Which word does the adverb 'usually' modify in 'In stories the witch is usually a homely woman'?



In the sentence

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman

which word does the adverb usually modify?


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 101

4It doesn't modify a word or even the predicate but at least the core clause the witch is a homely woman; it's arguable whether it takes the other clausal modifier in stories within its scope. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-09-18T12:39:10.300

@StoneyB Can it be argued that usually modifies is? – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-18T12:47:35.007

1@AlanCarmack That would be the strategy in traditional grammar. But TradGram was a sort of primitive dependency approach, pretty unconscious of phrasal constituents. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-09-18T13:12:21.807

@StoneyB So there is even a case for the notion that usually modifies In stories the witch is a homely woman? I confess that this confuses me. Is squishiness exemplified here? – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-09-18T23:15:22.570

1@P.E.Dant Well, this one's a little wonky because of the "generic" subject. But what is "usual" here? It's not the witch's manner or mode of being, it's certainly not a quality of her homeliness; it's the fact that she is homely. CGEL: "Clause-oriented adjuncts represent modifications of the applicability of the clause content. That is, their semantic effect is to characterise how the propositional content of the clause relates to the world or the context:" ...In this case, the content is the witch is homely and the context is stories: "In stories it is usual for the witch to be homely*. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2016-09-19T01:57:08.727

Still waiting, a day later, for StoneyB, or @BillJ to write an answer readable and understandable by the learner. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-19T15:30:03.703

I would write my own answer, but I think others here can do an at least as effectively done and probably better job, as long as the author writes so the layperson can understand and defines technical terms. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-20T16:50:45.543

Why does such a simple question require such a complex, convoluted answer as specified in the bounty requirements? – Ethan Chapman – 2016-09-25T17:25:17.137

@StoneyB Can it modify the NP a homely woman? I'm not an expert on adverbs, especially in a sentence with a stative verb, esp to be. I've done some research and one thought is that adverbs or adverbials never modify to be itself (which I uderstand, because it is a "linkiing verb" that can be omitted in many languages). But there is dissension in the ranks among the answerers to this question. I think usually can modify the clause, as in In stories the witch is a homely woman, usually but word order is important in English so I wonder if in the original it modifies the NP. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-26T10:13:44.197

1Usually modifies 'is'. There is no clause adverb. A clause adverb is a clause functioning as an adverb, not a clause modified by an adverb. Stative verbs express state rather than actions but states, just as actions, can be modified. "I'm generally ill," for example. I usually resist these games. (See what I did there?) – EllieK – 2016-09-26T20:30:26.030



I don't think it is necessary to complicate this: here, usually is acting as an actual adverb, that is, it's modifying the verb1.

In stories, the witch is a homely woman.

Because we left out any modifier, we're saying the witch is always ugly and female.

In stories, the witch is usually a homely woman.

Now we've weakened our absolute statement a bit: we're allowing for the possibility of the witch sometimes not being ugly and/or sometimes not being female.

  1. Usually in stories, the witch is a homely woman.
  2. In stories, usually the witch is a homely woman.
  3. In stories, the witch usually is a homely woman.
  4. In stories, the witch is a usually homely woman.
  5. In stories, the witch is a homely woman usually.

1, 2, 3, and 5 don't change the meaning of the sentence much. Depending on context and the specific adverb in question, they could change the emphasis, but in this case, I don't really see any nuances, other than #3 being slightly awkward. The only adverb placement that changes the meaning is #4, which allows for the witch being pretty on occasion, but requires her to be a woman (not a man or a child). To get the intended meaning across a little better, you might write #4 as:

In stories, the witch is a usually-homely woman.

