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GMAT Grammar: Adverbial Phrases and Clauses

Understand these complex grammatical forms so you can master them on GMAT Sentence Correction

What is an adverbial phrase?  What is an adverbial clause?  What’s the difference between them?  Do they have to contain adverbs?


Points of Grammar:

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.  We can form a boatload of adverbs by taking adjectives and adding the suffix “-ly” (e.g. “joyously”, “readily”, “magnanimously”, “bouncingly” etc.)  Other common single word adverbs include “very”, “too”, “well”, “now”, “then”, “here”, “there” etc.

A phrase can be either a prepositional phrase (preposition + noun-object) or a participial phrase (participle form of a verb, with possibly a direct object and/or adverb).  If it modifies a verb, an adjective, or adverb, then it’s an adverbial phrase.

The independent clause of the sentence – main subject and main verb — will not be an adverbial clause.  A dependent (a.k.a.subordinate) clause also has its own subject and verb, and if it modifies a verb, an adjective, or adverb, then it’s an adverbial clause.


Examples of Adverbial Phrases:

1) He drives like a maniac.

The prepositional phrase “like a maniac” is an adverbial phrase.  It modifies the verb “drives” —it describes how he drives.


2) He walks dragging his left foot.

The participial phrase “dragging his left foot” is an adverbial phrase.  It modifies the verb “walks” —it describes how he walks.


3) He is scornful with no mercy.

The prepositional phrase “with no mercy” is an adverbial phrase.  It modifies the adjective “scornful” — it describes how scornful.


Examples of Adverbial Clauses:

4) She sings when she sees the Sun in the morning.

The dependent clause “when she see the Sun in the morning” is an adverbial clause.  It modifies the verb “sings” — it describes when she sings.


5) She is so happy that she skips everywhere.

The dependent clause “that she skips everywhere” is an adverbial clause.  It modifies the adjective “happy” — it describes how happy.


Doesn’t Necessarily Contain an Adverb

Notice that sentences #1-4 contain phrases and clauses that act like adverbs, but which do not themselves contain an adverb.  The adverbial clause in sentence #5 happens to contain the adverb “everywhere.”  An adverbial phrase may or may not contain an adverb itself.


Why Are These Important for the GMAT?

First of all, adverbial phrases are one of the marks of sophisticated writing.  I guarantee that the GMAT Sentence Correction section you will see will be littered with them, so it’s good to be well acquainted with them beforehand.  Also, the more comfortable you are with adverbial phrases, the more likely you are to use them in your own writing, including in the Analytical Writing Assessment of the GMAT. A well-chosen adverbial phrase will gives a sentence a touch of sophistication that can only help your AWA score.


For free, here’s a practice GMAT SC question, involving these ideas.


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28 Responses to GMAT Grammar: Adverbial Phrases and Clauses

  1. Ankit Srivastava July 5, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    I have a doubt that has been nagging me for a long time. First of all, are all prepositional phrases adjectival or adverbial phrases? If yes, can prepositional phrases functioning as adverbial phrases modify a noun or a pronoun?

    In my film appreciation class, I wrote an essay about Titanic.

    According to me, in this sentence, the prepositional phrase ‘in my film appreciation class’ is also functioning as an adverbial phrase of place. If that is true, is it correct that it modifies the pronoun I?

    We can stitch a suit for you that fits and flatters you in just a week.

    I know that there is something wrong in this sentence. In the given context of the sentence, it seems to mean that the the suit would fit and flatter in just a week, which is incorrect. However, if I try to rewrite the sentence like

    In just a week, we can stitch a suit for you that fits and flatters.

    In this sentence again, the phrase ‘in just a week’ seems to be the adverbial phrase of time. If it is indeed, it would be incorrect to modify a pronoun with an adverbial phrase.

    Your guidance is much required on this confusion.

    • Julia Alaniz January 3, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

      We can stitch, in just a week, a suit for you that fits and flatters.

      In just a week is an adverbial prepositional phrase that modifies the verb *can stitch*. It responds to “How?”–as in how long for suit to be finished.

      Suit is direct object.

