The most famous example of using an adverb when you want an adjective is when people start a sentence with “hopefully.” English teachers in particular like to complain about it. Here’s an example sentence:
Hopefully, my party will win the election.
Hopefully means “in a hopeful manner.” What people mean when they say a sentence like this is, “I hope my party wins the election.” I think getting people to get this construction right is a losing battle. Everybody knows what you mean, and it’s even correct to say it this way in German. But to those of you who pay attention to your use of language, and who want what you say or write to be smooth and clear, and not the object of curmudgeonly snickers, I recommend you say what you actually mean. “I hope…”
“Hopefully” isn’t the only culprit. People make this mistake a lot, and it often goes unnoticed. Here’s a sentence from an interesting article in Wired:
What do HIV, Ebola and SARS have in common? For one, they have terrifying fatality rates. But more importantly, they are all zoonotic diseases, meaning they jumped from animals to humans.
No! It’s more important, not more importantly.
Are you a thankful person? How about this article title:
Thankfully, I don’t keep Kosher anymore.
I hope (not hopefully) you don’t mind that I used something sectarian, but I think you can tell that what the writer means is “I am thankful that I don’t etc.”
Enough examples of doing it wrong. Here’s an example of doing it right: Voice of America, this time (last paragraph in the article):
It is reported that Turkey has extradited to Tunisia a suspect in the Benghazi attack, but State Department officials would not comment on whether U.S. authorities are trying to question that individual.
Notice how easy it would be to start the sentence with “Reportedly, Turkey has …” I’m not all that gung-ho about the reporter using the passive, but at least it’s grammatical.
I end with a test. Is “potentially” used correctly in this sentence, or not? (The article is here.)
In contrast, a single hacker who figures out how to impersonate other voters could potentially cast thousands or even millions of fraudulent votes.
I hope you will be more careful about your adverbs now.
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Sometimes we change the pronunciation of a word depending on how we use the word. Everybody knows about changing the accent on some words to distinguish between their noun and verb usages. Address, accent on the second syllable, is a verb (the speaker will address the crowd). Address, accent on the first syllable is a noun (my address is the name for where I live).
Never mind that there’s also a slight variation in how you pronounce the “a” at the beginning of the word. On second thought, what about that slight difference? In address, the noun, the a is pronounced like the a in AAK! (The phonetic character is æ, and we call it a short a.) But in the verb, the a is pronounced with a sound called the schwa, rather like uh, and it happens to be the most common vowel sound in English, and we don’t even have a letter for it. In fact, ASCII doesn’t have it in its character set. The phonetic symbol looks like an upside down lowercase e.
Okay, that was a long digression. Sorry. Back to “use” and “have.”
Use: Mostly we think of “use” as a verb, and we pronounce it “yuze.” When we (ahem) use the word as a noun, such as when we say that we put something to good use, we pronounce it “use.” The “s” is unvoiced. But what about when you refer to a past customary activity? That’s a verb, and it’s always in the past tense. For example, we say
We used to do it that way.
When you refer to a past customary behavior, do not betray illiteracy by spelling it “We use to do it that way.”
Have: We use “have” all the time as a helping verb, and when we want to indicate possession. We pronounce it “hav,” or to be phonetic, “hæv.”
But when we refer to an obligation, we pronounce it “haf;” the second consonant (the “v”) is unvoiced. (I have to explain the correct spelling or illiterate people will get it wrong.)
I have to help you with your English.
I did, however, find something that is called a HAF: a high air flow computer case.
English, having its roots in several tongues, picked up a lot of synonyms. So we have a cow in the stall, but beef on the table. Pairs of synonyms usually have significant differences in their meanings, and it pays to learn these subtleties.
I recently ran into a comic by the very astute Darrin Bell that gives a nice description of the difference between “listen” and “hear.”
I have collected several language-related comics lately, so expect more in the near future.
At first I was inclined to name this post “Being precise about time,” but that was misleading. I don’t plan to talk about nano- and attoseconds. I want to talk about using the correct words when you write about time.
Perhaps, at work, you reply to a request with something like
I’ll get back to you on that real fast.
Better for you to say that you’ll get back to the person real soon. (Yes, purists, it should be really soon, not real soon).
Soon is the measure of how long it takes to reach a goal, the time between now and when the event you’re thinking about happens. Presumably not far into the future.
Fast refers to the speed at which you do something. If you get back to someone fast, you are, perhaps, in danger of colliding with someone in the hallway. You can say that a fast typist can finish typing a document sooner than a slow typist can if they start at the same time.
I once knew a mechanic who worked on cars used in drag racing (Craig Stiebeling, are you out there?). I learned from him that quick and fast have specialized meanings for drag racers:
Quick refers to how long it takes to get from the start to the finish line, and fast is your rate of speed when you cross the finish line.
Then there’s urgency—a measure of how much pressure you’re under to work quickly to finish your task soon.
For several summers back in my Midwest days I was a field hand for seed corn companies. Several summers my job was to supervise high school kids for the job of detasseling. Detasseling does not require a lot of skill, but the work was hard, requiring a certain amount of character. I posted some details on my personal blog, Mushrooms to Motorcycles. I think you’ll find the post interesting, and nostalgic if you ever detasseled corn. Anyway, at the end of the summer one year I hosted a BBQ at my house for the crew of kids I supervised for Oetting’s Detasseling Company. As a congratulatory gift, I wrote and printed a poem for them.
Yesterday, while cleaning out some old files, I ran into the poem, which I present here for your enjoyment. It fits the tune of the old hymn The Water is Wide, and if you’re a former detasseler, you have permission to print the poem and hang it on your wall.
or It Ain’t so Bad when the Paycheck Comes
(with apologies to Larry Oetting, a man truly outstanding in his field.)
The row is long, the field is wide,
The corn will scratch my tender hide.
The dew is wet, my feet are sore—
Don’t make me walk this corn no more.
The corn is strong and very tall,
And I am weak and very small.
I am so cold and wet clear through,
What did I get myself into?
You spend your life life all day at play,
And sleep in late ‘most every day.
You live a life of ease, ’tis true,
But I can stand and spit on you!
I certainly invite my readers to share their experiences in the cornfields.