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Adjective/Adverb Aptitude


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 the ones you’re most likely to stumble on.

Comparative and superlative

Wise, wiser, wisest—from an early age we understand how to use these three forms of a modifier. The basic form, wise, describes a single thing or group. The comparative form, wiser, compares two. And the superlative form, wisest, compares three or more.

  • The wise old owl swooped down on the unsuspecting field mouse.
  • The mouse, wiser than the owl, escaped his wily predator by scampering into a nearby hole.
  • But the fox lurking inside the hole was the wisest of all, and he congratulated himself on his easy dinner.

These uses may seem fairly basic. But if we rely on our ear to tell us what sounds right, we may overlook the distinction between comparative and superlative. To many people, for instance, the following sentence seems perfectly fine:

  • Both witnesses provided accounts of the fatal 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)

One footnote on these forms: beware of what is beyond compare. Certain adjectives cannot logically be expressed in comparative and superlative forms because their meaning is absolute, without degrees. Take pregnant, for example. As any drugstore kit will tell you, either you are or you aren’t. I can’t be more pregnant than my friend, and no one, regardless of belly size, can be the most pregnant. Other absolutes include perfect, false, fatal, complete, unanimous and, perhaps the best known yet still worst abused, unique.

After a linking verb

Your office phone rings. It’s your colleague. "I have been stricken with chicken pox," he announces. "Tell Ms. Wimplemeyer I’ll be off sick for the next two weeks." "Oh, no," you say. "I feel so badly for you." Wrong. You may feel sorry, sympathetic, sad 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. Linking verbs, or copulas, as they were once known, convey the condition or state of the subject rather than expressing an action. A linking verb serves as a kind of footbridge between the subject of the sentence and a word or words that refer back to the subject. The linkage is obvious in sentences like these:

  • I was irate.
  • She seems snooty.
  • You feel happy.

Notice that in all three cases, the word completing the verb is an adjective, not an adverb. An adverb won’t work, because the word after the linking verb refers back to and describes the subject, always a noun or pronoun. And no matter how hard it tries, an adverb can’t describe a noun or pronoun. For the same reason you wouldn’t say you feel happily or sadly, you shouldn’t say you feel badly.

The stranded adverb

Adjectives and adverbs are grammatically needy; they have 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 easily become stranded. Consider, for instance, this impressive-sounding statement:

  • I would like to close with some observations on Canada’s position internationally.

Just what is internationally modifying? As an adverb, the only part of the sentence it can grammatically describe is the verb phrase, would like to close, but that makes for an incoherent match. What’s really being described is position, a noun. That means the author needs an adjective:

  • I would like to close with some observations on Canada’s international position.

There are adverbs that naturally form looser ties, that modify an entire clause or sentence instead of one word. These sentence adverbs, as they’re usually known, may provide transitions between ideas. Here are two examples:

  • Unfortunately, Ruth’s husband plays his drums long into the night.
  • Ruth consequently takes 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 tone that can accompany an overdose of description. Should your report describe a new 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’s 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 precision and balance.

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