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Power of the “Word”

The Ad-Men: Adjectives and Adverbs

We’ve seen so far how transition words indicate the relationship between ideas and how those transition words can be used to predict the general flow of sentences. The words also matter within sentences themselves. In this section, we’ll look at how single adjectives or adverbs can produce meaning within a sentence.

Let’s start with a simple sentence.

Michael found the papers.

This sentence is all content. There’s a subject (Michael), a verb (found), and an object (the papers). Believe it or not, we’ve already got a little more information than this. We know from the word found that Michael came across the papers that he had not previously had, and we know from the word the that these are some particular papers that have been discussed earlier in the text.

But let’s see what happens if we add a single word to this sentence.

Suddenly, Michael found the papers.

Notice how much new information this word adds to the sentence. The sentence has moved beyond the content of its words to implications, things that are suggested by the types of words used. On the content level, we know that Michael’s discovery of the papers was sudden, but there are a few other implications here as well: We know that Michael had been looking for the papers already, that he was surprised to find them where he did, and that his attitude will change. All that from a single word!

Let’s try another.

Michael finally found the papers.

Again, the action remains the same in this sentence: The content has not changed. The implication, however, has changed slightly with the adverb finally. With this word, we’ve got a new sense that Michael has been exasperated looking for the papers and has found them at last. All in that little word finally!

We’ve looked at adverbs. Now let’s try adjectives.

Michael found the incriminating papers.

This one is a pretty straightforward use of an adjective—a word that describes a noun. In this case, the word incriminating describes the noun, papers. While we can’t know for sure what Michael’s position is (is he a detective? another criminal? an interested party?), we know which papers Michael found and why it was significant that those papers were found. They contain something that is incriminating to someone else, and now Michael has them.

Usually, adjectives are pretty straightforward, but let’s try one that’s a bit more complex.

Michael found the freakin’ papers.

Kind of a silly sentence, but what is it that makes it so silly? All the other sentences we’ve seen so far have contained descriptive words that seem to come from a single source. This one, however, seems to break with that single source with the word freakin’. Is this the narrator’s word? It literally is, but why would the impersonal narrator have any interest in referring to the papers this way? It’s more likely, in fact, that the word freakin’ is Michael’s and that his speech or thought is being represented in this sentence even though he’s not directly quoted.

This is a literary device known as free indirect discourse. We’ll go into more detail about free indirect discourse at the end of the chapter. What we should note here, though, is that this single adjective has clarified a few things about the text that includes this sentence. It shows us that the narrator is writing in a particular way that includes the words and thoughts of the characters without quoting from them. It also shows us that Michael thinks or speaks in a certain way.

Finally, adjectives and adverbs can show up as phrases, especially in older, more elegant writing—the kinds of poems and novels you might have to read for school.

In an author like Henry James, you’re likely to see phrases like this.

Michael found himself of the papers.

Believe it or not, the literal meaning this sentence is the same as that of our original sentence: Michael found the papers. In this case, of the papers is both a prepositional and adjectival phrase, as in She is a woman of many talents, which could be translated as, She has many talents.

Why might an author phrase a sentence like this? No one has ever spoken this way, so what use could it be to phrase a sentence in such a strange way?

Well, let’s look in the middle of the sentence. In the original, the object of the verb found is the papers. In this case, the object has changed to himself. What could this mean? A close reading of these lines might tell us that Michael has found out something about himself in finding the papers, that the papers have given him some new piece of his own identity that he might not have had before.

Sentence structure is a pretty cool thing! As we’ve seen, words are very potent, and a single word can communicate a good deal more than it seems. In fact, we use these little verbal cues all the time. The trick to becoming a good reader is knowing when you see them and knowing which inferences are supported in the text and which ones are not.

Now, in the following exercises, let’s see what we can confidently infer from the statements listed.

16. Ben thought the test was surprisingly difficult.

a)    Ben forgot that he had a test that day.

b)    The test was exactly as hard as Ben expected.

c)    Ben expected the test to be easier.

d)    The whole class thought the test was difficult.

17. Vivian was finally reading Ulysses now that she had a break.

a)    Ulysses is the last book Vivian will ever read.

b)    Vivian is going to take a break from reading Ulysses.

c)    Vivian was just introduced to Ulysses on her break.

d)    Vivian has been intending to read Ulysses for some time.

18. “Ah, how nice to meet you, the celebrated violinist!”

a)    The violinist is having a party for himself.

b)    The speaker has heard of the violinist from other people or sources.

c)    The speaker and the violinist have met before.

d)    The violinist is disdainful toward the speaker.

19. “No, I’d rather have the salad without feta cheese.”

a)    The speaker was initially offered a salad with feta cheese.

b)    The speaker doesn’t like any items that have feta cheese on them.

c)    The speaker would prefer an item other than salad.

d)    The speaker has been eating too much salad lately.

20. The largest film industry in the world is actually not that of the United States.

a)    The speaker is shocked to learn that India and Hong Kong have larger film industries.

b)    The speaker is aware of the belief that the U.S. film industry is the largest in the world.

c)    The speaker is condescending to the listener, who doesn’t know much about film.

d)    The speaker is covering up the fact that he doesn’t know which country has the largest film industry.