So far we've seen three functional components of an adjective group:

  • Intensifiers such as really, excessively, or rather
  • Describers such as sulfurous, elongated, or lumpy
  • Classifiers such as Beluga, government, or police

Even though they are all part of an adjective group—meaning that collectively they describe a thing—only one of these word types is always an adjective:

  • Intensifiers are adverbs
  • Describers are adjectives
  • Classifiers can be adjectives or nouns

Together they would all precede a main noun—the actual 'thing' being described—which is how we can get phrases like:

  • Really sulfurous Beluga whales
  • Excessively elongated government buildings
  • Rather lumpy police uniforms

That's not a bad system! You can do a lot with that!

But wait—we have one more component to explore! ðŸŽ

You can see in the list above that we use an intensifier to dial up or down the intensity of the describer. For example:

  • More intense: excessively elongated
  • Less intense: rather lumpy

But we don't have to limit ourselves to intensity: we can use other adverbs to describe all sorts of other qualities of a describer.

Take a look at the second describer in this snippet—what's the word 'oddly' doing?

"I am most definitely shocked," Dr. Lucafont said, clapping his oddly solid hands to his head.

Oddly is—strictly speaking—an adverb (as in, 'He walked oddly').

But here the adverb is not describing the verb (that would be, 'He was clapping oddly').

Instead, here oddly is telling us more about the describer solid, as in 'Dr. Lucafont's hands were solid in an odd way'.

When we find an adverb doing this job—describing a describer—we call it a qualifier.

It's worth taking a moment to explain that, because in everyday English we mostly use the word 'qualify' in the context of 'to be eligible for something', as in "I qualify for this job", but it can also mean 'to modify or moderate something', as in "I want to qualify that answer."

So when we say a word is a qualifier we mean it is qualifying, modifying or moderating the meaning of the describer word as opposed to just intensifying it.

For example, here is the same phrase without and with a qualifier:

  • Really sulfurous Beluga whales
  • Really delightfully sulfurous Beluga whales

You rarely see phrases like this in the wild—ones where you use all possible adverb group components at once—because it starts to sound a little ridiculous, but you can see that it is possible. Here's another example:

  • Excessively elongated government buildings
  • Excessively boldly elongated government buildings

You get the idea.

The snippet we have from Lemony Snicket is far closer to what you see in day to day reading. Let's rewrite the snippet, just changing the qualifier.

"I am most definitely shocked," Dr. Lucafont said, clapping his reassuringly solid hands to his head.

"I am most definitely shocked," Dr. Lucafont said, clapping his coldly solid hands to his head.

Surely in the example above, the word 'most' is an intensifier, and the word 'definitely' is a qualifier, and they are modifying the adjective 'shocked'—so why didn't we highlight them?

Short answer

The short answer is because this lesson is about adjective groups, and 'most definitely shocked' is actually an adverbial group. ðŸ˜œ

"Wait, what? Why?" ðŸ˜Ū

But why is it an adverbial group? It totally looks like an adjective group—isn't it describing Dr. Lucafont (the 'I' in the sentence)?

This is a fiddly question, and it is perfectly reasonable to not care and move on. But if you did care, and maybe you do because it seems so confounding and it really bugs you so you'd rather know than not, here's how we analyse it.

Which word are the adverbs describing?

You need to identify which word these adverbs are describing. If it's the adjective 'shocked', then they are part of the adjective group. If it's the verb 'am', they are an adverbial group.

Which is it?

The good old 'move words and see how they sound' test

As always, one of the best ways to answer that kind of question is to move words around and see what happens. In this case, we can figure it out by shifting the adverbs in front of the verb and seeing if the sentence still has the same meaning:

  • I am most definitely shocked.
  • most definitely am shocked.

See how if we move the adverb group 'most definitely' to the place before the verb, the meaning of the sentence does not change?

That shows that the adverbs are telling us about the verb 'am' more than they are telling us about the adjective 'shocked', which means they are functioning as an adverbial group.

Compare to the other adjective group we highlighted. What happens if we move the adverb in the same way?

  • He clapped his oddly solid hands to his head.
  • He oddly clapped his solid hands to his head.

See how this time the meaning of the sentence changes? Now it's the clapping that's odd, not the solidity of his hands.

This means the adverb was originally describing the adjective 'solid' (making it an honorary member of the adjective group) but has now changed to describing the verb 'clapping', which makes it part of an adverbial group. 

Contrast that again to:

  • I am most definitely shocked.
  • most definitely am shocked.

There's no change in meaning in this instance because those adverbs were describing the verb the whole time. ðŸ˜Œ

It is perfectly reasonable to not care about this!

Because, at some point, who cares? What's useful to know is that phrases like 'most definitely' are intensifying and qualifying the description of this character's state of experience. So long as you understand what they are doing, and how their meaning changes if you move or change the words, then in most situations that is enough expertise.

That said, this discussion is a perfect example of how confusing and slippery genuine in-the-wild grammar can be, and why some people spend their entire lives working on ways to codify language.

This is also a good demonstration of how "moving words around and seeing what happens" can be a great way to analyse grammar that you can't understand on first glance.

If you're still really uneasy and can't let this go

Here's one more example, using a snippet that has a simple adjective group following another 'being' verb, from a page earlier in this lesson:

  • The family was hungry and poor.

Now let's add two different sets of adverbs:

  • The family was so desperately hungry and poor.
  • The family was most definitely hungry and poor.

Those sentences mean different things, but surely they have the same grammar, right? Surely? They look and sound almost identical.

Well, maybe, maybe not. Does the meaning of each sentence change if we move the adverbs?

  • The family so desperately was hungry and poor.
  • The family most definitely was hungry and poor.

Do you see the difference? The first one doesn't quite make sense, while the second one hasn't changed meaning at all.

That's because while they are both adverbs, in the first case they are part of the adjective group, describing how hungry and poor the family were. In the second case, they are an adverbial group describing the degree of certainty around the family's being in hunger and poverty.

That's English for you! ðŸĪŠ

For this next writing activity, you might want to choose one or more adverbs from this list.

Write your own variation of the snippet, changing the qualifier. Be sure to use a qualifier (to show in what way were his hands solid), not an intensifier (which would show HOW solid were his hands). Hint: use a word ending in -ly.