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Saturday, August 9, 2008

SAVING THE ADVERB



For over a year I wrote a monthly column I called "Language Matters," which ran in several NC weekly newspapers. This is one of the last ones I wrote. These pieces can be found on the ncarts.org site. I thought of this essay after reading Vicki Lane's post about the adverb on today's vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com.



SAVING THE ADVERB


I like to look at bumper stickers on campus and sometimes talk back to them. One claimed knowledge is not important, imagination is, with the image of Einstein in the corner. “How could Einstein use imagination if he didn’t have knowledge to play with?” I asked the bumper but got no response

Sometimes I leave a note, if the sticker makes nasty political comments. Or if the vehicle sports a macho “If it flies, it dies.” The men in my family hunted quail, but they never went after cardinals, nuthatches, or, for that matter, crop dusters.

Then, there are stickers urging us to save this lake or that river, so when I approached the car proclaiming Save the Adverb, I was, to put it mildly, puzzled. I didn’t know it was endangered, no more so than any other part of speech, in these days of endless “whatever’s,” and “like, you know’s.” The verb “to be” seems to be gobbling up all other forms of predicate, and “Uh” seems to be replacing most nouns. But the adverb?

I started thinking about adverbs, the pleasure of using a good one, not to mention a long adverbial clause or phrase. What a challenge to pull off, especially beginning a sentence, making the listener wait for what comes next!

What a pleasure, for that matter, to diagram sentences! I can hear readers thinking, “What a geek she must have been!” Yes, I was a grammar geek. I loved learning how a sentence works, the parts of it on the blackboard like a trembling spider web or constellation.

My Junior High English teacher, a bulldog of a woman, made us memorize definitions for the parts of speech and sentences, the cases,as well as verb conjugations. We had regular recitations, along with sentences on the blackboard to which we were called to point out every element of its construction.

I never feared these assignments, though I shuddered when called to solve an algebra problem. The truth is I loved those words, and yes, I really loved adverbs. I loved them rapturously, greedily, longingly. When I was a freshman in a beginning psychology class, the subject turned to language. “What, Miss Stripling,” the professor asked, looking down at his lengthy roll , “ is the most important thing about a word?”

“The way it sounds,” I answered. He looked around the large classroom. A girl raised her hand and said proudly, “The meaning.” "That’s right,” he nodded, with more certainty than I thought necessary.

I sat frowning in the back, sure that I would never take another psychology course. I would not stop loving the sound of adverbs, or adjectives, verbs, and nouns. Saucily, perfunctorily, filigree, stubble, and that word I once put in a poem, desolate, and was told in workshop to ditch it because the field did not need a modifier. I decided the field might not, but the poem did. Desolate remained.

So, yes , let’s save the adverb, along with all the other parts of speech and let them roll off our tongues with the pleasure that words can bring.

4 comments:

Vicki Lane said...

LOVE IT!!! (Great pictures, too.) I also treasure the idea of talking back to bumper stickers -- I may start carrying sticky notes for the purpose. Much more lady-like than keying the offending vehicle.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Oh Vicki, everyday I wish I had post-its as I walk through campus. Why can't I remember to carry them? I did leave a note under the "If it flies it dies," pick-up truck. I tore off the end of an envelope for that one.

James Hogan said...

One of my favorites from my Cullowhee days: "Militant Agnostic: I don't know, and you don't either!"

And lo! my brief teaching career, and lo! at my love of teaching grammar, even though by any account I was a horrible student when it came to grammar and probably not the best of teachers, either. One of the highlights of my short five years in the classroom, though, came when my former students would stop by my classroom--after school, no doubt--to diagram the sentences left on the board from other class' exercises.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

James, what a great story about your students dropping by to diagram sentences left behind on the board. I hope you can get back in the classroom. What a loss that you are not in there now. American public education can't afford to lose anymore good teachers.