1 The verb is is, by the way.


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 5 164

1+1 Do you think #4 is different because usually is modifying homely rather than is? – 1006a – 2016-09-20T19:55:42.123

1@1006a: yes, precisely. – Martha – 2016-09-20T20:42:25.913

1But I've read several highly-regarded books that say that the verb to be cannot be modified by an adverb. Rather the whole clause is what usually is modifying. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T08:59:37.320

2@AlanCarmack: why on earth would adverbs not modify to be? "Is" is modified (its meaning is adjusted) by "usually". Why complicate that? – Martha – 2016-09-24T13:46:10.820

Also this page, which if you scroll down has remarks by whom I take to be the same @BillJ who is sometimes active here: https://www.englishforums.com/English/LinkingVerbsAndAdverbs/nnncc/post.htm

– Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T21:07:20.040


In stories the witch is usually a homely woman.

The adverb - usually - is a CLAUSE ADVERB, and it modifies the entire clause - In stories, the witch is a homely woman.

It's usual that in stories the witch is a homely woman.

[N.B Oxford Modern English Grammar calls it CLAUSE ADVERB and Cambridge Grammar of English Language calls it CLAUSE ORIENTED ADJUNCT.]

Some, not all, might have a strong notion that an adverb should modify a verb only. Yes, they are correct but that is not the only class of words that an adverb modifies. According to the modern treatment, an adverb can modify a wide variety of word classes, that include adjective, adverb, determinatives, Preposition Phrase, Noun Phrase, verb, clause.

  • ADVERB as the modifier of VERBS -

He cleaned the dishes neatly. [=> Here the adverb - neatly - modifies the verb - cleaned.]

I completely agree with you. [=> Here the adverb - completely - modifies the verb - agree.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of ADJECTIVES -

He is absolutely sure. [=> Here the adverb - absolutely - modifies the adjective - sure.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of ADVERB -

You almost always do it. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the adverb - always.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of DETERMINATIVES -

Almost all the passengers drowned. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the determinative - all.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of PREPOSITION PHRASES -

The party lasted almost till midnight. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the Preposition Phrase - till midnight.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of NOUN PHRASES -

She completed almost the whole book. [=> Here the adverb - almost - modifies the Noun Phrase - the whole book.]

  • ADVERB as the modifier of CLAUSE -

Probably, he is the best swimmer out there. [=> Here the adverb - probably - modifies the whole clause - he is the best swimmer out there.]

WHY in OP's sentence USUALLY don't modify the copular verb - BE?

Let's consider the following example sentence -

He is late.

In the sentence above, late is a complement of copular verb - is. We can't drop the complement without running the risk of making the sentence incorrect.

  • ! He is. [INCORRECT]

Generally AdvP (Adverb Phrase) functions as an adjunct, and hence can be dropped from the sentence without making the sentence ungrammatical. But we can't drop a complement.

He is a good person.

Here the complement is - a good person. And so we can't drop it. Generally we don't use an AdvP in the place of complement in the sentence having similar pattern.

In OP's sentence usually is optional. We can drop it -

In stories the witch is a homely woman.

So usually is an adjunct, and not a complement. Semantically the verb - BE - here doesn't add anything. Grammatically it just links the subject with its complement. So it's not reasonable to think that there should be a modifier of such entity.

One such example is there. We can add modifier with there when it adds some meaning, for example, when it's used as a locative complement. But we can't add any modifier when there is used as existential pronoun.

He is almost there. [=> Here the Preposition Phrase - there - is modified by the adverb - almost. The locative complement - almost there.]

There is a table at the middle of the room. [We can't add any modifier with this existential there.]

ADDON ANSWER (as asked by commenters) -

WHY can we not treat USUALLY as a modifier of the following Noun Phrase in OP's sentence?

Here is OP's sentence -

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman.

Commenters asked if it's possible for USUALLY to modify the following Noun Phrase (NP) - A HOMELY WOMAN.

Let's move around USUALLY around the sentence. If in each case the meaning doesn't change, then it's not possible for USUALLY to modify that NP, and only possible analysis in that case is that USUALLY modifies the whole clause.

Usually, the witch is a homely woman.

The witch is usually a homely woman.

The witch is a homely woman, usually.

As shown above, the meaning remains the same, regardless of the position of the adverb - USUALLY.

