Adverbs on Trial
May 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
“What’s the problem?” Coyote looked up from his novel. Tony Hillerman, I noticed.
I myself was reading about a murder in Savannah, Georgia, and I was keeping track.
“Well, it just seems like some people have a prejudice against them and I am pretty sure it’s not justified.” I was afraid I was picking a fight but I didn’t care. I wanted to get this straightened out.
“Listen to this, for instance,” I continued before Coyote could get a word in. “It’s a sentence in this book I’m reading. ‘This was the hole allegedly made by Danny Hansford during his rampage through the house a month before he was killed.'”
“The case could hinge on that,” Coyote said, looking at me over the top of his book.
“Pay attention!” I said, refusing to be distracted. “Allegedly. That’s an adverb but seems to me that’s what you need in that instance. The story would bog down if you were to say, ‘This was the hole which, according to the charge lodged against him, Danny Hansford made during his rampage ….” See what I mean?”
“I do,” Coyote said, removing his glasses and putting them on the table next to the potted plant.
“And look here, just one page later. ‘He deliberately left his listeners wondering whether he meant to say simply that public sympathy had shifted in his favor or, more darkly, that the fix was in.’ That’s three adverbs in one sentence and clearly every one of them makes a wonderfully insightful contribution to the sentence.”
“Hold on!” Coyote said, closing his book. “There are five adverbs in what you just said – ‘deliberately,’ ‘simply,’ ‘darkly,’ ‘clearly,’ and ‘wonderfully.’ Am I right?”
I had to replay what I had said in my mind but I admitted he was right.
“OK,” he put his book on the table and leaned forward, waving his glasses for emphasis. I will grant you that ‘simply,’ ‘darkly,’ and ‘clearly’ serve a function that is difficult to achieve any other way. To avoid those you would get something like,” he grabbed pencil and paper from the coffee table, “what was that sentence again?”
He scribbled as I read it out, studied the page, and then scribbled some more.
“You might get something like this: ‘He left his listeners wondering, and it was his intention to do so, whether he meant to say that public sympathy had shifted in his favor and nothing more or, and this is a darker interpretation, that the fix was in.’ Maybe someone could re-write that better than I did but the adverbs make the sentence build towards its high point, which is “the fix was in.”
“Exactly!” I said, picking up my book again. “Defense rests!” I grinned.
“Not exactly.” He fixed the Coyote Look on me. “You still need to answer for ‘clearly’ and ‘wonderfully,’ as in ‘clearly every one of them makes a wonderfully insightful contribution to the sentence.'”
“And?” I said, but something told me this wasn’t going to end well.
“‘Clearly’ serves no purpose. It’s redundant. ‘every one of them makes….’ Just say it.”
“Mmm,” I said.
“And ‘wonderfully,’ quite apart from being vague, abstract, and a generalization, simply intensifies ‘insightful,’ as in,” he winked, “that’s all it does. Unlike the ones that, as you point out, make a contribution to the sentence, ‘wonderfully’ makes no contribution at all.”
He settled back into his chair and opened his book again. It was getting late. The clock in the hall began to strike.
“So,” I ventured, “some adverbs are good and some are evil?”
“I rest my case,” he said. Affectionately.