Questions on Adverbs


Question: But speaking of dangling: I have endeavored to hold fast to the correct usage of hopefully since it was explained to me when I was a freshman at Berkeley in fall 1977. This, in spite of the fact that one hears people who are apparently very well educated use it incorrectly every day. My dear husband, however, maintains that the word is undergoing a legitimate usage shift. He doesnít mean simply that however people use a word ends up being accepted usage, but that a number of adverbs have come to be used to modify clauses instead of verbs. His examples were pretty convincing, although I canít remember them now. (We had this conversation a few months ago.) Maybe something like "Ideally, everyone will be ready when we arrive." If thatís not a good example, I will have to pick his brain again.

Iím wondering what you in your most refined knowledge of such things can add to the discussion.

This is not to argue that "Hopefully, weíll have time for coffee" doesnít hurt the ear. But when my dear husband and I disagree, I must investigate.

Answer: Hereís what Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of English Usage has to say in conclusion to three full columns of discussion:

To sum up: hopefully had been in sporadic American use as a sentence modifier for some thirty years before it suddenly caught fire in the early 1960s. What is newly popular will often be disparaged, and criticism followed rapidly, starting in 1962 and reaching a high point around 1975. There has been a considerable abatement in the fuss since and many commentators now accept the usage, but it seems safe to predict that there will be some who continue to revile it well into the next century. You can use it if you need it, or avoid it if you do not like it. There never was anything really wrong with it; it was censured, as Bolinger 1980 notes, because it was new, and it is not very new any more.

I quote this because the dates are revealing. You say you were a freshman at Berkeley in fall 1977. Itís pretty remarkable to have an English instructor who is only a couple of years behind the curve.

But this is not to say that I support your husbandís position. We do use sentence modifiers (also called "adverbial disjuncts") in English, of course, but that doesnít mean that hopefully gets to be one.

On this one, I stand regretfully behind E.B. White: "I regard the word Ďhopefullyí as beyond recall. Iím afraid itís here to stay, like pollution and sex and death and taxes"óE.B. White, letter, 16 Feb. 1970. And please note that I do not regret standing behind E.B. White. It is having to adopt his position that fills me with regret.

An interesting part of a long marriage is that you will get to hear your husband change his tune. His stomach, too, will turn, when he hears his sonís sixth-grade English teacher misuse hopefully eight times in fifteen minutes during the October 2007 school open house.


Question: Weíre trying to clarify the (probably simple) rule about modifying a verb in the following case:

The call is automatically selected.

-or-

The call is selected automatically.

In this case, the passive voice is intentional and "is selected" is the verb of choice. We want to know which is correct and why.

Answer: Either version will work. The operative rule for a modifier is that it must stand next to the concept it modifies, but selected has two sides.

That covers the operative rule. A very conservative rule would give a slight advantage to "The call is selected automatically" because it keeps the verb phrase ("is selected") intact. The reasoning against splitting verb phrases wit h adverbs is the same reasoning against splitting infinitives, namely that such concepts were handled in a single lexical unit in Latin and so ought not to be split in English. Such rules were first posited in the nineteenth century, but were generally ig nored until early in the twentieth, when the rule against splitting infinitives caught on and the rule against splitting verb phrases didnít.

All of this, of course, doesnít help much. You still have to decide which version to choose. The Grammar Hotline recommends that you choose on the basis of intended emphasis. The end of the sentence is the position of syntactic emphasis. If you want to emphasize selection, choose the first version. If you want to emphasize the automatic nature of the process, choose the second version.


Question (From a publishing company): Is it traditionally and technically correct, when someone ask, "How are you?" to reply "I am good," or is the correct response "I am well"?

I was told by a linguistics professor in college that feeling good refers to the quality of oneís health or mental state and feeling well refers to the quality of oneís sense of touch. Is this true? If so, why? If not, why not?

Answer: The traditional and technically correct response to "How are you?" is "I am fine, and how are you?" The latter question is posed to the retreating back of the original questioner, who never sticks around for the answe r.

In the context of the question "How are you?", the choice between good and well depends on whether the inquiry is about your health or your general mental state. James Brown feels goodóand heís not just talking about his health. A hypochondriac who wins a lottery might feel good, but he never feels well.

I imagine that your linguistics teacher was talking about the use of good and well outside the context of discussions of health. In such contexts, feel takes an adjective (good) when it is an intransitive verb, and an adverb (well) when it is an action verb. Thus:

I feel good about winning the lottery.

-but-

To find my loose change, I felt well under the car seat.


Question: Which is correct:

a surprising new way

-or-

a surprisingly new way

Answer: It depends. What do you find surprising?

Do you find it surprising that the way is new? If so, it would be correct to say "a surprisingly new way." This is because surprisingly modifies the adjective new, and is therefore an adverb.

Do you find it surprising that there is another way? If so, it would be correct to say "a surprising new way." This is because surprising modifies the noun way, and is therefore an adjective.

This was a surprising new question to the Grammar Hotline.


Question: Does this phrase contain a "split infinitive": "to accurately predict the future"? "To predict the future accurately" seems to change the meaning of the sentence. I like the first one since Iím going for a n accurate prediction more than an accurate future.

Answer: The first phrase is indeed a split infinitive, and of course there are proscriptions against split infinitives. In this case, however, I think you should follow your instinct to keep the modifier next to the verb and preserve the emphasi s of the original sentence. The other alternative is "to predict accurately the future," which is bad rhythmically. Use your editorial discretion, and break the infinitive rule.