So there is no doubt that USUALLY doesn't modify anything other than the entire clause - the witch is a homely woman.

Can any adverb modify the verb TO BE in general?

This is a hard question for me to answer. When TO BE is used as a linking verb, I don't think there is any situation where an adverb can modify TO BE.


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 10 615

1++1 great guns! great job! I do have some questions, and I hope you can incorporate answers to them into your post. First, simply put, can an adverb or adverbial phrase ever modify the verb to be? Second, is the sentence: It's usual that in stories the witch is a homely woman equivalent to In stories, the witch is a homely woman, usually? Third, I like the way @Martha moved the adverb around to get five different versions of the sentence: do all these sentences mean the same? – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-21T19:51:56.683

1Fourth, since you point out that an adverb can modify a noun phrase, how do we know 'usually' doesn't modify the noun phrase 'a homely woman'? – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-21T19:52:31.477

@Man_From_India Maybe your answer is right but I'd appreciate if you could support your answer with a link. For usually as a clause adverb, I couldn't find any page explaining what a clause adverb is though there were lots of pages explaining adverb clause and as a clause-oriented adjuncts I just gave up :) However there were some pages explaining clause-oriented adjuncts in other languages like german. Any references to help? – Yuri – 2016-09-21T21:23:01.637

@Yuri I'm really sorry. I don't have any link to share :( I will try to post a screen shot of those pages where it says about CLAUSE ADVERB or CLAUSE ORIENTED ADJUNCT (later, currently a little busy these days). Another thing ADVERB CLAUSE and CLAUSE ADVERB are not the same. There is no ADVERB CLAUSE in modern grammar. However traditional grammar may use that term. – Man_From_India – 2016-09-22T15:25:01.487

1In his book - English Syntax and Argumentation, Bas Aarts also calls it a SENTENCE ADVERB. Though he used the term CLAUSE ADVERB in OMEG to refer to the same set of adverbs he had called SENTENCE ADVERB in his book ES&A. I personally prefer the term CLAUSE ADVERB over SENTENCE ADVERB, because SENTENCE and CLAUSE are not the same. – Man_From_India – 2016-09-22T17:07:35.797

@Man_From_India I think sentence adverb is different from the idea of clause adverb that you mentioned and I believe sentence adverb's not something new. Anyway, I suppose I need to buy the hard copy then :)

– Yuri – 2016-09-22T18:52:24.813

@Yuri As far as I understood they are the same. If the term - SENTENCE ADVERB - sounds familiar to you, you can consider USUALLY a SENTENCE ADVERB. Btw what's your understanding about SENTENCE ADVERB? – Man_From_India – 2016-09-22T23:53:20.847

This PAGE and lots of other pages tell you how a sentence adverb works. As I said sentence adverb is not a new idea in English grammar but it is with what you describe in your answer.

– Yuri – 2016-09-23T16:02:18.093

@Yuri In this case, I don't think you need to think too much about the terminology as long as you understand that it's an adverb that modifies the entire clause in which they occur. – Man_From_India – 2016-09-23T16:32:47.140

Actually sentence adverb does not just modify the whole clause, there are other things that make an adverb a sentence adverb. Check the link please in my previous comment. That aside consider this sentence: the moving thing in the room is only a cat or only the rat can pass through this hole. Only in both sentences modifies the noun phrase coming after. Now replace only with usually. Does it make it a sentence adverb now?! I don't think so. – Yuri – 2016-09-23T17:28:27.473

+1 for more effort, but as a native speaker, I don't see anything wrong with the version 'The witch is a homely woman usually'. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T09:04:04.453

Also, when you edit your answer can you ping me? I mean write @AlanCarmack so I know to come back and look? – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T09:09:05.113

1@AlanCarmack Oops sorry :( I should've done that. – Man_From_India – 2016-09-24T09:31:37.010


