonky because of the "generic" subject. But what is "usual" here? It's not the witch's manner or mode of being, it's certainly not a quality of her homeliness; it's the fact that she is homely. CGEL: "Clause-oriented adjuncts represent modifications of the applicability of the clause content. That is, their semantic effect is to characterise how the propositional content of the clause relates to the world or the context:" ...In this case, the content is the witch is homely and the context is stories: "In stories it is usual for the witch to be homely*. – StoneyB Sep 19 '16 at 1:57
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    Usually modifies 'is'. There is no clause adverb. A clause adverb is a clause functioning as an adverb, not a clause modified by an adverb. Stative verbs express state rather than actions but states, just as actions, can be modified. "I'm generally ill," for example. I usually resist these games. (See what I did there?) – EllieK Sep 26 '16 at 20:30

I don't think it is necessary to complicate this: here, usually is acting as an actual adverb, that is, it's modifying the verb1.

In stories, the witch is a homely woman.

Because we left out any modifier, we're saying the witch is always ugly and female.

In stories, the witch is usually a homely woman.

Now we've weakened our absolute statement a bit: we're allowing for the possibility of the witch sometimes not being ugly and/or sometimes not being female.

  1. Usually in stories, the witch is a homely woman.
  2. In stories, usually the witch is a homely woman.
  3. In stories, the witch usually is a homely woman.
  4. In stories, the witch is a usually homely woman.
  5. In stories, the witch is a homely woman usually.

1, 2, 3, and 5 don't change the meaning of the sentence much. Depending on context and the specific adverb in question, they could change the emphasis, but in this case, I don't really see any nuances, other than #3 being slightly awkward. The only adverb placement that changes the meaning is #4, which allows for the witch being pretty on occasion, but requires her to be a woman (not a man or a child). To get the intended meaning across a little better, you might write #4 as:

In stories, the witch is a usually-homely woman.

1 The verb is is, by the way.

  • 1
    +1 Do you think #4 is different because usually is modifying homely rather than is? – 1006a Sep 20 '16 at 19:55
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    @1006a: yes, precisely. – Martha Sep 20 '16 at 20:42
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    But I've read several highly-regarded books that say that the verb to be cannot be modified by an adverb. Rather the whole clause is what usually is modifying. – Alan Carmack Sep 24 '16 at 8:59
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    @AlanCarmack: why on earth would adverbs not modify to be? "Is" is modified (its meaning is adjusted) by "usually". Why complicate that? – Martha Sep 24 '16 at 13:46

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman.

The adverb - usually - is a CLAUSE ADVERB, and it modifies the entire clause - In stories, the witch is a homely woman.

It's usual that in stories the witch is a homely woman.

[N.B Oxford Modern English Grammar calls it CLAUSE ADVERB and Cambridge Grammar of English Language calls it CLAUSE ORIENTED ADJUNCT.]

Some, not all, might have a strong notion that an adverb should modify a verb only. Yes, they are correct but that is not the only class of words that an adverb modifies. According to the modern treatment, an adverb can modify a wide variety of word classes, that include adjective, adverb, determinatives, Preposition Phrase, Noun Phrase, verb, clause.

  • ADVERB as the modifier of VERBS -

He cleaned the dishes neatly. [=> Here the adverb - neatly - modifies the verb - cleaned.]

I completely agree with you. [=> Here the adverb - completely - modifies the verb - agree.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of ADJECTIVES -

He is absolutely sure. [=> Here the adverb - absolutely - modifies the adjective - sure.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of ADVERB -

You almost always do it. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the adverb - always.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of DETERMINATIVES -

Almost all the passengers drowned. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the determinative - all.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of PREPOSITION PHRASES -

The party lasted almost till midnight. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the Preposition Phrase - till midnight.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of NOUN PHRASES -

She completed almost the whole book. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the Noun Phrase - the whole book.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of CLAUSE -

Probably, he is the best swimmer out there. [=> Here the adverb - probably - modifies the whole clause - he is the best swimmer out there.]

WHY in OP's sentence USUALLY don't modify the copular verb - BE?

Let's consider the following example sentence -

He is late.

In the sentence above, late is a complement of copular verb - is. We can't drop the complement without running the risk of making the sentence incorrect.

  • ! He is. [INCORRECT]

Generally AdvP (Adverb Phrase) functions as an adjunct, and hence can be dropped from the sentence without making the sentence ungrammatical. But we can't drop a complement.

He is a good person.

Here the complement is - a good person. And so we can't drop it. Generally we don't use an AdvP in the place of complement in the sentence having similar pattern.

In OP's sentence usually is optional. We can drop it -

In stories the witch is a homely woman.

So usually is an adjunct, and not a complement. Semantically the verb - BE - here doesn't add anything. Grammatically it just links the subject with its complement. So it's not reasonable to think that there should be a modifier of such entity.

