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The Joy Of American English Grammar; (22)


Every one of us, as we worked our way through Language Arts, had to learn the "parts of speech" and their definitions. One of them, you'll remember, was called the interjection. All interjections had something in common, and it was easy to understand why they had been brought together and given a single unifying name. An interjection was something you might say if you had just hit your thumb hard with a hammer or you'd just been notified that you'd won fifty thousand dollars in a lottery. Interjections were words like "Blast!" and "Ouch!" and a host of others not appropriate for a family book.

The reason I've gone so heavily into interjections here is because I want to compare the interjection situation with the adverb situation. That is, just as there were all these words called interjections, there were a lot of other words called adverbs. The adverb list included, for representative examples, all of these: "quickly, fortunately, easily, very, just, often, carefully, rather, absolutely, nearly, even, only, cleverly, now, then, always, there, since, perfectly." And thousands more.

The question to ask yourself is this one: What do all these different words have in common that makes them qualify as adverbs? A typical dictionary definition for "adverb" will go something like this: "Any of a class of words used generally to modify a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a phrase or a clause, by expressing time, place, manner, degree, cause, etc."

That definition is one of the unforgivable acts of American English grammarians. The "et cetera" it ends with is particularly disgraceful. Its main purpose is to avoid having to state the unpleasant truth, which is that an adverb is a word that cannot be classified as any of the other parts of speech. That definition is honest, and it works. Get yourself a list of words and divide them all up into "parts of speech." Everything left over after you're done that is called an adverb. I'm afraid this won't do, though. I wish it would, because I have no more desire to tackle the adverb mess than any other linguist, and I'm sure I can't set things completely right. However, I'm going to try to at least improve matters.

We can begin by setting aside all those words like "cleverly" and "carefully." As was explained in Chapter Ten, these words are MANNER noun phrases, squashed. They can always be expressed as "in a ................ manner," they answer the question word "how," and you can throw them into a sentence in a variety of places without changing the meaning of the sentence. For example:

a. John stepped over the baby carefully.
b. John stepped carefully over the baby.
c. John carefully stepped over the baby.
d. Carefully, John stepped over the baby.

No matter which of those sentences you want to use, "carefully" tells us how John stepped over the baby.

The next group of "adverbs" that we can isolate includes words like "fortunately" and "regrettably." These aren't MANNER NPs, although they end in "-ly" just as MANNER NPs do. To refresh your memory on this, please look at #2.

a. Fortunately, John stepped over the baby.
*b. In a fortunate manner, John stepped over the baby.

Like the MANNER NPs, these grammatical animals can appear in several places in the sentence without changing the speaker's or writer's meaning in any significant way, as shown in #3.

a. Fortunately, John stepped over the baby.
b. John stepped over the baby, fortunately.
c. John fortunately stepped over the baby.
but never..
*d. John stepped fortunately over the baby.

If you put your mind to it, your native-speaker intuitions will tell you that the "adverbs" in this group are once again longer elements that have been reduced. You'll notice that, like the modal auxiliaries, this group of words allows the speaker or writer to express an opinion about the rest of the sentence they turn up in. Please look at #4.

a. Fortunately, John stepped over the baby.
b. It's fortunate that John stepped over the baby.

c. Regrettably, John failed to step over the baby.
d. It's regrettable that John failed to step over the baby.

These "adverbs" can safely be set aside, along with the MANNER NPs. They don't belong in the Adverb Pile.

Now we come to a group of words that does in some ways meet the typical dictionary definition. These words truly do modify other words, by telling us how much the other words mean what they say they mean. It would be logical to call this group "modifiers," under the circumstances, but I think you can all understand why that would be a bad move. The word "modifier" is and has been used in too many different ways in American English grammar, and its meaning is hopelessly muddled. We will therefore call this group qualifiers. The qualifiers are words like these: "very, rather, quite, absolutely, nearly, almost." They will all fit neatly into the blank in #5:

5. That is ............. logical.
Tags: american english grammar
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