Question: There is a proper name (which I believe originated in the expostulation of Latin grammar) which refers to the initial clause exemplified in the following sentence (the defining characteristic of the clause being its ultimate irrelevanc e to the rest of the sentence, ideologically): "The water running chaotically about the raft, Joseph sipped his coffee calmly." What is it?

Answer: I suspect that youíre unlikely to be satisfied with an answer as mundane as "dangling participle," but this is the best I can do. Unlike the more common variety of dangling participle, which simply attaches itself to the wrong noun, the offending clause is adverbial, but it dangles nonetheless.


Question (From an N.C. State graduate administrator): What word should I use in a graduate-school rejection letter: regrettably or regretfully?

Answer: Technically, either word is correct, since the dictionary notes that either can be used as a sentence modifier (also known as an "adverbial disjunct"), meaning "it is to be regretted."

On the other hand, Iím sure your mathematical mind would appreciate a little more precision. There is a difference in meaning between regretful and regrettable. Regretful means "full of regret"; and regretfully, &q uot;with regret." Regrettable means "able to be regretted"; and regrettably, "deserving regret."

Thus, you should reason this out based on how deeply your regrets are running. A novice director of graduate programs might well be regretful. An old hand is much more likely to absent himself from the fray, simply commenting from afar that the situati on is regrettable.

The Grammar Hotline prefers regrettably because itís so cerebral. Regretfully tiptoes around mawkishess. And we all know how awkward that can be.


Question (From the Internet): Finally, someone can answer my questions! I have always said, "I donít feel well today" (as in "Iím sick"). My friend claims "I donít feel good today" is correct, but that ís not how I learned it.

How about: "I feel bad about what I did" versus "I feel badly about what I did"? Iíve always said the second one (badly) but am thinking that is wrong. We donít say "I feel sadly about what happened. " Thanks a lot!

Answer: Most educated speakers use the phrase feel well when referring to health, but both you and your friend might be right. If the speaker is talking not specifically about health, but rather about a general state of well-being, fee l good is the conventional choice. Thus, "I feel good about my performance on the exam." You might think about James Brown: He feels goodóbut heís not narrowing that feeling to the state of his health.

On the other hand, youíre not going to feel good about your second example: "I feel bad about what I did" versus "I feel badly about what I did."

Letís look at the conclusion to the "feel bad; feel badly" entry in Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of American Usage:

The controversy over feel bad and feel badly has been going on for more than a century, and since its beginnings lie in two opposing prescriptive standardsóthat of the 1869 handbook prescribing feel badly and that of the 20th-centu ry schoolbooks prescribing feel badóit is unlikely to die out very soon. People will go on about as they do nowósome differentiating bad and badly, some not, some avoiding badly, some not. You can see that the question is not a s simple as it is often claimed to be, and, with those considerations in mind, make your own choice. Whatever it is, you will have some worthy comrades and some worthy opponents.

In this free-for-all environment, the Grammar Hotline weakly endorses "feel bad about what I did," on analogy with the "feel good" analysis above. No matter what you decide, youíll be glad to know that your decision is "worthy."


Question: In the sentence, "I feel bad," what part of speech is bad?

Answer: I donít know. What kind of verb is feel? If itís a copula (linking verb) referring to emotions, bad is an adjective. If itís an active verb referring to the sense of touch, bad is an adverb, and should have been b adly.

There are a couple of questions and answers about the choice between feel bad and feel badly on the Grammar Hotline Archives. These questions are archived under "Questions on Adverbs." I suppose I could have filed them under &qu ot;Questions on Adjectives," but I donít feel bad about my choice. Maybe I should put them both places, but it seems like cheating.

Anyway, the best coverage of this issue is the Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of English Usage under "bad, badly" and "feel bad, feel badly."


Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): When is it appropriate to use good or well? I seem to have a problem distinguishing the times to use one or the other.

Answer: The general rule is that good is an adjective and well is an adverb. This means that good modifies nouns, and well modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

The general rule, however, has dozens of exceptions, and many of these are found in very common English constructions. For example, well can be used as an adjective meaning suitable, proper, or healthy. Thus, "He used to be si ck, but now he is well." Furthermore, good is sometimes used as an adverb, as in the admittedly casual "He told her off but good."

Some grammarians claim that such exceptions are largely colloquial. If this is the case, they have been colloquial for hundreds of years. Surely by now they have some claim to be labeled as common usage.


Question: (From a student in my editing class): Which is correct?

Iíll do good on your final exam.

-or-

Iíll do well on your final exam.

Answer: No one who asks this question is likely to do well on my final exam.


Question: I have a question about nor. I canít find this in any of my many style guides.

I am okay with either/or and neither/nor. But Iím stuck on not. Which is correct?

He did not select A nor B.

-or-

He did not select A or B.

My ear wants not/or. Whatís your legal ruling?

Answer: You canít find this in a style guide because the construction is fundamentally flawed. The not, as you have placed it, is in a sentence position to modify the verb select. Most adverbs do modify verbs, and they have a nasty habit of gravitating toward that slot in the sentence. In this case, however, you need to blast the negation out of its comfortable spot next to the verb and move it close to the sentence element it actually modifies.

In short, your ear wants: "He selected neither A nor B."

The error in the original sentence is in the class of a misplaced modifier. Correcting such errors does not always involve eliminating the not entirely; sometimes a simple transposal suffices. For example:

All children do not like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

-edits to-

Not all children like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.


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