Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

The English language is a very complex and powerful thing, capable of many nuances and quite resistant to simplistic attempts at tidying it up. Sadly, not everyone realizes that. Worse still, many people take very narrow and inconsistent views, focusing on pet peeves while letting parallel instances of usage pass unnoticed. It’s as though a self-trained self-appointed “master chef” opened a cooking school and taught, among other things, that salt and anything containing sodium can only be used in savoury dishes, never in desserts. The cakes may all be horrible and heavy and the puddings insipid, but goshdarn it, they’re culinarily correct!

Adverbs give us a good example of this. “An adverb modifies a verb,” some people say, “so it must always directly modify the main verb of the sentence. If someone says ‘Hopefully, they will be here tomorrow,’ it can only mean that their presence here will be hopeful.” And yet the same people will not be seen declaring that “Seriously, it will be very amusing” must mean that it will be amusing in a serious manner, or that “Frankly, you’re being evasive” must mean that your evasiveness is frank, or that “Clearly, someone has muddied the water” must mean that the water has been muddied in a clear manner.

If the “hopefully” peevers were to take note of how these other sentence adverbs function – using the adverb to give an attitude or setting for the entire sentence – they would be forced to allow the same role for hopefully… or perhaps they would decide that all those uses must be wrong, well established though they are (some date from the 1600s). But let’s say they allowed them. The next thing the forced-tidying mind might do – like the robot maid tossing out both the cat and the master of the house – is decide that only single-word adverbs can fill this role. Never mind that one may modify the action of a verb with prepositional phrases and participles; they’re not adverbs, so (the reasoning might go) they can’t be used as sentence adverbs. Sure, you can say “Hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact,” but you must not say “Speaking hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact”…!

Now, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason not to use the latter sentence – it has an ambiguity that could make the reader snicker (I like to say such sentences have a high SQ, or snicker quotient) – but ambiguity (and high SQ) is not the same thing as grammatical error. There are many instances of prepositional phrases, participles, and infinitives being used to set the scene for a sentence: “To give an example, he is disinclined to use illustrations”; “Going forward, all cars on the ferry must have their parking brakes on”; “Among other things, it is located on an empty treeless plain”; and so on. These do not generally raise the ire of the particular – although some can be awkward – and they are not ungrammatical.

Hopefully, as editors, we have eyes more finely tuned to such structures and can discern the many places and cases of their use. Going forward, I would like to suggest that we all keep our eyes open for every instance where an adverbial construction of any sort is used to give a setting for the entire action of a sentence rather than to modify the main verb directly – and, if we dislike it, ask ourselves whether it is truly ungrammatical or simply ambiguous. You may find yourself having to come to some surprising and possibly discomfiting conclusions.

One response to “Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

  1. Pingback: In case you’re wondering, it’s a callow mistake | Sesquiotica

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