Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

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 in this week’s edition of the Forum to counteract the widespread canard that adverbs as a whole are bad for our written and spoken English. (September 26, 2011)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

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.

Click here to discuss/comment

Previously Featured Essay:

An exercise in reporting a grammatically flawed statement

Assume that you are a reporter of a major daily newspaper and that you have just covered a media conference of an international foreign-aid organization. During the conference, the organization’s highest-ranking official in the country said these exact words in English: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. Until the cases are low, let us stay ahead of the epidemic.”

Something is terribly wrong with that statement’s English, of course, and you’re sure that the speaker wasn’t misquoted because you had taped the interview. But your deadline is only two hours away, so you must decide right now how to deal with that statement in your story.

What will you do with its bad English?

(A) Quote the exact words of the speaker. It’s true that its English is faulty, but since the statement came from a well-educated medical professional, you feel that every word of it should be respected and retained. They are not your own words, after all, and you’re secure in your belief that people who talk to media should be held responsible for their bad English. If it gets printed verbatim and embarrasses them, that’s just too bad. Your job is to report the news accurately and clearly, not to correct other people’s poor English.

(B) Analyze the grammar and semantics of the statement carefully to see how best to report it. You believe that no respectable paper should give room for bad English, whether attributed or unattributed. You know that when reporters habitually allow bad English to creep into their stories, they can seriously jeopardize not only their reputation but also the integrity of their information sources and of their respective newspapers.

Some newspaper reporters and magazine writers are sometimes tempted to take the line of least resistance by choosing option A, but for any self-respecting journalist, Option B is actually the only prudent course of action. We will therefore assume that most of us have chosen Option B and are now ready to find better ways of expressing the problematic direct quotation presented earlier.

The English of the first sentence, “The best time to prevent bird flu is now,” is arguably good enough so we’ll let it stand as is. That of the second sentence, however, is seriously flawed and confusing: “Until the cases are low, let us stay ahead of the epidemic.” The speaker has wrongly used the conjunction “until” to mean “up to the time that,” in the sense that a particular state is not yet achieved. But she acknowledges that the particular state being referred to (“low”) already subsists or persists, so the correct conjunction to use is “while,” which means “during the time that.” “Until” is an illogical, semantically wrong substitute for “while” in this particular sentence.

Next, the speaker commits another serious gaffe when she inappropriately describes the noun “cases” using the adjective “low,” which is intended to mean “of lesser degree, size, or amount than average or ordinary.” In English grammar, such usage doesn’t make semantic sense. We can’t describe “cases” of a particular noun, such as bird flu, as either “low” or “high”; there can be no “low cases” and “high cases.” It is the incidence of “cases” that can be described as such. To give an idea of their relative numbers, the adjectives “few” and “many” (or “numerous”) should be used instead.

The speaker’s use of the phrase “stay ahead” in her second sentence, although not strictly wrong grammatically, is also questionable semantically. The verb “stay” denotes “pausing,” “ceasing,” and “remaining,” thus giving a strong sense of a stationary state rather than a forward movement, which is obviously what the speaker wanted to convey. Since the verb “keep” more appropriately conveys the active effort needed to maintain the condition of being ahead, “keep ahead” would be a much more suitable phrase.

When we take all these clarifications into account, what emerges as the grammatically and semantically correct way of saying what the speaker actually said is this: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. While its incidence is still low, let us keep ourselves ahead of the epidemic.” Another correct construction is this: “The best time to prevent bird flu is now. While the cases are still few, let us keep ourselves ahead of the epidemic.”

Of course, we must remember that we can’t present these two improved versions as the exact words of the speaker herself. It’s a time-honored convention in journalism that once we make substantive changes in the speaker’s exact words, we can no longer treat them as directly quoted material. They become a paraphrased statement, which does away with the quotation marks that set off verbatim statements from their attribution. (January 4, 2006)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 4, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Click here to discuss/comment

Click to read more essays (requires registration to post)

Copyright © 2010 by Aperture Web Development. All rights reserved.

Page best viewed with:

Mozilla FirefoxGoogle Chrome

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Page last modified: 26 September, 2011, 11:30 a.m.