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‘Approximately’ is an adverb and modifies a verb. Does that mean for example that ‘approximately five people’ refers to five people until there’s a verb included?

So my answer is: ‘approximately five people’ without a verb refers just to five people, and after a verb is included, for example ‘approximately five people have immunity against the virus’ it means ‘four to six people have immunity against the virus’?

++ Aren’t numerals determiners? Can adverb ‘approximately’ modify determiners?

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    @MarcInManhattan My car (which IS) approximately 20 feet long... Dec 1, 2021 at 13:49
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    Approximately is an adverb and modifies a verb. Or other constructions. It is simply not true that an adverb requires a verb to modify.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 1, 2021 at 13:54
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    Yes, it is an adverb serving semantically as a quantifier, and as such is a dependent of the determinative "five", which it combines with to form the determinative phrase "approximately five". The bracketing of the NP is: [approximately five] people]], which is functioning as predicative complement of "be".
    – BillJ
    Dec 1, 2021 at 14:30
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    Adverbs hardly ever modify verbs. It's really very rare. On the other hand, they can modify phrases headed by almost any part of speech apart from nouns. The adverb "approximately" can modify numerals. It can't modify verbs. It's not your school teachers' fault that they taught you that adverbs can be defined as words that modify verbs. They were taught that too. It's never been true. Dec 2, 2021 at 0:06
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    Personally, I would avoid saying, and above all, writing "approximately five people" it's such a small number easily verifiable. Using "approximately" works better with fractions and larger numbers, e.g. "Approximately 3 in 10 employees continue to work from home" or "Police estimates suggest that approximately 30,000 protesters marched to the European Parliament yesterday evening" If only four turned up nobody would use "approximately" there.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 2, 2021 at 13:10

5 Answers 5

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‘Approximately’ is an adverb

Yes.

and modifies a verb

Not necessarily. Adverbs can also modify adjectives, other adverbs, or in your case, numerals.

‘approximately five people’ without a verb refers just to five people

No, it still means something like 'four to six people'. If there is no doubt about the exact number, 'approximately' should be dropped.

You could arguably say it requires a verb because every clause requires a verb. But that is true for more word classes than adverbs ...

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    You're right about adverbs but I'm not convinced of your application in this example. When you say something is something ('is' is also a form of the verb to be) you are essentially saying they are the same thing. The mathematical equivalent would be saying 'equals' - for example, "two plus two is four". Without the adverb in your example, you would be saying categorically that there are 5 people. Either that is true, or it isn't. So what is it really modifying?
    – Astralbee
    Dec 1, 2021 at 13:58
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    It's still modifying 'five', and in the case of the OP the subject of the sentence, not the verb. "2 to the tenth power approximately equals a thousand" - then it modifies the verb (though I'd rather write "is approximately equal to").
    – Glorfindel
    Dec 1, 2021 at 14:08
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    @Astralbee Of course it's a quantifier in the OP's example "approximately five people"; what else could it be? It occurs with numerals where it's used to indicate approximation. Likewise, "nearly", "roughly", "almost" and the like.
    – BillJ
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:32
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    @Astralbee I don't know what dictionary you're using, but it looks like you're taking one of several definitions and saying a usage is incorrect because it follows definition 2 instead of definition 1. Or maybe your dictionary is just poorly worded on this point. thefreedictionary.com defines "approximately" as "close to; around; roughly or in the region of". That definition is totally consistent with what Glorfindel says.
    – Jay
    Dec 1, 2021 at 19:00
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    @DavidHoelzer "Approximately" modifies "seven", which is a determinative, not a noun. "Equals" functions like "be", so the analysis is the same as "Two times three are approximately seven", where "approximately modifies the determiner "seven". Incidentally, adverbs freely modify noun phrases, and even occasionally nouns.
    – BillJ
    Dec 2, 2021 at 15:14
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A number, a determiner, tells us how many items are in the set. In this sense, it is a modifier. When the number is two or above, the noun takes the plural form. [Note: modifiers can be nouns OR adjectives]

The book has two hundred pages

Bruce's workout lasted five minutes.

grammar quizzes

Numbers: one, two, three Numbers such as one, five, eleven, two hundred are cardinal numbers. We most commonly use cardinal numbers as determiners (before nouns). When we use them in this way, we can use other determiners such as articles (a/an, the) and possessives (my, your) in front of them. We can use cardinal numbers + of before determiners (one of my friends):

She loves animals and has two dogs, three cats and one rabbit.

Cambridge Dictionary

Some theories of grammar do not include determiners as a part of speech and consider "two" in this example [two hats] to be an adjective.

