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Author Topic: Should verbs always be modified by adverbs ending in “-ly”?  (Read 190 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 28, 2017, 09:07:53 AM »

A persistent misconception about verbs is that they must always be modified by adverbs that end with “–ly.” This, however, is true only in the case of action verbs: “They were associated closely with the slain fugitive.” “The stricken passenger called frantically for help.” “The ship of state listed perilously as the three branches of government squabbled.” In all three cases, the modifiers of the verbs are clearly adverbs—“closely” modifying “associated,” “frantically” modifying “called,” and “perilously” modifying “listed.” Their function is unmistakable because we know that they were once adjectives that became adverbs by the simple expedient of sporting “–ly” on their tails.

However, a huge class of verbs exists that will not take adverbs as modifiers. They are the linking verbs. They do not express action but simply link the subject of the sentence to its complements, which could be a predicate noun, a predicate pronoun, or a predicate adjective. The most common of the linking verbs is, of course, “be” and its various forms: “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” and “been.” See how it works as “am: “I am certain of my beliefs.” As “are”: “We are slaves of our own misconceptions.” And as “were”: “The culprits were they after all.” This time, unlike in the case of the action verbs, the verb is followed by a predicate adjective (“certain”) in the first case, by a predicate noun (“slaves”) in the second, and by a predicate pronoun (“they”) in the third. No adverb is in sight in each of these constructions.

We probably will now recall that apart from “be,” two more groups of linking verbs further complicate the verb-modifying effort for us. One of these groups consists of the linking verbs that relate to the senses: “appear,” “deem,” “feel,” “look,” “smell,” “sound,” and “taste.” The other consists of linking verbs that express the state, condition, or position of the subject: “become,” “grow,” “remain,” “seem,” and “stay.” What normally follow these linking verbs are not adverbs, but adjectives that do not take the action of the verb.

Take a look at how these other types of linking verbs work. From among the first group: “She appears distraught.” “The judge deems it illegal.” “I feel awful.” “This perfume smells ridiculous.” “You sound funny.” “This stew tastes horrible.” From among the second group: “My son became a soldier.” “May they grow tall.” “We remain loyal to the Constitution.” “They seem restless with me.” “We should stay neutral now.” Notice that in all these usages, what follow the linking verbs are not adverbs, but adjectives or predicate nouns.

Some of these linking verbs, of course, can double up as action verbs—and this is where the confusion about modifying them usually begins. See how some of the linking verbs in the first group work as action verbs modified by adverbs: “She appeared briefly at the court hearing.” “She quickly smelled the perfume and left.” “The man sounded the alarm repeatedly.” Now look at how some of the linking verbs in the second group could work as action verbs: “The trees grew quickly in the rich soil.” “We stayed briefly at the mountain lodge.” The other linking verbs in the group, particularly “become,” “remain,” and “seem,” are pureblooded linking verbs that stoically resist modification by adverbs.

Sometimes we will encounter sentence constructions where we cannot be immediately sure whether to use an adjective or an adverb after a verb. We just have to look more closely at the sentence to find out whether its verb is doing a linking or an action job. This is a grammar skill that can be developed through constant practice.

Consider, for instance, the variable function of the verb in these two sentences: “The woman looked frantic.” “The woman looked frantically at the burning house.” Here, we can see and feel the very thin semantic line between the two usages. The first sentence would seem to work (and sound right as well) if it used the adverb “frantically” to modify the verb “looked”—“The woman looked frantically”—but it would be grammatically wrong, of course. On the other hand, changing “frantically” to “frantic” in the second sentence definitely will make it incorrect: “The woman looked frantic at the burning house.”

LEARNING CHECK: So what are the adverbs in those thought balloons?

We must not forget, of course, that adverbs modify not only verbs but adjectives and other adverbs as well. Here are some sentences where adverbs modify adjectives: “She defeated her opponent in an astonishingly exciting game.” “The agonizingly long wait killed off the team’s enthusiasm.” “The applicant showed hardly any experience in word processing.” And here’s a sentence where an adverb modifies another adverb: “The auditors inspected the company’s books rather perfunctorily.” (The adverb “rather—an intensifier—modifies the adverb “perfunctorily.”)

With this review of how to choose the correct modifiers, you should have much more confidence now in using adjectives and adverbs in constructing your prose. (2003)

This essay, 287th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the November 10, 2003 issue of The Manila Times, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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