Describing time and timing

We use adverbs to help communicate when, how often, and how long for an action took place.

These 'timing' adverbs include words such as yesterday, tomorrow, always, already, before, later, now and then—and you'll notice that none of these are -ly ending adverbs!

There are also some multi-word adverbs like all daylong ago, and once upon a time. They work just like regular adverbs, but sometimes include words that aren't adverbs on their own (like the noun day, in 'all day').

Let's take a look at some timing adverbs in action.

What aspect of timing is this adverb group showing?

And so at last they were able to haul the man through the thud and tug of the sea to the shore.

Storm Boy(1963)

It's showing when they were able to haul the man. At last.

Here are a couple of examples with different adverb groups showing when actions happen

He claimed he had gone into space the year before.

That morning the coach strode onto the field and snapped her clipboard in two.

Write a sentence using an adverb group to show when an action occurred.

Adverbs that indicate when an action happened: now, then, today, tomorrow, tonight, yesterday, already, before, early, earlier, eventually, finally, first, just, last, late, later, lately, next, previously, recently, since, soon, still, yet

What do adverb groups tell us about time in this next snippet?

Once they locked me up all day long.

Each adverb group tells us something different about timing.

All day long tells us how long the narrator was locked up for. 

Once tells us about how often they locked the narrator up all day long.

So far we've been talking about adverbs as if they attach to individual words or word groups. We've said they can qualify a verb group (she walked quickly), or intensify an adjective (really cool dude) or intensify another adverb (she walked really quickly). But take a look at that last snippet again:

Once they locked me up all day long.

What happened once? If we say it's just attached to the verb group like we normally do, then we're actually saying the narrator was only ever locked up once.

But the sentence is clearly not saying that the narrator has only ever been locked up once—it's saying the narrator was only locked up all day long once:

Once they locked me up all day long.

This means the adverb is actually qualifying the entire sentence including the other adverb group, not just the main verb group.

So adverbs are even more versatile than we've been letting on. If you're feeling a little confused, that's fine. It's confusing, and there aren't really any clear rules for distinguishing when an adverb is attached to a word group versus a sentence or clause. This is just another one of those things where it's best to play around and see what happens.

What do the timing adverb groups tell us about the actions in this next snippet?

Until now, swimming with crocodiles had always been an abstract idea, but suddenly it was a reality.

This one is complicated.

Again, we have an adverb telling us how long swimming with crocodiles had been an abstract idea (until now), and another telling us how often it seemed like an abstract idea (always).

We also have the adverb suddenly which tells us both how long it took for the idea to switch from abstract to reality and in what manner that switch happened (suddenly, meaning it was quick and unexpected).

Here are a couple of examples showing more 'how long for' adverb groups:

She wept all night in the tomb.

Claire did ballet for two years before she tore her ankle.

This is a heads up: adverb groups aren't the only way we create meanings about time and place—we also use what we call prepositional phrases. The problem is that they overlap and sometimes look identical and have identical functions.

For example:

She sang all day—adverb group

She sang for a yearprepositional phrase

Now seriously, how are you supposed to tell the difference? There are ways to distinguish between them, but it's arguably not worth the effort—functionally they do exactly the same thing, which is qualify the action of singing.

So in this lesson, at least, we'll call any ambiguous prepositional phrases 'adverb groups', since they modify an action. It's not worth making it more complicated than that here.

If you are curious: What's a prepositional phrase?

Prepositional phrases are very important and the subject of their own lesson. Like adverb groups, they add information about where, when, how and so on—but they can become very elaborate with other word groups nested inside them (which is why they are called phrases).

Grammatically they are just a preposition (such as in, at, on, by, for) + a noun group. For example:

They took the greyhound to the vet.

In the morning, they parachuted into the canyon.

He left in the evening and had to all night be working at the library.

In that last example, all night is an adverb group embedded in a verb group. One of the key differences between an adverb group and prepositional phrase is that adverb groups can often be embedded inside a verb group like this—whereas prepositional phrases usually cannot.

Here are a couple of examples of 'how often' adverb groups:

Judy reminds me to go outside every now and then.

Hector trained every morning and every afternoon with his shield and javelin.

Here are a couple of examples that include both 'how long for' and 'how often' adverb groups:

Every Tuesday, Chris and Tim played chess for an hour.

Neal told me his tooth had been aching since last week, and he'd never felt a pain like it.

Try writing some of your own variations

When: now, then, today, tomorrow, tonight, yesterday, already, before, early, earlier, eventually, finally, first, just, last, late, later, lately, next, previously, recently, since, soon, still, yet

How long for: suddenly, all day, all night, all morning, for hours, for a year, for a while, since last week, since Tuesday, until tomorrow, not long

How often: always, constantly, ever, frequently, generally, infrequently, once, never, normally, occasionally, often, rarely, regularly, seldom, sometimes, regularly, usually, daily, nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly

Write another sentence, this time using an adverb to show how long an action took.
Now write another sentence, this time using an adverb to show how often an action occurred.
Finally, write a variation which tells us both how often and how long for an action occurred.