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The proper use of adverbs can be a tricky business.

The use of adverbs

Thankfully, most of us negotiate post-educational life very well without having to do much (or any) conscious grammatical analysis. My hunch is that if you put twenty people into a room and asked them to say what an adverb is, they might look rather uncomfortable or even try to flee. If you applied some metaphorical arm-twisting, I think around 40% might say that an adverb is a word ending in –ly. True, but that’s not the full picture. In fact, adverbs come in many forms, from those with the familiar –ly endings (e.g. quickly, simply, totally) to those which many people don’t realise are adverbs at all (e.g. afresh, well, here, doubtless). A couple more of these hypothetical people might dredge up the fact that adverbs tell you ‘where, how, when, and to what extent’ (yay – those English lessons weren’t all in vain!).

For those of you who want to divert to a quick adverb refresher course, here’s some excellent guidance. If not, please read on…

Hopefully, you spotted the intentional ‘thankfully’

Now, before any old-school grammarians out there starting posting irate comments about my use of ‘thankfully’ at the start of this piece, it was deliberate, folks! Like many areas of English grammar and punctuation, some adverbs arouse intense feelings and varying opinions.

Recent disputed usages include some of the so-called ‘flat’ or ‘bare’ adverbs (those that have the same form as the matching adjective, such as ‘quick’ in come quick!). Many of these flat adverbs are regarded as informal or non-standard, even though they have featured prominently in advertising slogans, from Apple’s ‘Think Different’ and Subway’s ‘Eat Fresh’, and also in the ecologists’ mantra ‘think global, act local’. Susie Dent’s post on OxfordWords offers a moderation of her former fervent objections to this sort of ‘adverbial dwindle’.

To boldly go into adverbial deep space…

Our current campaign is to get NBC to mention Santa Paula on the air, and then hopefully to actually come and do some filming here.

Why do you think the above sentence might raise eyebrows among some grammarians? Well, it contains both a split infinitive, with the adverb ‘actually’ placed between ‘to’ and ‘come’ and a disputed sentence adverb (‘hopefully’). However, while split infinitives continue to exercise some traditionalists, most people now agree that sentences such as ‘you’re going to absolutely love this film’ are perfectly acceptable, especially in speech or less formal writing (though it’s advisable to avoid splitting your infinitives in a very formal text, such as a thesis or a scientific report).

This leaves us with one of the most debated of all adverbial usages: the use of ‘thankfully’ and ‘hopefully’ as sentence adverbs. Sentence adverbs differ from ‘standard’ adverbs in that they comment on the rest of a statement, showing the speaker’s or writer’s opinion or attitude. In the sentences below, the first is an example of ‘happily’ being used as an ‘ordinary’ adverb, to mean ‘in a happy way’, while in the second example, ‘happily’ is a sentence adverb meaning ‘it is lucky or fortunate that’:

He was married quite happily for a period of time.

Happily, you don’t have to snowshoe to see some wildlife.

Although all sentence adverbs were previously frowned on, nowadays you should be able to use ‘happily’, along with most other sentence adverbs (such as ‘sadly’, ‘strangely’, or ‘obviously’), safe in the knowledge that you won’t come in for grammatical criticism.

So why are ‘thankfully’ and ‘hopefully’ singled out for particular opprobrium? The answer lies in the fact that ‘hopefully’ and ‘thankfully’ can’t be reworded along the lines of other sentence adverbs, using the constructions ‘it is hopeful that’ or ‘it is thankful that’:

Hopefully, planning delays will be minimal.

X It is hopeful that planning delays will be minimal.

Thankfully, this is the best movie he’s ever made.

X It is thankful that this is the best movie he’s ever made.

Instead, you have to reword such sentences along the lines of:

It is to be hoped that planning delays will be minimal.

Thank goodness, this is the best movie he’s ever made.

Just to add another complication into the mix, there are some other sentence adverbs that can’t be reworded using the ‘it is …. that’ formula, but objections to those do not seem to arise. For example, ‘frankly’ here:

Frankly, for all his charms, he’s a terrible businessman.

has to be reworded along these lines:

To be frank, for all his charms, he’s a terrible businessman.

but no-one seems to object. As with split infinitives, it’s best not to try to apply too much logic, but to go with the grammatical flow and avoid using ‘hopefully’ and ‘thankfully’ in formal writing.

A word to the wise…

While you’re on the alert, here’s another sentence-adverb usage that may cause frothing at the mouth among the sticklers.  The suffix –wise has proved very productive recently, with all sorts of nouns being attached to it to form new adverbs with the meaning ‘with respect to; concerning’. Here are a few inventive coinages:

I’m also not sure how this building could conceivably work, office-space-wise.

Older people are retiring and moving away to areas where they can get more for their money property-wise.

Chocolate-egg-wise, my Easter egg count is down on last year.

Après-ski-wise there are plenty of restaurants and bars, although if you’re skiing hard all day you’ll find yourself yearning for your bed long before midnight.

The combinations above may be creative and/or amusing, but if you’re writing formally, please avoid! As the Pocket Fowler’s Guide to English Usage sensibly remarks,

‘Use of these should be confined to occasions when a jocular or other special effect is called for.’

Finally, if you think there’s been ‘nuff said’ on the subject, you may agree with this sentiment attributed to Mark Twain:

I am dead to adverbs, they cannot excite me.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.