I didn't know what else to say.

He needed someone else.

In these examples, what does 'else' modify? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, it is an adverb, but I don't understand how.

The first example, seems to place it in the position of a noun, with 'what' being an interrogative determiner. The second example could possibly modify 'needed', but I'm not sure.

  • Tbh, I've never needed to know what part of speech "else" is, but when I next have CGEL to hand I'll be interested to see what it says. If it is an adjective, it is clearly not a typical one. It is quite grammaticalised. It is clearly adverbial in some of its uses (and note, adverbs don't need to modify verbs; they can modify other parts of speech or whole clauses). The original motivation for regarding it as an adverb in its other uses, other than for consistency with the ones where it more clearly is, might have been partly historical.
    – rjpond
    Oct 6, 2021 at 22:41
  • "Else" is syntactically weird. In "what else", one could call it a postmodifying adjective. But CGEL, to answer @rjpond's question, says it is arguably a preposition (in an expansive definition that goes beyond the traditional notion of preposition), except in certain expressions where it is an adverb. The Simple English Wiktionary entry summarizes this. (The analysis of function words in Simple English Wiktionary is based on CGEL.)
    – nschneid
    Oct 7, 2021 at 3:45

2 Answers 2


This seems to be a UK vs USA English issue. This USA dictionary has else listed as both an adjective and adverb.


This makes sense to me. But under this same dictionary's UK definition, "else" is listed as both an adverb (as does the Cambridge dictionary) and as a determiner (which I'm unfamiliar with).

so the sentence breakdown is:
I didn't know what else to say.
I did know.
I did know what. // "what" direct object (pronoun)
I did know what to say. // "to say" infinitive (adjective)
I did not know what to say. // "not" (adverb) modifies "know"
I did not know what else to say. // "else" (adjective) modifies "what"

"Else" is an adjective and modifies the pronoun "what".

  • Interesting. The dictionaries are agreed that "else" is an adverb in "how else"/"where else"/"or else" , but some of them (e.g. Lexico) also regard it as an adverb in "someone else" and "what else", while others (e.g. Merriam-Webster) regard it as an adjective there. The OED treats "else" as an adverb (except for rare adjectival and pronominal senses, not relevant here), although it has separate (sub-)entries (under "someone", etc) for "someone else" etc, which it regards as compound pronouns, and for "what else", which it just describes as a "phrase" (under "what").
    – rjpond
    Oct 6, 2021 at 22:36

I didn't know what else to say.

As you stated, Cambridge says "else" is an adverb here.

The other answer evaluates it as an adjective, as follows (but noting that not all sources agree):

I did not know what else to say. // "else" (adjective) modifies "what"

I think this argument is a valid one, but it could equally be argued that "I did not know what else to say" = "I did not know what otherwise to say" (sounds a bit awkward though) / "I did not know what to say otherwise" -and hence it's an adverb.

As aztusagi pointed out, different dictionaries evaluate it differently (although for a more authoritative viewpoint, a comprehensive grammar should be consulted; dictionaries are generally not cutting-edge where this sort of analysis is concerned).

In reality I think "what else" and "someone else" etc are fixed expressions that have become part of the grammar of the language and do not need to be broken down further beyond being, in effect, compound pronouns.

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to "else" as an adverb (and, etymologically, as the adverbial use of the neuter genitive of a word meaning "other"!), but also notes (under "else", A.1.a.) that "anybody else" etc can be considered "compound pronouns".

  • This answer began life as a comment on the other answer, but became too long and seemed to be worthy of being posted in its own right as an alternative answer.
    – rjpond
    Oct 6, 2021 at 22:54

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