Adverbials & Adjectives in Context

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Discourse Contexts

The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English provides information about the use of adjectives and adverbs in context.  Other information is available in studies published by Biber and his colleagues using his strategies for computer analysis of large collections of authentic English.  What they are looking for is patterns of use.  They want to discover the kinds of grammar items that tend to show up in particular settings.  We can pretty easily see that narratives tend to have sets of grammar features in common: past tense verbs, proper nouns, third person pronouns, adverbials of time and place, and such features.  The point that Biber makes is that these things come in sets--if you find past tense verbs, then you very often find proper nouns and the rest of the set.  Or if you have proper nouns, then you tend to have past tense verbs. 

It turns out that they have found patterns in the use of adjectives and adverbs, too.  Here's what they say in the Longman grammar: 

(Register is the word they use for what other scholars sometimes call genre or discourse type.  They have data from spoken conversational English and from three types of written English:  fiction, newspapers, and academic writing.  Shared distribution means that the grammatical forms tend to occur together: adjectives with nouns in academic writing and newspaper writing and adverbs with verbs in conversation and fiction.)

Use of adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are extremely common in all registers, but considerably less common overall than nouns and verbs, the other two lexical word classes.  Further, these two word classes are distributed very differently across registers: adjectives are most frequent in the written registers, especially academic prose, while adverbs are most frequent in conversation and fiction.

Interestingly, this distribution mirrors the distribution of nouns and verbs.  Nouns, like adjectives, are most frequent in news and academic prose; while verbs, like adverbs, are most frequent in conversation and fiction.  In large measure, these shared distributions reflect the most common uses of adjectives and adverbs: adjectives are frequently used to modify nouns, thus adding to the informational density of expository registers such as news and academic prose.  In contrast, adverbs occur most commonly as clause elements (adverbials) and thus co-occur with lexical verbs in adding information to the relatively short (and therefore frequent) clauses of conversation and fiction. 

Applications to ESL/EFL

What are we to make of that information?  How can we apply it to ESL/EFL grammar lessons and materials? Please let me know any ideas that you have about how to apply this grammar information for lessons that teach students about language in use rather than language in theory. 

Please email me your questions and comments. Thanks.


        Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., and Finegan, E. (1999). Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.