Painless Grammar Workshop

Unit 1: Taming the Wily Adverb

Those of you who didn't sleep through Mrs. Newark's 8th grade English class will remember that adverbs are one of the eight parts of speech. The other seven are nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and interjections.

For those who did doze off, here's a refresher on what each of the parts is and does:

Nouns and pronouns both are 'things'. Nouns are specific things—a book, a person, an idea. Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns—it, he, she, their, etc.

Verbs show action or existence. Joel swims well. The bullet grazed his cheek. She is a famous singer. Prepositions show relationships. The book is on the table. The store is beside the gas station. The tree is one of my favorites.

Conjunctions are connecting words. It's him or me. I want eggs and toast. It wasn't an acceptance, but it wasn't a rejection.

Interjections are added to a sentence to convey emotion. They are not grammatically related to any other part of the sentence. Ouch, that hurts! Hey, that's my piece of cake!

Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. It is a red car. She is a superb shortstop. That was a pathetic pun.

Adverbs modify verbs. Bob writes beautifully. The dog wagged its tail joyfully. His sense of unease grew gradually. But, adverbs are tricky. They can also modify adjectives. The extremely pretty girl winked at him. His exceedingly annoying manner made him unpopular.

Most adverbs end in -ly, and many adjectives can become adverbs by adding -ly to them. That is a quick read. I read the book quickly. Her answer was honest. She answered honestly. Of course, not all -ly words are adverbs. The wily from this workshop title is in fact an adjective. And there are non -ly adverbs. She plays the violin well. He is very upset. She is too funny for words.

OK, so we now know what an adverb is. How do we use them?

Adverbs give the reader more information about an action. He walked. How did he walk? He walked haltingly. Or he walked confidently. As we will discuss in a later workshop, it is often better to use stronger verbs than weak verbs with adverbs. But, our goal now is to know how to use adverbs.

To that end, here are Karen's three easy rules for using adverbs:

Rule 1: Be careful not to use adjectives when you should be using adverbs. If you're not sure which form to use, stop and figure out what you're modifying. He walked ?? to the door: slow or slowly? Since you're describing how he walked, you need the adverb (slowly).

Rule 2: Be careful not to use adverbs when you should be using adjectives. There are places where you should use an adjective, even though it looks like you should need an adverb. He felt bad about the crash. If he felt badly, it would mean that his sense of touch was malfunctioning.

Rule 3 (Karen's pet peeve): Be careful where you put your adverbs. Placement greatly affects the meaning of the sentence, especially with "limiting" adverbs like only, just, hardly, really, and almost.

Consider the following sentences:

  • Only he saw the child yesterday. No one else did.
  • He only saw the child yesterday. He didn't talk to her. At a stretch, it could also be taken to mean it's the only thing he did yesterday.
  • He saw only the child yesterday. He didn't see anything or anyone else yesterday.
  • He saw the only child yesterday. Here, only is an adjective, describing the child.
  • He saw the child only yesterday. It was as recent as yesterday that he saw her.
  • He saw the child yesterday only. He had never seen her before yesterday, and he has not seen her today.

As you can see, placement makes a BIG difference. Keep an eye out, to make sure you're saying what you really mean.

One final rule: Rules don't always have to be followed. This is especially true in dialog. Most people say things ungrammatically, at least some of the time. Dialog should reflect that. Of course, if your speaker is an English professor, she should probably commit fewer grammatical sins than an average Joe.

And when you break rules, whether in dialog or narrative, be aware if it, and make sure you understand the effects of the rule-breaking. Grammar exists not just to keep the Mrs. Newarks of the world employed and eighth-graders out of mischief. Rules of grammar make it possible for us to construct sentences that communicate clearly.

Break the rules, and you run the risk of pulling your reader out of the world you've created for them, because they have to try to figure out what you're saying. Worse yet—as in the case of our "only" example above—you could be saying something completely different from what you had in mind.

Some grammar-related web sites to check out:

© Copyright 2000 by Karen Babcock

Last modified: Sunday, 02-Feb-2014 05:23:53 EST
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