In stories the witch is usually a homely woman

In the sentence we have nouns, a copular verb (is),a noun phrase (a homely woman).From this constituents adverbs usually modify verbs, adjectives, noun phrases and a clause or a sentence. They don't modify nouns. In modern grammar a copula verb can't be modified by an adverb because it has no independent meaning and functions to connect the subject with the subject complment expressing grammatical categories ( person, number, mood, aspect, tense and voice). A noun phrase is usually modified by adverbs of degree (quite, rather, almost, such) and really. (She is quite a homely woman ). Usually is an adverb of indefinite frequency which can occupy three positions in the sentence : at the beginning, after "to be" and at the end. If we remove it from the sentence, the meaning won't change. It's the main reason to consider it a sentence adverb modifying the whole sentence.

Grammar about.com.(different articles )



Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 6 933


Note (F) the introductory 'in stories' is not all that important to me.

The principal function of adverbs is to act as modifiers of verbs or verb phrases.

In the sentence "The witch is usually a homely woman", the adverb usually provides information about the frequency of cases when a witch appears to be a homely woman. So in the given sentence, usually modifies the verb phrase "is a homely woman", indicating frequency, i.e. how often a witch is a homely woman.

Note (F) [continued]: So, it is not critical to concentrate on it, unless of course its inclusion in the sentence radically changes your interpretation.

Also, adverbs may modify prepositional phrases.

In the sentence "In stories, the witch is usually a homely woman", the adverb usually provides information about the frequency of representing a witch as a homely woman in stories. The sentence could be rendered as "Usually, in stories the witch is a homely woman". In both cases with the introductory "in stories", usually modifies the prepositional phrase "in stories".

Victor B.

Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 8 293

1If usually modifies that noun phrase "in stories", that would imply that sometimes it is not "in stories" but in the real world. Last I checked, there were no witches in the real world. – Kevin – 2016-09-20T18:55:42.573


Usually is an adverb of frequency and these types of adverbs can describe verbs and adjectives, or even a noun phrase but they do not modify other adverbs.

Adverbs of frequency can modify adjectives, in which case they come after the verb be. This is because be is a linking verb (not a main verb), and the adverbs modify the predicative adjective(s) (the adjectives after be) associated with it.

“I am usually late for work.”

However, putting extra emphasis on be can change this a bit. The only time adverbs of frequency come before the verb be (when it is not used with an auxiliary verb) is when be is given extra emphasis in a sentence. For example:

“I never was fond of his writing.”

When we read this, we can hear the stress being put on the word was. Though it comes before was, the adverb never is actually modifying the adjective fond.

Note that this construction can also be used when the adverb modifies be rather than an adjective, as in:

“You occasionally are a nit-picker.”

If we take the emphasis off be, however, the adverb would come after it as usual.


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 7 422

Long story short, I think usually in your sentence describes the noun phrase a homely woman since a witch is usually a woman who is not really attractive although witch has been used to describe men as well. For men, we have the word wizard or warlock that have been used alot more than witch.See this for adverb placement and modifications.

– Yuri – 2016-09-21T11:36:28.867

Sorry I couldn't include this in my answer. It kept rejecting to post. See Cambridge link I provided in my comment. Make sure to check out Adverb phrases + other phrases part. Take care. – Yuri – 2016-09-21T11:47:32.073

You are going to need to include a reference in you your answer that supports your answer. Also, I see only one or two examples of adverbs and to be in the Cambridge link and I don't think it does a good job of explaining what word (or is it more than a word) that an adverb modifies in a construction such as is found in the OP's sentence. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T08:58:06.867

@Alan Carmack I'm not a grammarian but based on The Farlex Grammar Book 2016, adverbs of frequencies can modify adjectives after to be verbs because they're not main verbs. Similarly, I can extend it to NPs after be because still the verb is a linking verb and not a main verb.

– Yuri – 2016-09-25T17:57:48.227

Also based on my understanding of this ARTICLE we can consider usually after be as a left-peripheral modifier of the NP. See examples from 1-18, also 25-30.