One such example is there. We can add modifier with there when it adds some meaning, for example, when it's used as a locative complement. But we can't add any modifier when there is used as existential pronoun.

He is almost there. [=> Here the Preposition Phrase - there - is modified by the adverb - almost. The locative complement - almost there.]

There is a table at the middle of the room. [We can't add any modifier with this existential there.]

ADDON ANSWER (as asked by commenters) -

WHY can we not treat USUALLY as a modifier of the following Noun Phrase in OP's sentence?

Here is OP's sentence -

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman.

Commenters asked if it's possible for USUALLY to modify the following Noun Phrase (NP) - A HOMELY WOMAN.

Let's move around USUALLY around the sentence. If in each case the meaning doesn't change, then it's not possible for USUALLY to modify that NP, and only possible analysis in that case is that USUALLY modifies the whole clause.

Usually, the witch is a homely woman.

The witch is usually a homely woman.

The witch is a homely woman, usually.

As shown above, the meaning remains the same, regardless of the position of the adverb - USUALLY.

So there is no doubt that USUALLY doesn't modify anything other than the entire clause - the witch is a homely woman.

Can any adverb modify the verb TO BE in general?

This is a hard question for me to answer. When TO BE is used as a linking verb, I don't think there is any situation where an adverb can modify TO BE.

  • 1
    ++1 great guns! great job! I do have some questions, and I hope you can incorporate answers to them into your post. First, simply put, can an adverb or adverbial phrase ever modify the verb to be? Second, is the sentence: It's usual that in stories the witch is a homely woman equivalent to In stories, the witch is a homely woman, usually? Third, I like the way @Martha moved the adverb around to get five different versions of the sentence: do all these sentences mean the same? – Alan Carmack Sep 21 '16 at 19:51
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    Fourth, since you point out that an adverb can modify a noun phrase, how do we know 'usually' doesn't modify the noun phrase 'a homely woman'? – Alan Carmack Sep 21 '16 at 19:52
  • @Man_From_India Maybe your answer is right but I'd appreciate if you could support your answer with a link. For usually as a clause adverb, I couldn't find any page explaining what a clause adverb is though there were lots of pages explaining adverb clause and as a clause-oriented adjuncts I just gave up :) However there were some pages explaining clause-oriented adjuncts in other languages like german. Any references to help? – Yuri Sep 21 '16 at 21:23
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    In his book - English Syntax and Argumentation, Bas Aarts also calls it a SENTENCE ADVERB. Though he used the term CLAUSE ADVERB in OMEG to refer to the same set of adverbs he had called SENTENCE ADVERB in his book ES&A. I personally prefer the term CLAUSE ADVERB over SENTENCE ADVERB, because SENTENCE and CLAUSE are not the same. – Man_From_India Sep 22 '16 at 17:07
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    @AlanCarmack Oops sorry :( I should've done that. – Man_From_India Sep 24 '16 at 9:31

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman

In the sentence we have nouns, a copular verb (is),a noun phrase (a homely woman).From this constituents adverbs usually modify verbs, adjectives, noun phrases and a clause or a sentence. They don't modify nouns. In modern grammar a copula verb can't be modified by an adverb because it has no independent meaning and functions to connect the subject with the subject complment expressing grammatical categories ( person, number, mood, aspect, tense and voice). A noun phrase is usually modified by adverbs of degree (quite, rather, almost, such) and really. (She is quite a homely woman ). Usually is an adverb of indefinite frequency which can occupy three positions in the sentence : at the beginning, after "to be" and at the end. If we remove it from the sentence, the meaning won't change. It's the main reason to consider it a sentence adverb modifying the whole sentence.

Grammar about.com.(different articles )



Note (F) the introductory 'in stories' is not all that important to me.

The principal function of adverbs is to act as modifiers of verbs or verb phrases.

In the sentence "The witch is usually a homely woman", the adverb usually provides information about the frequency of cases when a witch appears to be a homely woman. So in the given sentence, usually modifies the verb phrase "is a homely woman", indicating frequency, i.e. how often a witch is a homely woman.

Note (F) [continued]: So, it is not critical to concentrate on it, unless of course its inclusion in the sentence radically changes your interpretation.

Also, adverbs may modify prepositional phrases.

In the sentence "In stories, the witch is usually a homely woman", the adverb usually provides information about the frequency of representing a witch as a homely woman in stories. The sentence could be rendered as "Usually, in stories the witch is a homely woman". In both cases with the introductory "in stories", usually modifies the prepositional phrase "in stories".

  • 1
    If usually modifies that noun phrase "in stories", that would imply that sometimes it is not "in stories" but in the real world. Last I checked, there were no witches in the real world. – Kevin Sep 20 '16 at 18:55

Usually is an adverb of frequency and these types of adverbs can describe verbs and adjectives, or even a noun phrase but they do not modify other adverbs.

