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Let's Learn about Adverbs in Spanish

By Eric W. Vogt

First, let's learn what they are and how they are similar, but importantly different from adjectives. Then, let's see how to recognize adverbs and use them correctly in Spanish.

What is an Adverb?

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. In both English and Spanish, adverbs are easy to identify. In English, they usually end in -ly, with a few high-frequency exceptions, such as very -- corresponding nicely to one of the adverbs in Spanish which also does not end with the characteristic -mente: muy.

When an adverb modifies a verb, adjective or another adverb, it changes the way in which the modified word is understood. It may intensify it, that is, they amplify the degree to which the modified word is understood -- by using very (= muy). Examples: He studies very intensely (very amplifies the way the listener understands intensely -- another adverb). That girl is very beautiful (very amplifies the degree of the adjective beautiful). She runs quickly (quickly, the adverb, modifies runs -- a verb).

Adverbs may also show means or manner, in which case they generally modify a verb. When they modify adjectives or other adverbs, they intensify their meaning.

There are other Spanish adverbs that do not end in -mente. Some adverbs can also be adjectives -- it all depends on whether they are modifying a noun or an adjective. Consider bastante in the following examples: Tengo bastante comida, gracias and Esos señores son bastante simpáticos. In the first example, bastante is an adjective, because it modifies comida. As an adjective, bastante could also show number, something that adverbs cannot do: Tengo bastantes zapatos. Adverbs are thus said to be invariable in form. In the second example, bastante is an adverb: it modifies simpáticos, an adjective.

There are also indefinite adverbs, such as poco (as an adverb, meaning less, not fewer -- an adverb of degree), también (= also) and its negative form tampoco (= neither) and más (= more, which functions essentially as an intensifier when modifying verbs or adjectives; when it modifies a noun, of course, it is an adjective).

Even ordinal numbers can be adverbs: Llegaron primero a la meta (They arrived first at the goal) -- an adverb of manner, that is, it shows how they arrived. A more obvious adverb of manner with this example would be to say Llegaron rápidamente a la meta (They got to the goal quickly).

Finally, it is interesting to note the origin of the common adverb-forming -mente ending in Spanish. For those who know Latin, it is the ablative of means of the word mens, mentis (= mind). The ablative ending shows the mental attitude of a subject toward an action he is performing, a respect-in-which sort of ablative. Thus, with an agitated mind, could be expressed in Spanish as preocupadamente -- literally, meaning, at least from an etymological perspective, worried, with respect to the mind or, as one might say in English, worriedly.