Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Debunking the widespread canard that adverbs are bad for writing

Some writers and teachers of English ruthlessly denigrate adverbs in the same way as adjectives, with one of them even declaring that “most of the work of effective writing is that of selecting verbs and nouns which make adverbs and adjectives unnecessary.” As I observed in my long-ago essay in defense of adverbs (English Plain and Simple, Section 3, Chapter 17), they say such things as if English prose could, in fact, survive solely on a diet of verbs and nouns with absolutely no adverbs and adjectives. This isn’t the case at all. There are bad adverbs as there are bad adjectives, of course, and overusing them—particularly lazy adverbs ending in “-ly” such as “quickly” and “fantastically”—could indeed induce a bad case of reading nausea. But there are good, functional adverbs that we can’t afford to write totally without, and chief among them are the adverbs of time and the adverbs of frequency.

In an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times and that now forms part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, I explained that the adverbs of time and the adverbs of frequency are the defining elements of the tenses. Our verbs need them for context in the time continuum, and only by putting them to work can we clearly convey to our readers or listeners the time frame, sequence, and frequency of the actions—grammatically, the verbs we use—in our narratives. I am now posting that essay here to counteract the widespread canard that adverbs as a whole are bad for our written and spoken English. (September 26, 2011)

Using the adverbs of time to clarify tense

When an action or event has taken place and how often it has taken place are abstractions that reside solely in our memory or in some recording medium like newspapers, books, and film. They no longer have a physical existence of their own. In contrast, we can easily put the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “how” of things in concrete terms. For instance, we can identify ourselves with nameplates or hang shingles to identify the occupants of doctor’s clinics, law offices, legislatures, and zoos (nouns); we can label certain faces, books, movies, or political maneuverings as disgusting, compelling, or noble (adjectives); or we can mark certain places and behaviors as uncommonly decent, unbelievably tawdry, or ignominiously warped (adverbs that modify adjectives).

It’s not as easy, however, to put our fingers on events in time. Making sense of the unfolding present and of the future is difficult enough, but understanding past events is even more so. This is because the latter have already passed through the time continuum to become abstractions, and our usual conceptual tools for dealing with them—the tenses acting on verbs—are inadequate to communicate them in context. Thus, whether reckoning with the past, present, or future, we need the adverbs of time and of frequency to convey them intelligibly to other people and to keep our thoughts of them alive.

Examine this simple sentence: “Look for the money.” The simple imperative of this sentence sounds clear enough. But on closer scrutiny, we discover that its call for action is inadequate and imprecise: How soon should we look for the money? Precisely when should we do it? How long should we do? Now see what happens when we clarify the sentence with adverbs of time: “Look for the money now.” “Look for the money tonight after office hours.” “Look for the money during the next three hours.” The adverbs of time have given the sentences precise, actionable meanings.

Not let’s examine another sentence: “He paints landscapes.” With no antecedent statement to establish context, it borders on the trivial. But see how it springs to life and relevance with the use adverbs of frequency: “He rarely paints landscapes.” “He regularly paints landscapes.” “He paints landscapes twice a month.” In each case the statement has become more real and palpable to us.

Indeed, the tenses by themselves can only give us a general sense of something occurring. By making the adverbs of time work with them, however, we can pinpoint the precise moment or period of their occurrence. The adverbs of time are, in fact, the defining elements of the tenses. Using the adverb “currently,” for instance, leaves us no choice but to use the present or present progressive tense: “She currently works with the United Nations secretariat.” “She is currently working with the United Nations secretariat.”

In contrast, when we use “recently,” we are forced to use the past tense or past progressive tense: “She recently worked with the United Nations secretariat.” “She was recently working with the United Nations secretariat.”

The adverbs of time are particularly crucial in establishing the perfect tenses—when an action has to be related to other actions happening before or after it. Take this example: “The woman had [already, just, barely, scarcely] dressed up when her lover knocked at the front door.” The adverbs of time create immediacy and tension in juxtaposed actions, and they do so in ways that the tenses alone can never achieve. Along with the adverbs of frequency, the adverbs of time heighten our awareness of our own actions in relation to the unfolding reality around us: “I knocked at her bedroom door once, twice, three times, then finally without letup, but there was no response; it was then, only then, that I realized that she had left me for good.”

The need to clearly mark in our minds the sequence and frequency of occurrences is so crucial that the English language has evolved scores of adverbs of time and of frequency. Take a look at the following short list:

Past adverbs of time:  “ago,” “after,” “already,” “once,” “before,” “beforehand,” “when,” “recently,” “then,” “since,” “since then,” “yesterday,” “last week.” “last month,” “last quarter,” and “last year.”

Present adverbs of time:  “now,” “nowadays,” “lately,” “of late,” “while,” “at this moment,” “at last,” “today,” and “tonight.”

Future adverbs of time:  “when,” “presently,” “soon,” “tomorrow,” “yet,” “as soon as possible” (ASAP), “later,” “after,” “immediately,” “heretofore,” “hereafter,” “henceforth,” “next day,” “next week,” “next month,” and “next year.”

Adverbs for continuous or repeated actions:  “by and by,” “again,” “occasionally,” “until,” “till,” “while,” “forever,” “always,” “off and on,” “continually,” “continuously,” “often,” “at length,” and “perpetually.”

Adverbs of frequency:  “rarely,” “seldom,” “frequently,” “sometimes,” “oftentimes,” “now and then,” “never,” “once,” “twice,” “thrice,” “daily,” “nightly,” “weekly,” “monthly,” “quarterly,” “annually,” and “seasonally.”

These adverbs of time and adverbs of frequency are, of course, not the only ones we can find in the language. We can actually create hundreds more by using them as basic building blocks, and the more effectively we can make them work with the tenses, the better we can understand the things that happen in our lives and the clearer we can communicate them to others.
From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the author, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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