Wikipedia

Conclusion for purposes of learning English:
So, that means that the word "*approximately" in "approximately five people" (in sentences or as an answer in speech) can indeed be seen as an adverb qualifying the modifier or adjective "five" (the cardinal number).

Reminder: Oxford Dictionaries via Google:

adverbs
a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there ).

For example:

  • We drove approximately ten miles. [modifies the phrase "ten miles" or the number "ten"] This can be viewed two ways. But it is still an adverb as per the definition.
  • He only does the task approximately, not thoroughly. [modifies the verb do]

Answer; Yes, "approximately" is an adverb modifying the cardinal number used as an adjective.

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  • Some of what you say is true but the logic is wrong and doesn't answer the question at all. Numbers can be an adjective, for example, "a ten-page book", but in your example of "this book has 200 pages", the number alone is neither a quality of the book or the pages. In the OP's example, '5' is not an adjective that describes the people, either.
    – Astralbee
    Dec 1, 2021 at 15:47
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    @Astralbee Yes, the cardinal number 5 is a modifier before a noun and it is an adjective according to the Cambridge Dictionary. Adverbs can modify adjectives. Ergo, "approximately" the adverb modifies the cardinal number adjective "five". It answers the question completely, in fact.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2021 at 15:59
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    five minutes, 200 pages and 5 people are all examples of cardinal numbers as modifiers i.e. adjectives modifying nouns. Thanks for downvoting me.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:03
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    @Astralbee Oh, you gave me the opportunity? There are approximate numbers and exact numbers. "Approximately five people" is really just: people = noun, five = adjective (cardinal number as adjective) and approximately an adverb. So simple!
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:27
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    @Astralbee Adjectives don't necessarily describe qualities of the thing that the noun refers to, they can modify the meaning in other ways. Virtual reality is not reality. A faulty proof is not a proof. An assistant chief is not a chief. An aspiring actor is not an actor. Dec 1, 2021 at 23:27
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In English, an adverb can modify a verb or it can modify an adjective.

If you say, "Approximately five people are needed to do this job", "approximately" is modifying "five". "Five" is an adjective modify "people". "Approximately" is an adverb modifying "five". It is not exactly five, but approximately five.

Other examples of adverbs modifying adjectives:

"He is an extremely tall man." "Extremely" is an adverb modifying the adjective "tall".

"A darkly dressed man entered my office." "Darkly" is an adverb modifying "dressed". "Darkly" is not modifying the verb, "entered". He didn't enter darkly. He is dressed darkly.

Etc.

Frankly, I think "approximately" is rarely used to modify a verb. You could say, "He measured the fluid approximately", meaning the act of measuring was not exact but approximate. But that's fairly rare. Usually we use "approximately" to modify an adjective. Approximately some number, approximately a direction ("approximately due north"), etc.

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  • Aren’t numerals determiners? Can adverbs modify determiners?
    – user284747
    Dec 1, 2021 at 18:59
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    @Davislor: That might be an idiosyncrasy of yours; I wouldn't understand "the sadly two chickens left" as meaning what you suggest. (Though for that matter, even "It's sadly impossible" seems wrong to me -- I'd have to write "It's, sadly, impossible" -- so this might have to do more with the use of "sadly" than with the fact that "two" is a numeral.)
    – ruakh
    Dec 1, 2021 at 23:15
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    @Davislor: "The only two" is fine, but "the sadly only two" doesn't parse for me. I just can't use "sadly" that way.
    – ruakh
    Dec 1, 2021 at 23:32
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    @Davislor: I grew up in the Upper Midwestern U.S. (Michigan and then Ohio), but I've lived in the Pacific Northwest for the past several years. How about yourself?
    – ruakh
    Dec 1, 2021 at 23:37
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    @Davislor: I'm certainly familiar with sadly, fortunately, luckily, hopefully, happily, etc., as sentence adverbs meaning roughly "It's [blah] that" or "I'm [blah] that"; it's just embedding them in the middle of a noun phrase, modifying part of that phrase, that doesn't seem to work for me. (But, yes, I would understand "the sadly-singing swan" to mean that the swan was singing sadly. Are you saying that you wouldn't understand it that way?)
    – ruakh
    Dec 1, 2021 at 23:56
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Simply put, "approximately" is an adverb that modifies the numeral determiner "five", resulting in "approximately five" behaving as a numeral adjective. This is in principle no different from how the adverb "very" modifies "big" in "very big mistake"; in general an adverb functions as a modifier that takes a phrase of some type and returns a phrase of the same type. Special cases have specific names; for example a lexical unit with the grammatical function (noun→noun) that also supports degree are called adjectives.

