Consider the following sentences

  • I am definitely very hungry

  • I am definitely a hungry person

  • I am definitely hungry

  • I am always hungry

I’m unsure of how to tell what these adverbs modify. Do these adverbs of certainty/frequency modify the verb “to be” or the adjective “hungry?”

Does “definitely” modify “very hungry” in the first sentence?

In the second sentence, I added a noun phrase- does that change anything?

The adverb “definitely” must modify the verb “to be”; does that mean “definitely” also modifies “to be” in the sentences with adjectives?

Is this sentence correct?

“The definitely hungry boy get something to eat.”

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    You could mull over the syntactic difference (feasibly reflecting a semantic difference, but in practice not normally) between I truly am sorry and I am truly sorry. Does that help? Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 18:00
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    What does it mean logically? Is the hunger definite, or the fact of being hungry? It's possible that either is the case. You can also use the adjectival phrase to modify an noun and see if that makes sense: "a definitely hungry man" is a bit awkward but makes sense.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 18:28
  • The adverbs are modifiers in the copular VP.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 18:30
  • What @StuartF said. I saw a definitely hungry man doesn't mean the same as I definitely saw a hungry man. But that's exactly the same semantic and syntactic distinction in my truly sorry example, which doesn't involve either version being particularly unusual or awkward.. Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 10:42

2 Answers 2


'Always' is qualifying the copular independent clause (here, also the matrix sentence) 'I am hungry'; this is a typical adverbial usage. It adds temporal detail to the statement 'I am hungry'. It doesn't really make sense to argue that it modifies just the copula 'be'.

With the other examples, though 'definitely' is usually a 'sentence/sentential adverb' [traditional analysis] showing modality (speaker's comment on their assessment of the likelihood of a statement being true: 'It will definitely rain within the next few days'), here context virtually demands that it must be taken as a mere intensifier (virtually equivalent to an exclamation mark, or 'really' premodifying 'hungry': a modifier-of-adjective usage) (though 'definitely very' using 'definitely' as an intensifier is unacceptably redundant) or perhaps a veridical marker (equivalent to 'I'm not putting this on'). If modal or veridical, it gives a comment on (ie about) the whole statement of the matrix sentence. I'd class it as a pragmatic marker in these usages rather than overfill the adverb repository.

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    "I am here" is a clause, not a verb phrase. Verb phrases don't have subjects
    – gotube
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 18:32
  • I don't understand those upvotes. I am here is a fully-formed sentence / statement, not a clause or a verb phrase (statements are sentences, but clauses and phrases are parts of sentences). Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 20:34
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    @FumbleFingers "I am here" is also a clause. A clause is something that has subject an predicate.
    – justhalf
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 4:20
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    Where does "I am here" cone from?
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 5:39
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    I'd say The NHS will definitely treat anyone dying of cancer is a "sentential adverb" usage, as would be the same text with definitely moved to the start or end of the utterance. I'm not quite sure of the status of The NHS definitely will treat anyone dying of cancer, but The NHS will treat anyone definitely dying of cancer is definitely different (where it's specifically adverbially modifying dying, stressing the "truth value" of that adjectival label). Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 12:47

I would understand *definitely" in "the definitely hungry boy" to be confirming that the use of the adjective "hungry" is valid. It is a kind of supplemental "meta" predication. Similarly, "I am truly sorry" is a self-referential remark about the sincerity of the statement.

The boy is definitely hungry. There's no doubt about it.

That mushroom is definitely poisonous. I assure you, that mushroom is poisonous

That mushroom is probably OK to eat. I have some good reasons to believe it is not poisonous.

  • I don't understand the point of your final sentence if you're not intending to differentiate it from I truly am sorry (also a "self-referential remark about the sincerity of the statement"). Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 20:31
  • Wasn't intending to differentiate it. The position of this kind of adverb doesn't change their meaning.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 23:44
  • The point is that these adverbs modify the assertion itself, not a particular word in the assertion.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 23:52
  • You're mistaken. There's a clear-cut semantic distinction between the two apologies in my comment, but neither of them are true "whole sentence adverbs" (of which there are precisely two - with truly as the first and last word of the utterance). Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 3:14
  • The OP's question is about grammar, not semantics. In the OP's examples, the adverbs are modifiers in the copular VPs.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 5:27

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