What's the difference between "adverbs" and "adverbial phrases"? Especially when they mean the same thing? (e.g. Do they give a different effect or focus?)


She said, smiling professionally.

She said with a professional smile.

He looked up from from his book and, in a monotone, said, "Congratulations."

He looked up from from his book and, monotonously, said, "Congratulations."

  • 4
    I’m voting to close this question because it belongs on English Language Learners. – Chenmunka Feb 19 at 9:15
  • While this could surely be answered on ELL, or even ELU, I don't see that it is off-topic here. – David Siegel Feb 19 at 18:01
  • @DavidSiegel this question would be on-topic on both EL&U and ELL, but would quickly be closed on EL&U, either for lack of research or for migration to ELL, where (again) I suspect it would be closed for lack of research. Here on WritingSE it's either off-topic or should be closed as opinion-based. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Feb 27 at 2:30
  • @Chappo I disagree with you, and I have voted to reopen. There is nothing opinion-based about the question or my answer. How much research is required for a question is something of a judgement call. And on ELL, where i have rather more rep than I do here on Writing, I very muh doubt this wiukd be closed for lack of research. I can't really say about ELU. – David Siegel Feb 27 at 2:41

An adverbial phrase (see this Grammar Monster page) is simply a phrase that functions as an adverb. In the example

... she said with a professional smile.

"with a professional smile." is an adverbial phrase: it tells the reader how she said it. ("professional" in this case is an adjective, modifying "smile".) In the example

... she said, smiling professionally.

The word "professionally" is an adverb, modifying "smiling". It tells the reader how she smiled, which is something she was doing as she spoke.

The actual meaning in these two cases is much the same, even though the grammatical structure is different. The difference here is merely one of style. In some cases this will change the focus or emphasis, or even the meaning, at least in a nuance. Here there is really no difference in emphasis, let alone meaning. It is often possible to write things in different ways, sometimes with no difference in meaning, sometimes with a subtle but significant difference.

By the way, neither of the above examples is a complete sentence, which is why I have given them starting with an ellipsis and a lower-case letter.

The other two examples from the question are a bit different.

  • He looked up from from his book and, in a monotone, said, "Congratulations."
  • He looked up from from his book and, monotonously, said, "Congratulations."

In the first of these, "in a monotone" is an adverbial phrase. It tells the reader how he said it. In the second, "monotonously" is an adverb. But here there is a difference of meaning, because ""monotonously" does not just mean "in a monotone". As the Cambridge deinition puts it, the first sense is "in a way that does not change and is therefore boring". The Free Dictionary gives as sense 2: "Tediously repetitious or lacking in variety. See Synonyms at boring."

The first example merely describes the actual tone of his speech, while the second strongly implies that it was boring to listen to. Here the change of grammatical form comes with a change of meaning. If the intent was only to describe the physical tone, then the second example would be ill-chosen.

English offers many near synonyms and related words. Sometimes the choice matters. As Mark Twain wrote, "It is the difference between the lighting and the lighting-bug".

  • -1. This would be a good answer on a site devoted to understanding basic English (eg ELL), but on a site devoted to writing it fails the "usefulness" test, since it gives very little guidance to the writer on why we would choose one rather than the other, i.e. addressing the actual question ("Do they give a different effect or focus" if they mean the same thing?). Also, your explanation about "monotonously" misunderstands the very definitions you provide. Cambridge says a monotone (sense 1) "is therefore boring", same as sense 2; the difference is that sense 2 implies repetition. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Feb 28 at 21:56

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