Adverbs are often essential, but using them properly can feel like more than you bargained for.
By Joshua Yearsley (@joshuayearsley)
Oh, adverbs. You’re so useful, but so dangerous.
When used correctly, adverbs provide key pieces of information. They can be the difference between the reader being totally lost and being along for the ride. However, one very common error in academic writing is improper placement of adverbs and adverbial phrases. Take this sentence:
We study the changes of various functional groups using quantitative methods.
The first big issue with this sentence is how we placed our adverbial phrase “using quantitive methods”. Notice how far away it is from the verb it modifies, “study”. The reader has to get alllll the way to the end of the sentence before finding out the type of study.
Let’s rearrange things a little bit:
We study using quantitative methods the changes of various functional groups.
This version is a little better—and yet, a little worse. Now that we’ve glued the adverbial phrase right to its verb, we have also separated our verb and object, “the changes”. We could always switch things up and make our adverbial phrase into an introductory phrase—which could be best in some situations—but there’s a better option: adverbify! (No, that’s not a word.)
We quantitatively study the changes of various functional groups.
Boom! Two fewer words, no separation between verb and object, and only one stinkin’ word between our subject and verb. As long as a suitable adverb exists and you need one to fully explain yourself, there’s almost never a good reason to use a cumbersome adverbial phrase over an adverb.
The Fourth Form of Matter
Let’s think about placement with a slightly harder example:
The atomic ratio of O/C decreased from 0.32 to 0.19, while the ratio of H/C increased from 0.02 to 0.17 after the plasma treatment.
In this case, our adverbial phrase “after the plasma treatment” cannot be replaced by a suitable adverb. However, placement is still an issue. Its placement suggests that the ratio of H/C changed after the plasma treatment, but what about the ratio of O/C? Of course, by context most readers would assume that it changed at the same time as the H/C change, but we can do so much better.
If we attempt to place the adverbial phrase after the first section, we still encounter the same problem, except now it’s lack of information for the H/C ratio:
The atomic ratio of O/C decreased from 0.32 to 0.19 after the plasma treatment, while the ratio of H/C increased from 0.02 to 0.17.
We can place the adverb “also” in the second section to indicate that it changed at the same time, but this is just kludgy. I don’t like it:
The atomic ratio of O/C decreased from 0.32 to 0.19 after the plasma treatment, while the ratio of H/C also increased from 0.02 to 0.17.
The simplest way to fix this issue is to place the adverbial phrase as an introductory phrase, so that it encompasses both changes:
After the plasma treatment, the atomic ratio of O/C decreased from 0.32 to 0.19, while the ratio of H/C increased from 0.02 to 0.17.
To clarify the link between the two effects even more, we could always rip out the comma between the two clauses:
After the plasma treatment, the atomic ratio of O/C decreased from 0.32 to 0.19 while the ratio of H/C increased from 0.02 to 0.17.
Because “while” is used to describe timing (O/C decreased at the same time as H/C increased) as well as to contrast the decrease with the increase, removing that comma shouldn’t cause any confusion.
A Most Tedious Proposition
Now that we’re starting to feel confident, here’s the hardest example to mix things up a lil’ bit. It looks simple and innocent, but like a rose it has its thorns:
We successively washed the fibers in acetone and distilled water.
Even though we followed the same general rule as before, the adverb placement in this sentence could cause all kinds of problems. Can you see why?
Imagine our scientist in the lab, fibers in hand. One by one, they dip the fibers into a mixture of acetone and distilled water. (Aside: Yes, I’m using “they” as a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. Deal with it.) But is that really what they’re doing? Not likely. Placing “successively” there seriously changes the meaning of the sentence. Here are a few other examples and their respective meanings:
Successively, we washed the fibers in acetone and distilled water.
Same meaning as before.
We washed the fibers successively in acetone and distilled water.
Same meaning as before, although it more greatly suggests that “successively” applies to the fibers and not the acetone and water because it is adjacent to “fibers”.
We washed the fibers in acetone and distilled water successively.
“Now the adverb is so far away from the verb!” you scream. Although this was a bad idea in the previous example, it’s the best placement in this one. By placing “successively” adjacent and after the prepositional phrase, we make it very clear that it only applies to the acetone and the distilled water. This placement clarifies that we are washing the fibers together, first in acetone alone and then in distilled water.
Another way of clarifying this sentence would be to split out the explanation:
We washed the fibers first in acetone and then in distilled water.
Although this construction splits the prepositional phrase into two and adds a couple words, it is arguably even clearer than using “successively”. Sometimes—when adverb placement lead to so many different interpretations—it’s best to just rip it out in favor of more connective tissue.
Long story short, the way you use adverbs or adverbial phrases is fraught with pitfalls, but never fear! Always be aware of how they can change the meaning of your sentences, and you’ll be fine. To sum everything up, here’s some best practices for you:
- If you don’t need an adverb/adverbial phrase, don’t use one.
- If an adverb fully describes an adverbial phase, use it.
- Place your adverb as close as possible to the verb unless it makes your sentence read differently than your intended meaning.
- If your adverbial phrase applies to the entire sentence, consider making it an introductory phrase.
Happy adverbing! (Also not a word.)
need to replace “along” with “alone”.
Thanks for the catch!
To start with, I would like to thank you for freely handing out these neat and fun to read chunks of grammatical advice. For me, being a non-native speaker, they function as a scaffolding of clarity; an exterior support for my writing, helping it stand upright.
That said, I think you might want to add “of” between “placement” and “adverbs” in the first paragraph above.
Hi, Geert! Glad you liked the article, and thanks for the catch.