Adverbs of frequency can modify adjectives, in which case they come after the verb be. This is because be is a linking verb (not a main verb), and the adverbs modify the predicative adjective(s) (the adjectives after be) associated with it.

“I am usually late for work.”

However, putting extra emphasis on be can change this a bit. The only time adverbs of frequency come before the verb be (when it is not used with an auxiliary verb) is when be is given extra emphasis in a sentence. For example:

“I never was fond of his writing.”

When we read this, we can hear the stress being put on the word was. Though it comes before was, the adverb never is actually modifying the adjective fond.

Note that this construction can also be used when the adverb modifies be rather than an adjective, as in:

“You occasionally are a nit-picker.”

If we take the emphasis off be, however, the adverb would come after it as usual.

  • Long story short, I think usually in your sentence describes the noun phrase a homely woman since a witch is usually a woman who is not really attractive although witch has been used to describe men as well. For men, we have the word wizard or warlock that have been used alot more than witch.See this for adverb placement and modifications. – Yuri Sep 21 '16 at 11:36
  • Sorry I couldn't include this in my answer. It kept rejecting to post. See Cambridge link I provided in my comment. Make sure to check out Adverb phrases + other phrases part. Take care. – Yuri Sep 21 '16 at 11:47
  • You are going to need to include a reference in you your answer that supports your answer. Also, I see only one or two examples of adverbs and to be in the Cambridge link and I don't think it does a good job of explaining what word (or is it more than a word) that an adverb modifies in a construction such as is found in the OP's sentence. – Alan Carmack Sep 24 '16 at 8:58
  • @Alan Carmack I'm not a grammarian but based on The Farlex Grammar Book 2016, adverbs of frequencies can modify adjectives after to be verbs because they're not main verbs. Similarly, I can extend it to NPs after be because still the verb is a linking verb and not a main verb. – Yuri Sep 25 '16 at 17:57
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    Besides I think those examples provided by Cambridge Dictionary can be simply extended to look like the OP's sentence if that's the problem. As an instance you can say that's quite a big tree. Still quite is an adverb and a big tree is a noun phrase. Quite describes the NP a big tree. Well, again I'm not a grammarian these are all based on my understanding of these adverbs modifying NPs. Maybe the OP's sentence is different. I can't say for sure. But this question really made me determined to find a definite answer :) – Yuri Sep 25 '16 at 18:31

In stories which the witch is usually a homely woman.

You are giving an example of stories that sometimes the existing character witch is homely.

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman.

Whatever the stories belonging of which the witch is a homely person in some occasions.With a meaning of high percentage.

PS:Not Native; I hope you can answer my only question in my page it is interesting.Have a look.


The adverb, 'usually', modifies the verb, 'is'.

The verb 'is' expresses a state of being. The adverb 'usually' modifies that verb to clarify that this state of being is not always the case, but is most of the time.

  • Please edit to include an explanation of why this is correct; answers without explanation do not teach the patterns of the language well. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 20 '16 at 19:23
  • @NathanTuggy how's that – Kevin Sep 20 '16 at 19:41
  • But I've read highly-regarded linguistic books that state that the verb to be cannot be modified by an adverb. – Alan Carmack Sep 24 '16 at 8:50
  • @AlanCarmack I'd be interested in reading them to see their reasoning if you can remember the titles – Kevin Sep 24 '16 at 15:34
  • for starters, check the links I posted as comments to Martha's answer – Alan Carmack Sep 24 '16 at 21:08

Other answers are too long and some contain a lot of nonsense. The answer is simple. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

Consider the sentence "Beer is usually alcohol." This sentence works the same and "usually" obviously modifies "is", since there are no other verbs, adjectives, or adverbs to choose from.

Alan Carmack, you have stated that you have read "highly-regarded linguistic books that state that the verb to be cannot be modified by an adverb." I would disagree with those books. If someone asks me "Is the sky usually blue?" and I respond "It usually is," then "usually" must be modifying "is" since it cannot be modifying "it". I searched on the web for anything saying that the verb "to be" cannot be modified by an adverb and found nothing.

  • It's not "beer is usually alcohol", which sounds that alcohol and beer are the one and the same. It's beer usually contains alcohol, the adjective form is alcoholic. – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '16 at 8:13
  • "Alcohol" can also mean "drink containing alcohol". Therefore, the example sentence is not incorrect. By implying that the sentence is incorrect, you would be confusing people whose command of the English language is not native-level. Nobody would think that I am trying to say that alcohol and beer are one and the same. – user3707023 Sep 26 '16 at 8:19
  • Next time I'll say "Juice is usually sugar" then. People will understand, but it's still inaccurate. – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '16 at 8:20
  • "Sugar" cannot mean "drink containing sugar", therefore the analogy is not valid. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alcohol – user3707023 Sep 26 '16 at 8:22
  • Downvoter, please explain what you found wrong with my answer. – user3707023 Sep 26 '16 at 11:03

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