Note that "not" is also an adverb, and can modify noun phrases, verbs, adjectives and even other adverbs (e.g. "not a book", "did not go", "not good", "not very good"). Each adverb can modify only specific types.

Unfortunately, it seems that most lexicons do not clearly distinguish the different phrase types that "approximately" can modify:

  1. Numeral determiner:   ~ five people;   ~ 30 boxes;   ~ 7 dollars.
  2. Noun phrase (when meaning a quantity):   ~ a kilogram;   ~ twice as long;   ~ the size of a coin;   ~ the length of the street;   the number of people here today is ~ the same as yesterday.
  3. Verb (when involving quantities):   ~ counting;   ~ computing;   measured it ~;   ~ speaking.

In particular, it does not modify the noun phrase "five people" because that noun phrase is not a quantity, just like "very big mistake" cannot be parsed as "very { big mistake }". Neither can it modify the entire sentence "five people have immunity against the virus" or the verb "have" in that sentence.

Anyway, I want to emphasize that we cannot prove that "approximately" does not modify something. What matters is whether an explanation (e.g. the one I just gave) has greater explanatory power and predictive power than another one. Greater explanatory power means being able to account for all the usages with fewer rules. Greater predictive power means being able to generate never-before-seen example usages that native speakers would not only understand but also consider as normal.

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    I wouldn't go along with your comment "... resulting in "approximately five" behaving as a numeral adjective". It would better to say that it's a DP (determinative phrase) functioning as determiner in (and thus part of) the NP "[approximately five] people]]". The term adjective for such quantifiers was abandoned some years ago in favour of 'determiner'.
    – BillJ
    Dec 3, 2021 at 13:38
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    @BillJ: I understand that different people have different terminology and even different views regarding how to classify grammatical functions, so I don't have any objection should you have your own preferred system. Nevertheless, I think we surely agree that "approximately five" has the same grammatical function as "five" in that example. Correct? That's really the point I hope the asker gets; it is really just a matter of function. =)
    – user21820
    Dec 3, 2021 at 13:50
  • It's a bit more than 'preferred' -- pretty much standard, I'd say. I agree that "approximately five" and "five" have the same function, in my terminology that of 'determiner'. Note that 'adjective' is a word category (part of speech) not a function.
    – BillJ
    Dec 3, 2021 at 15:07
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    @BillJ: I guess I'm outdated then, since "adjectival phrase" is a function type for me. =P
    – user21820
    Dec 3, 2021 at 15:27
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The adverb 'approximately' is really describing the manner in which you are answering, not really the answer itself.

One synonym of 'approximately' is the phrase 'roughly speaking', where the adverb 'roughly' is modifying the verb 'speaking'. You could say 'approximately speaking', but it isn't idiomatic to do so, and the word alone is really implying both.

Consider a similar example:

-How many cookies did you take?
-Truthfully, none.

The adverb 'truthfully' is not acting on the answer of "none" - a number cannot behave truthfully any more than it can behave approximately (and that's what 'approximately' means - in an approximate manner). 'Approximately' can only refer to the manner in which the answer is being given, and not the answer itself. You could also speak generally, hypothetically, and use these adverbs before you answer to show that is the manner in which the answer is being given.

You could also phrase your example as:

  • Approximately, there are 5 people.
  • There are, approximately, 5 people.

Sincerely yours (an adverb which means I'm being sincere, even though I'm not mentioned and there is no verb to be),
Astralbee

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    I wouldn't go along with what you say. The adverb "approximately" is semantically a quantifier, and as such is a dependent of the determinative "five", which it combines with to form the determinative phrase "approximately five". The bracketing of the NP is: [approximately five] people]], which is functioning as predicative complement of "be".
    – BillJ
    Dec 1, 2021 at 14:27
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    Approximately 100 persons survived the accident though many were taken to the hospital. [No "there are", no "be" verb and no question]. It seems to be that you are the one suffering from flawed logic as you make assumptions about the speaker and the speaker's speech.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:07
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    Yes, I used another verb on purpose! First, to show that it's nothing to do with "There are" necessarily and, secondly, to show that approximately is not related to the verb survive in my example.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2021 at 16:18
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    @EllieK The colocations are: approximate numbers and exact numbers. cardinal numbers. cardinal numbers are considered adjectives. Exactly 10 dollars, approximately 10 dollars.
    – Lambie
    Dec 1, 2021 at 19:17
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    Approximately means closely, not roughly. More approximate means more precise (but don't use the phrase, because half your readers don't know that.) Dec 1, 2021 at 23:32

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