– Yuri – 2016-09-25T18:02:04.627

The article argues that adverbs as premodifiers are not sentence-level adverbs but a genuine part of the NP. – Yuri – 2016-09-25T18:05:33.393

1Besides I think those examples provided by Cambridge Dictionary can be simply extended to look like the OP's sentence if that's the problem. As an instance you can say that's quite a big tree. Still quite is an adverb and a big tree is a noun phrase. Quite describes the NP a big tree. Well, again I'm not a grammarian these are all based on my understanding of these adverbs modifying NPs. Maybe the OP's sentence is different. I can't say for sure. But this question really made me determined to find a definite answer :) – Yuri – 2016-09-25T18:31:43.627


In stories which the witch is usually a homely woman.

You are giving an example of stories that sometimes the existing character witch is homely.

In stories the witch is usually a homely woman.

Whatever the stories belonging of which the witch is a homely person in some occasions.With a meaning of high percentage.

PS:Not Native; I hope you can answer my only question in my page it is interesting.Have a look.


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 109


The adverb, 'usually', modifies the verb, 'is'.

The verb 'is' expresses a state of being. The adverb 'usually' modifies that verb to clarify that this state of being is not always the case, but is most of the time.


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 5 009

Please [edit] to include an explanation of why this is correct; answers without explanation do not teach the patterns of the language well. – Nathan Tuggy – 2016-09-20T19:23:57.033

@NathanTuggy how's that – Kevin – 2016-09-20T19:41:49.347

But I've read highly-regarded linguistic books that state that the verb to be cannot be modified by an adverb. – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T08:50:54.327

@AlanCarmack I'd be interested in reading them to see their reasoning if you can remember the titles – Kevin – 2016-09-24T15:34:35.577

for starters, check the links I posted as comments to Martha's answer – Alan Carmack – 2016-09-24T21:08:28.240


Other answers are too long and some contain a lot of nonsense. The answer is simple. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

Consider the sentence "Beer is usually alcohol." This sentence works the same and "usually" obviously modifies "is", since there are no other verbs, adjectives, or adverbs to choose from.

Alan Carmack, you have stated that you have read "highly-regarded linguistic books that state that the verb to be cannot be modified by an adverb." I would disagree with those books. If someone asks me "Is the sky usually blue?" and I respond "It usually is," then "usually" must be modifying "is" since it cannot be modifying "it". I searched on the web for anything saying that the verb "to be" cannot be modified by an adverb and found nothing.


Posted 2016-09-18T12:08:56.590

Reputation: 359

It's not "beer is usually alcohol", which sounds that alcohol and beer are the one and the same. It's beer usually contains alcohol, the adjective form is alcoholic.

– Mari-Lou A – 2016-09-26T08:13:17.083

"Alcohol" can also mean "drink containing alcohol". Therefore, the example sentence is not incorrect. By implying that the sentence is incorrect, you would be confusing people whose command of the English language is not native-level. Nobody would think that I am trying to say that alcohol and beer are one and the same. – user3707023 – 2016-09-26T08:19:30.977

Next time I'll say "Juice is usually sugar" then. People will understand, but it's still inaccurate. – Mari-Lou A – 2016-09-26T08:20:55.190

"Sugar" cannot mean "drink containing sugar", therefore the analogy is not valid. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alcohol

– user3707023 – 2016-09-26T08:22:26.470

Downvoter, please explain what you found wrong with my answer. – user3707023 – 2016-09-26T11:03:33.737

"Beer is usually alcohol" is not inaccurate. Another example of a correct usage of the word "alcohol": "We were up all night drinking alcohol." You don't need to say "alcoholic beverages" instead of "alcohol". "Alcohol" is commonly used to refer to drinks that contain alcohol. – user3707023 – 2016-09-26T11:12:43.920

Not my downvote. But the DV might be because you didn't comply with all seven points asked by the bounty offerer. But who knows why you got a DV, anyone's guess is good. – Mari-Lou A – 2016-09-26T15:00:10.653