      *For you* modifies suit–as in “Which?” suit. *That fits and flatters* is a relative clause that modifies suit–as in “What kind of?” suit.

  2. jasmin April 22, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    Hello, i just want to know, actually what is the difference between adverbial clauses and adverbial phrases. Thanks a lot for your help!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike April 23, 2015 at 11:18 am #

      I’m happy to respond. 🙂 Briefly, any clause, whether an independent clause (which every sentence has) or a subordinate clause, has a [noun] + [full verb] structure at its core. A clause has this and a phrase doesn’t. At the core of any clause is something that could stand alone as it’s own sentence.
      There are many kinds of phrases: prepositional phrases, participial phrases, absolute phrases, infinitive phrases, gerund phrases. Really, the only thing all phrases have in common is the fact that, unlike clauses, they don’t have a [noun] + [full verb] structure, and could not stand alone as a sentence.
      All this is explained in much greater detail in the Magoosh Sentence Correction lesson videos.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  3. David December 21, 2014 at 3:53 am #

    Hello, I am really glad to visit this website for educational reasons. I want to ask you about the last sentence: She is so happy that she skips everywhere. It was written that the clause underlined function as an adverb describing why she is happy, but in a while why can’t we taking it into the consideration of being an adjective complement. Since it completes the meaning of the adjective happy, it has to be an adjective complement. I am sorry for creating some troubles with my question. Thank you.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike December 22, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

      Dear David,
      My friend, there is difference between an “adjectival clause” and an “adjective complement.” You are talking about complements, whereas this article is talking about clauses. The phrase “so happy that …” modifies an adjective, as an adverb would, so it’s an “adverbial clause,” but it also completes the adjective, so it’s an “adjective complement.” The language of this article is already at the limit of what anyone would need to know to understand grammar on the GMAT. Folks studying for the GMAT absolutely do not need to understand the clause vs. complement distinction. If you are interested in a deeper treatment of this topic, I suggest you explore grammar sources that go well beyond the level of GMAT grammar.
      Mike 🙂

  4. rubei October 10, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    i want to know that how adverb phrase function as subject??? kindly help me……,,,,

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike October 10, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      Dear Rubei,
      I’m happy to help. 🙂 First of all, there’s the important distinction of a phrase and a clause. Some clauses can be subjects, but there are not adverb clauses: the clauses that take a noun role are called “noun clauses” or “substantive clauses” —
      By definition, an adverb phrase or clause is going to act in the role of an adverb. If it’s acting in the role of an adverb, it is not going to be able to act in a noun role. Only nouns or other structures taking a noun role can be a subject.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • rubei October 19, 2014 at 3:29 am #

        thank u Mike for resolving my confusion…..

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike October 19, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

          Dear Rubei,
          You are quite welcome! Best of luck to you!
          Mike 🙂

  5. sb July 23, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    actually,wats the difference btwn ADVERB PHRASE AND ADVERBIAL PHRASE?

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike July 23, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      Dear Surya,
      There is no difference. These are two names for the same thing. Adverbial Phrase is a more traditional name, but in this age of in which everything is abbreviated, regardless of whether that is advisable, many people call this structure simply an Adverb Phrase. No difference in meaning.
      Mike 🙂

  6. Alie sonta kamara February 1, 2014 at 12:07 am #

    Is it true that verbs modifying adverbs should always be actions? Please help me.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike February 1, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      Dear Alie,
      I would like to help, but I am not sure that I understand your question. Any kind of verb can be modified by an adverb, including non-action verbs.
      “She sleeps soundly.”
      “During the event, time elapsed slowly.”
      “The plant grows vigorously.”
      Any verb can have some kind of adverb modifying it. Does this make sense? Does this answer your question?
      Mike 🙂

  7. Manoj November 15, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Hi Mike – Great posts on Adjectival/Adverbial phrases and clauses!

    I noticed one statement that we have referred in common for both clauses (adjectival/adverbial)

    “An independent clause cannot be an adverbial clause”. How true is this?

    Let’s consider the example we used above: “She is so happy that she skips everywhere.”

