Adverb phrase modifies what words?

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Steve asked a grammar question that led me to consider how an adverb phrase functions.Adverb phrase modifies what?

In the sentence “Generally at university you are always expected to be critical” what is the meaning of “generally”?

I answered thus: In this case, “generally” is an adverb phrase that modifies “expected.” It means on average, or most of the time, this is the expectation. The use of “generally” softens the statement “at university”. Without it, the statement is definitive. This is always true. With the addition of “generally”, the statement means “this is true most of the time.”

Steve disagreed with my answer, writing, “Don’t you think it means ‘without reference to specific details’ (i.e. “without regard to whatever a student majors in,” they are always expected to be critical).

So, according to Steve, the adverb “generally” modifies the adverb phrase “at university,” rather than the main verb “expected.”

Deconstructing the adverb phrase

A sentence that contains “generally” and “always” is self-contradictory. Either the condition is always true, or it is only true some of the time.

Initially, I said “generally” is an adverb phrase that applies to “expected”; that’s really contradictory, because clearly “always” applies to “expected.”

Steve said “generally” applies to “at university”; that’s probably better, because, as he pointed out, it could apply to some faculties, but not all. So in some faculties, you are expected to be critical all the time, while in others, you are not. Nonetheless, “at university” also applies to “expected”, which means “generally” also applies to “expected.”

A comma would help. Grammarly expects two commas to be included in this sentence.

Generally, at university, you are always expected to be critical.

(“Generally” now clearly applies to “at university. Nonetheless, the word “always” is redundant, since the condition is not always true.) But still, these two conditions both apply to the main verb “expected.”

So whether you apply “generally” to “at university” or “expected” you come back to the same thing. “Always” is redundant. The expectation of being critical is sometimes true, and sometimes not true.

An adverb phrase modifies words that it is close to

Let’s look at it from another perspective.

The main clause is “You are always expected to be critical.”
An introductory adverbial phrase clarifies when and where “At university, you are always expected to be critical.”

But this is not always true, so the additional adverbial phrase is added: “Generally, at university, you are always expected to be critical.”

By this logic, Steve’s interpretation is correct. Further, looking at proximity, “generally” is closer to “at university” than it is to “expected”, so it should be interpreted as modifying “at university”.

If we remove “at university”, the sentence becomes “Generally, you are always expected to be critical.” This is quite different from the original sentence, because “at university” is an important qualifier. In addition, the contradiction between “generally” and “always” is glaring.

Therefore, I must yield to Steve’s interpretation, that the best interpretation is that “generally” specifically applies to “at university” because “at university” needs the qualifier to make the sentence true.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the words Steve wants to hear: “You’re right and I’m wrong” since I only say those words to my wife.