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Adjective/Adverb Aptitude

Frances Peck
(Terminology Update, Volume 34, Number 3, 2001, page 18)

Just as we put salt and pepper in our food, we sprinkle adjectives and adverbs throughout our writing to add flavour, subtlety, variety and character. These parts of speech usually pose few problems for writers, especially because their functions are so distinct: adjectives describe nouns and pronouns, while adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs and sometimes whole sentences. But there are still tricky errors to watch for. Here are some of the most common.

Comparative and Superlative

"Wise, wiser, wisest"—from an early age, we understand how to use these three forms of modifiers. The basic form, "wise," describes a single thing or group: The wise old owl swooped down on the unsuspecting field mouse. The comparative form, "wiser," compares two: The mouse, wiser than the owl, escaped his wily predator by scampering into a nearby hole. The superlative form, "wisest," compares three or more: But the fox lurking inside the hole was the wisest of all, and he congratulated himself on his easy dinner.

These uses may seem elementary, but it’s sometimes easy to forget the distinction between comparative and superlative. For many, the following sentence seems perfectly fine: Both witnesses provided accounts of the landslide, but Ms. Wimplemeyer’s proved the most accurate. Yet because only two witnesses are being compared, the comparative, not the superlative, is the correct form: Ms. Wimplemeyer’s proved the more accurate (of the two).

After a Linking Verb

Your office phone rings. It’s your colleague. "I have the chicken pox," he announces. "Tell Ms. Wimplemeyer I’ll be off sick for the next two weeks." "Oh, no," you moan. "I feel so badly for you." But do you? You may feel sorry, sad, sympathetic or . . . bad. But you do not feel badly.

Using an adverb instead of an adjective to complete a verb like "feel", "be" or "seem"—a linking verb—is a widespread error. A linking verb, or copula, as it was once commonly known, conveys the condition or state of the subject rather than expressing an action. A linking verb provides a kind of footbridge between the subject of the sentence and a word, or words, referring back to the subject. This linkage is obvious in sentences like these: I was irate. He is industrious. She seems snooty. You feel happy. Notice that in all instances, the word completing the verb is an adjective, not an adverb. It cannot be an adverb because it refers back to and describes the subject, which is always a noun or pronoun. For the same reason you wouldn’t say you feel happily, you shouldn’t say you feel badly.

The Stranded Adverb

Adjectives and adverbs are grammatically codependent. They need to attach themselves to specific words in a sentence. Without that attachment, they are nothing but drifters, modifiers desperately seeking something to modify.

Adverbs in particular can easily become stranded. For instance, examine this impressive-sounding statement: I would like to close with some observations on Canada’s position internationally. Just what is "internationally" attached to? As an adverb, the only part of the sentence it is grammatically capable of describing is the verb phrase, "would like to close," but that is an incoherent match. Really, what’s being described is the position—a noun—so the author needs the adjective form: I would like to close with some observations on Canada’s international position.

There are adverbs that naturally form looser ties, modifying an entire sentence instead of one word. Sometimes called "sentence adverbs," they often provide transitions between ideas. Here are two examples of sentence adverbs: Nonetheless, my husband plays his drums long into the night. I consequently take a nap every afternoon.

Adjective and Adverb Frugality

Mark Twain once wrote: "As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out." His advice holds for adverbs too. Workplace writing needn’t—and indeed shouldn’t—be dull, uninteresting or devoid of detail. But it should steer clear of the gushing, bubbling, overly subjective tone that can accompany an overdose of description. Should your report describe the new office printing process as "highly and exceptionally interesting, creative and engaging" or just "original"? In nearly all situations, one or two well-chosen words (or perhaps none) will do the job better than three or four weaklings.

Anyone who has put too much salt in the soup knows there is a fine line between enhancing the flavour and overloading the palate. Use descriptive words judiciously and accurately, and readers will savour your writing for its detail, precision and balance.