    …that she skips everywhere is an *independent clause* (not dependent), which is indeed an adverbial clause correct? (because it answers how happy she is)

    • Manoj November 15, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Never mind Mike. I got the dependent and independent clause mixed. I didn’t notice the subordinate conjunction ‘that’ which makes it dependent….

  8. Smiriti November 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    A participle phrase acts as an adjective, but you said it is an adverbial phrase in sentence 2. Is it right?

    2) He walks dragging his left foot.
    The participial phrase “dragging his left foot” is an adverbial phrase. It modifies the verb “walks” —it describes how .

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike November 15, 2013 at 9:51 am #

      Dear Smiriti,
      Participial phrases are the most flexible and versatile of all modifiers.
      1) Participial phrases can modify a noun
      2) Participial phrases can modify a verb
      3) Participial phrases can modify an entire clause
      In case #1, the participial phrase is acting as an adjective, that is, as an adjectival phrase. In cases #2 & #3, the participial phrase is acting as an adverb, that is, as an adverbial phrase.
      Participial phrases are the *only* modifier with such a wide range of flexibility in what they can modify.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Julia Alaniz January 3, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

        Mike, if one adds a prepositional phrase (to the right) to your sentence #2 (He walks dragging his left foot.), and we want to make sure that the reader understands that the left foot is not just dragging, but that the foot is facing * to the right*, is the *to the right* an adverbial phrase? It seems to respond to “Where?” or to “How?” the left foot is positioned as it is dragging. Can an adverbial phrase modify the noun *foot*?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 8, 2016 at 11:08 am #

          Hi Julia,

          By definition, adverbial phrases modify only verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. A phrase that modifies a noun is an adjectival phrase.

          There are a couple of ways we could specify that the foot is facing to the right:

          He walks dragging his left foot, which faces to the right.
          He walks dragging his rightward-facing left foot.

          If we wrote:

          He walks dragging his left foot, facing right.

          This would mean that the man is facing right, not the foot.

  9. Rajat May 6, 2013 at 5:32 am #

    You have mentioned, that the main verb and main subject cannot be the adverbial phrase, but a dependent clause will be.

    In the example you have mentioned ‘He drives like a maniac’-‘he drives’ is the main clause and ‘ like a maniac ‘is a dependent clause.

    How about this sentence-

    The Tea was sipped slowly and carefully.

    Please do correct me and help me undersand the concept

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike May 6, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

      I think you need to recognize the difference between a *phrase* and a *clause*. A phrase is any group of words that functions together, but a clause (whether independent or dependent) has a full [noun]+[verb] structure. The words “like a maniac” is not a clause at all — it’s a prepositional phrase. That sentence, like many simple sentences, doesn’t have a dependent clause at all.
      In the sentence “The tea was sipped slowly and carefully”, “tea” is the main subject and “was sipped” is the main verb (passive). They form the core of the main independent clause. This sentence has no dependent clause. The words “slowly and carefully” are simply two adverbs in parallel.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  10. jack September 30, 2012 at 3:37 am #

    how about WSJ? is it better than The New York Times?

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike September 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

      Jack: both the WSJ & the NYT are absolutely excellent. The NYT might be a little more literary, while the WSJ might give you a few more graphs and charts — good practice for the IR section. If you have the time, read both of them — they’re both great!
      Mike 🙂

  11. Confuse Mind August 17, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    1) He drives like a maniac.

    The prepositional phrase “like a maniac” is an adverbial phrase. It modifies the verb “drives” —it describes how he drives.

    In 1, since we are comparing actions, shall we not write-
    He drives as a maniac does.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

      The sentence “He drives like a maniac” is very common colloquially — nobody uses “as” in that informal context — but perhaps this is not the best example of GMAT standards. Yes, in any formal comparison of action, you would need the “as” clause.
      “This new conductor interprets Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as Leonard Bernstein did.” There, the comparative “as” clause modifies the verb — it is an adverbial phrase.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Rajat May 10, 2013 at 12:05 am #

        Hi Mike,


        Yes, it was bad on my part to ignore the difference between phrase and a clause.


        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike May 10, 2013 at 10:45 am #

          You are more than welcome. Best of luck to you!
          Mike 🙂

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