March 13, 2006

Love, adverbially

Daniel Handler, better known to kids everywhere as Lemony Snicket, apparently doesn't agree with adverb-haters Elmore Leonard and Stephen King ("The road to hell is paved with adverbs," King once wrote). Mark Mr. Handler down as an authorial adverbophile. In fact, he's gone so far as to write a work of (adult) fiction called, simply, Adverbs: A Novel.

Naming a novel after a part of speech is just asking for trouble, since it inevitably will lead to metalinguistic confusion among reviewers who should know better. Here's a muddled passage from the Booklist review posted on Amazon (hat tip to yendi, aka Adam Lipkin, and his fellow Livejournalers):

The 16 intersecting stories (each headed by an adverb modifying the noun love) display a cadre of couplings: gay, straight, platonic, perverse.

On first read, the reviewer seems to imply that the intersecting stories are titled with adjectives modifying the noun "love": "gay," "straight," "platonic," "perverse." This would be bad news for Handler, since it would mean he should have called his work Adjectives: A Novel. But that's just a use-mention ambiguity, as those adjectives are simply describing the "cadre of couplings" in the book. The Booklist reviewer goes on to give some of the actual story headings, and they are indeed adverbs: "Obviously," "Symbolically," "Soundly," and "Frigidly." Publishers Weekly also mentions "Briefly" and "Truly," and a review of 4 Adverbs (a stage play derived from the book) adds four more: "Arguably," "Particularly," "Naturally," and "Wrongly."

So how could the reviewer think that these adverbs are "modifying the noun 'love'"? As we all learned in grammar classes, adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs, while adjectives modify nouns. But that's not the whole story. First of all, an adverb can modify a phrase, a clause, or even a whole sentence. And secondly, we often encounter adverbs used in an elliptical fashion as in Handler's headings, where it's unclear what exactly is being modified. Consider the Tennessee Williams play (and Joseph Mankiewicz movie) Suddenly, Last Summer. The title alludes to something happening "suddenly, last summer," but the suddenly-occurring event is left slyly unstated. (The tagline for the movie spoiled the allusivity: "Suddenly, last summer, Cathy knew she was being used for something evil!")

Then there was the triple-adverb movie title from 1991, Truly, Madly, Deeply (which has also served as the title to a hit song by the Australian pop duo Savage Garden). This turns out to refer to a nauseating game played by two lovebirds in the movie, who try to top each other by adding adverbs to "I love you" ("I really love you," "I really, truly love you," "I really, truly, madly love you," "I really, truly, madly, deeply love you," etc.). Or consider another romantic comedy title particularly relevant to the confusion over Handler's adverbs: Love Actually. As with Truly, Madly, Deeply, this is an allusive reference to dialogue within the movie — Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister gives a speech with the line, "If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around." (According to IMDb, the working title for the film was Love Actually Is All Around, but it got shortened to Love Actually on final release.)

This is not to let the Booklist reviewer off the hook. Even in the case of Love Actually, it's not quite accurate to say that the adverb "actually" modifies "love"; rather, it's modifying an entire clause whose predicate remains in absentia (" all around"). Yet it's important to note that we have no problem digesting the movie title without knowing the fuller version. We're particularly adept at dealing with disembodied adverbs when they are of the type that can modify an entire sentence or independent clause. So-called "sentence adverbs" (or "disjunctive adverbs") — such as happily, fortunately, amazingly, frankly, strictly, thankfully, regretfully, surprisingly, clearly, basically, notably, and actually — can get tacked on to the beginning or end of a clause or sentence (sometimes occurring in a longer adverbial phrase, as in "amazingly enough" or "not surprisingly"). A sentence adverb can also occur medially, bracketed by an intonation pattern in speech that is usually represented by commas in writing (though not always, as demonstrated by "Love actually is all around"). One elliptical use for sentence adverbs is in answering yes/no questions (or more generally, expressing agreement or disagreement with an interlocutor's assertion): think of adverbs like absolutely, positively, definitely, obviously, or naturally when used as an emphatic response. Lou Costello once got stuck in a notorious use-mention dilemma involving Bud Abbott's adverbial response to "Who's on first?": "Naturally!"

So, unsurprisingly, Handler's story headings are mostly words that could serve as sentence adverbs, like "Obviously," "Briefly," "Arguably," "Particularly," "Naturally," and "Truly." (If Handler had really wanted to court controversy, he could have included the sentence adverb that rubs so many people the wrong way: hopefully.) A few of the titular adverbs serve some other ellipitical purpose, such as "Symbolically," "Soundly," and "Frigidly." Without having read the book, I can only guess that these adverbs are intended to describe how the characters love. This may indeed be the source of the Booklist confusion. Perhaps the writer initially said that the adverbs "modify 'love'" with the idea that they modify the verb "love." But then an officious editor inserted the word "noun" before "love." It wouldn't be the first time that an editor got flummoxed trying to label parts of speech.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 13, 2006 05:41 PM