Adverbs sometimes behave badly
April 11, 2014
By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision
I have an irrational fear of spiders. Most of them can’t hurt me, but I lash out and kill the poor things every time I see one. I like tarantulas though, despite the fact that they could harm me. Maybe their “fur” disguises them as mammals just enough to fool my subconscious and keep me from panicking.
Some adverbs are like tarantulas. They are wearing a disguise (-ly) that fools people into thinking they are a softer and gentler form of their adjective counterparts. Consider, for example, “bad” (an adjective) and “badly” (an adverb)—or “different” and “differently.” It can be hard to determine which form to use, and choosing the wrong one can come back to bite you.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard several people say things like, “I want you to know I feel badly about what happened.” The modifier comes right on the heels of a verb, so the speaker assumes it should be an adverb. However, in that sentence, the verb is not what the speaker should be modifying.
Adverbs tell how verbs perform an action. If you feel badly, you are doing a bad job of feeling, or your sense of touch is not what it used to be. What is really being described in my example is the “I” in the sentence—the feelings the “I” is experiencing describe that person as sad, angry or guilty. Those feelings are adjectives, and so is “bad,” so it’s the correct modifier.
Another example: “Sleep on it, and in the morning you may feel differently.” I doubt that the “you” in the sentence will use a different technique of feeling, but that’s exactly what this sentence is saying. The sentence should contain the adjective, “different,” because the intended meaning is that the “you” will change his or her outlook or opinion. Maybe he or she will go to bed as a Republican and wake up as a Democrat.
Linking verbs contribute to the confusion. “Feel” is a linking verb. Linking verbs connect the subject (noun) with its complement (a noun, pronoun or adjective that completes the meaning of the verb). Adverbs should not be used after linking verbs.
The most common linking verbs are forms of “to be” and abstract or sensory verbs such as “appear,” “seem,” “believe,” “become,” “look,” “taste” and “feel.” Some verbs are always linking verbs; others can function as either linking or action verbs, depending on the context.
How can you tell if the verb in your sentence is functioning as a linking verb? If it describes a state of being (“is,” “are,” “am,” “was,” “were”) or it can be replaced with one of those “being” verbs and the sentence still makes sense, it is a linking verb and should be followed by an adjective.
Of course, most verbs are action verbs. When you use an action verb, you can modify it with an adverb. For example, your dog might be behaving badly, or he might bark differently when he’s excited versus defensive. Actions can be seen (“run”) or unseen (“enjoy”) and purposeful (“bend”) or passive (“hear”).
If you avoid using adverbs because you aren’t sure when or why you should use them, you’re not alone. But sticking with adjectives is another strategy that tends to backfire. If you say, “My presentation at the conference went bad,” it sounds like your presentation rotted. It might have been rotten, but I doubt that it changed form.
On the other hand, if your presentation “went badly,” it bombed. “Went” might not seem like an action verb in that context, but it is. Reworking the sentence can help you determine that: “I presented badly” is synonymous with “My presentation went badly,” so “went” (like “presented”) is active, and the use of an adverb is correct.
Substituting and revising can help you test for a wide array of grammar errors in your writing. Unfortunately, it can’t help you determine whether a spider is venomous or not.
My advice is, “When in doubt, squish.” © Columbia Daily Tribune 2014
Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, MO, an editor by trade, who writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where this column first appeared. She is a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to firstname.lastname@example.org.