Troublesome adverbs

January 31, 2009

Announcer at the start of the American television show, Judge Judy: ‘She claims her son in law purposefully broke the cell phone.’

I admit, dear reader, this sentence made my grouchy heart cringe! That ‘purposefully’ just rubs me up the wrong way and then down the other side. So, am I just being a conservative old fuddy duddy? Well, let’s explore the issues.

For a start, was the phone broken with a goal or purpose in mind (purposefully), or was it broken knowingly, with conscious deliberation (deliberately) as opposed to being broken accidentally? To my mind, the sentence would be more precise if it read: her son in law deliberately broke the cell phone. (Yes, yes, I know that you can say I broke the phone on purpose. Used as an adverb, however, it does create more ambiguity in meaning.)

But there’s more. If you take out she claims, you have an independent clause: her son in law deliberately broke the cell phone. The verb is broke and the subject is her son in law. In general, it is better not to split the subject and verb with an adverb. Instead, the adverb could be placed at the very beginning of the clause (deliberately, her son in law broke the cell phone) or after the verb (her son in law broke the cell phone deliberately).

If I were to be generous, I would admit that the attribution, she claims, does make the first option more than a little clumsy (She claims deliberately her son in law broke the cell phone). I might also admit that if the speaker wants to emphasise that the breaking of the cell phone was no accident, then deliberately does need to come close to the front. Consequently, if I were generous, I might agree that the original construction does make sense and was probably a good solution to a tricky linguistic problem. If I were to be generous…

Anyway, dear readers, I let you be the judge.

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