Style and the use of adverbs (Part 1)

A common rule of writing says that one ought to avoid the use of adverbs, except in very circumscribed cases. Unfortunately, few of those who state the rule also explain it (or its exceptions), so let me suggest some of the reasons writers are discouraged from using adverbs. My focus in this piece is exclusively adverbs with participles. I don’t suppose the list of reasons is exhaustive, especially since I come at it from a philosophical perspective.  Nonetheless, I think my philosophical approach is the right one because the real purpose behind the injunction is logical.

For those unacquainted with the parts of grammar, an adverb is a word that modifies a verb, participle or an adjective.  In the sentence, “The body was totally submerged,” “totally” is the adverb modifying the participle “submerged.”  In the sentence, “He was completely terrified,” “completely” modifies the participle (acting as an adjective) “terrified.”

It’s important to note that participles refer to states of affairs or processes. Present participles (e.g., walking, talking) refer to on-going or incomplete states of affairs while past participles refer to completed states (e.g., walked, talked).

The main reason behind the rule against adverbs with participles is that their use betrays an ignorance of (or simple inattention to) the logic of language. In the two examples sentences cited above, the hypothetical author should have omitted “totally” and “completely,” since the past participles “submerged” and “terrified” each describe a completed or total state of affairs. To be submerged, for example, is to be “in” the water, yes, but it means to be completely under the water.  To be “terrified,” likewise, means to be completely scared.

A good test here is to ask yourself the counterfactual: can anyone be “partially” terrified? Would anyone be less submerged who wasn’t completely so?  No and no. Someone can be partially submerged, sure, if that person is, for example, floating in the water; but that means you should use “floating” instead of submerged, because it expresses a more exact relation between the body and the water in fewer words.

Someone now objects that “completely terrified” is not such a big deal without realizing that what counts as a “big deal” depends on the reader. This same objector would likely balk at a sentence describing someone as “very beat” –- an example that speaks for itself.

The bottom line: adverbs generally don’t add anything to participles that is not already contained within them.

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