I'm trying to help my daughter with her grammar homework. She has two phrases where she needs to identify (underline) the adverbials. The sentences are:

My friend Zainab went skiing last week.


We decided that we would sail our boat towards the island.

I tried out the sentences on an online sentence parser and it could not find an adverb:

Constituent tree:

(S (NP (NP My friend)

 (VP went
       (VP sking
           (NP last week)))


Constituent tree:

(S (NP We)
   (VP decided
       (SBAR that
             (S (NP we)
                (VP would
                    (VP sail our boat
                        (PP towards
                            (NP the island)))))))

I can only think that this is a trick question or has been published with an error.

  • It's an easy mistake to make, but you're confusing your parts of speech with your grammatical functions. Unfortunately, old fashioned terminology, like Adverbial doesn't help here because, of course, it reminds us of the word adverb. However, Adverbials (or in more modern, consistent terminology Adjuncts) are a type of grammatical relation (or syntactic function), like Subject or Object not a type of phrase like noun phrase or verb phrase. Adjuncts don't function as the Subject or Object or other Complement of the verb. They are syntactically extra phrases ... Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 15:19
  • ... that typically get stuck onto the end of the sentence. If you take an adjunct away from a sentence the sentence will still be well formed. Semantically the often give us extra information about locations or times - but they can give us many other types of extra information. Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 16:38

2 Answers 2


"Adverbial" is a function, not a word/phrase category, that may be realised by an AdvP (he spoke quickly), a PP (He spoke with enthusiasm), an NP (He’s speaking this evening).

In your first example, "last week" is an adverbial, but it's not an adverb phrase (AdvP) because its head word is not an adverb – it’s a noun ("week") so it's an NP whose function is 'adverbial'.

The same applies to your second example: towards the island is an adverbial, though its head word is not an adverb, but the preposition "towards", so it’s a PP functioning as an adverbial. See what I mean?


It is clear that your daughter's teacher (or textbook) makes a distinction between adverb and adverbial.

  • Adverb is the traditional term for a class of words—those words which by themselves can 'modify' any syntactic entity besides nouns.

  • Adverbial designates syntactic entities—either single words or phrases—which perform the same function in a sentence as traditional 'adverbs'.

In this understanding, then:

  • last week is an adverbial phrase modifying the verb went.

  • toward the island is an adverbial modifying the verb sail.

You (and possibly your daughter, too) should be aware that English pedagogy is currently in the middle of a very painful (and very slow) transition from a traditional grammar centrally based on word classes ('parts of speech') toward a 'modern' grammar based primarily on syntactical functions.

This is further complicated by the facts that a) the 'modern' grammar is still very much a moving target, and b) the 'current state' of grammatical theory trickles down at varying rates and with varying degrees of intelligibility to the teachers of English.

One consequence is that terminology is very much up in the air: what your daughter's teacher calls an 'adverbial' might be called an 'adverb phrase' by another teacher, or an 'adverbial noun phrase'/'adverbial preposition phrase' by a third. More sophisticated grammarians might speak of an 'ad-clausal' and a 'locative complement'—and quarrel enthusiastically about what terminology should be used.

All this is great fun for those of us who are intensely interested in figuring out what's actually going on in these sentences; but it can be hugely confusing to students. For homework purposes, you and your daughter will probably be better off putting your energy into figuring out exactly what her teacher means, and sticking as closely as possible to that. Avoid third-party analyses, unless you get personally fascinated with the nuts-and-bolts; and if you do get fascinated, think twice before roping in the teachers: they may be eager to enlarge their own understanding, but they may also be too overworked and too invested in their curricula to co-operate—and there are always some who will resent any challenge to their authority.

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