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A sentence adverb modifies an entire sentence. Here is a basic example:

[1] Surprisingly, the sun had already set.

However, my question refers to phrases and clauses that function adverbially. In the following examples, there appears to be no verb being modified.

[2] To his surprise, the sun had already set.

[3] As you know, grammar is anything but easy.

[4] For your information, that isn't the correct answer.

Can these be called sentence adverbs (or disjuncts)?

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  • Unless I'm missing something, a whole phrase is not an adverb. It might be a "sentence adverb phrase", but I haven't found anything about that. Honestly, this is a ELU question. It's about grammar and not so much about learning English. Dec 15, 2021 at 20:35
  • No; they are not 'sentence adverbs', nor are they modifiers. In each of your examples, the expressions in bold are loosely attached expressions called supplements, presenting non-integrated content. They are best called 'speech-related adjuncts'.
    – BillJ
    Jan 6, 2022 at 9:30

2 Answers 2

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+50

Yes, they certainly can. "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language" begins the section on disjuncts (8.121) with the following three examples (using an adverb, an adverbial prepositional phrase, and an adverbial clause):

Sadly, the storm destroyed the entire tobacco crop.

Your son is not, in all frankness, succeeding in his present job.

Since she ran out of money, she had to defer buying a new car.

An "adverb" is usually a single word (as FR noted in a comment), so "sentence adverbial" might be better than "sentence adverb". "Disjunct" certainly applies.

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I would say that such adverbial phrases (that is what I would call them) indeed function exactly the same way as adverbs. Whether they can modify an entire sentence or not is a matter of semantics (of the adverbial phrase) rather than the form (having multiple words instead of just one). Consider:

Rather surprisingly, the sun had already set.

It is clear that "rather surprisingly" has exactly the same grammatical function as "surprisingly". So one has to look at the semantics rather than the form. Here, "rather" modifies an adverb and yields an adverbial phrase with the same grammatical function. Since "surprisingly" can modify a sentence, so can "rather surprisingly". Same with:

Not surprisingly, the sun had already set.

Also, in English and many other languages, prepositional phrases can function both as adjectival phrases and as adverbial phrases, and yes, they can modify entire sentences just as adverbs can. Also, they may not always occur at the front or back:

  Grammar is in fact very complicated.

The "in fact" here modifies the entire sentence, but euphony allows us to put such short adverbial phrases just after the equative verb "is".

I would not consider these adverbial phrases to be always disjuncts. Consider:

In the mind of a good ruler, nothing is more important than the people.

I think it is clear that this adverbial phrase modifies the entire sentence, making it an assertion about what is in the mind of a good ruler. Without the adverbial phrase, it would be an assertion by the author of the sentence, which is a different assertion altogether. One can imagine a king writing:

In the mind of a good ruler, nothing is more important than the people.
  But I regret that I cannot be a good ruler. I cannot sacrifice my child for the people.

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