Guest Writer Frank Araujo gives his linguistic take on the adverb.
© 2013 All Rights Reserved. Frank P. Araujo.

Why do we dislike adverbs so much?  I know, I’ve heard all the arguments about how they slow down the action, the beauty of the language is in its raw simplicity, we should use action verbs instead of generic, and so on. However, one could argue these observations are merely matters of style and as such, these august pronouncements are just opinions. However, I think there’s a deeper reason for this that goes beyond mere stylistic choices.

The simple linguistic question that creeps up every time is how do words function syntactically?  If we’ve been able to glean anything out of the convoluted rules of optimality theory, it’s that generic is basic and marked is specific.  Marked structures are tighter, more emotion-packed and carry a finer degree of information.  Hence, in the sentence, ‘I see a dog,’ little more than the basic information is provided for the listener, so when we say, ‘I see the dog,’ the object is marked and the listener locates this mutt that has already been encountered in the discourse. For languages like English, Spanish, German and French, this is an important contrast. Some languages like the Slavic, Chinese and Japanese don’t have this distinction.

X-bar theorists note that the components of a phrase are a specifier that commands (dominates) a shell (the X-bar) which contains a head which in turn commands a compliment. Hence, Chomsky’s original S → NP, VP, then NP → (det) N, then VP → V, NP

The S is the XP which is split into a specifier (the NP) which dominates a shell, the X-bar, which in turn contains the VP, which in turn splits into the head (i.e., the verb) and its complement.

The interesting gimmick is that when we embellish the NP, with a AdjP, the adj becomes a specifier dominating the specifier, the noun.  This is the recursive feature of language and applies to prepositions as well.  However, when adverbs are inserted as specifiers to either Adj or V or other Adv, the effect of a specifier specifying another specifier has a “looping effect” that softens the impact of the phrase.  In other words, there are linguistic grounds for limiting adverb use because they do add curls to the flow of the discourse in much the same way that generic verbs add to the ambiguity which impedes the semantic load.  A lot of neophyte writers, just discovering the power of language, use a lot of generic verbs buffered by adverbs.

 Minimalism is one of the guiding lights of structuralism.  The closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat. The nexus of linguistics and rhetoric is semantics, but also aesthetics. The song of the bard was expected to be pleasant on the ear as well as exciting to the heart. 

Frank P. Araujo is a linguist, anthropologist and writer. His books range from children’s books—The Perfect Orange, The Magic Brocade, and Nekane, the Lamiña & the Bear—to the thrillers, The Q Quest and The Secrets of Don Pedro Miguel.

© 2013 All Rights Reserved. Frank P. Araujo.