Warning, this post contains explicit grammar that may not be appropriate for people who don’t like grammar. Words like participle and infinitive and adjectival will be used. Parental discretion is advised.
As a culture, we’re rapidly approaching critical mass of “stuff we need to remember.” Kick-off times, meeting times, departure times, closing times. Passwords, PINs, SSNs, and IPs. Some of us have to remember large, complicated matrices and formulas and numbers, others large, complicated designs and abstracts and ideas. We have to remember how our systems work, both technical and physical, where Microsoft decided to hide the “sort ascending button” in this version, who asked who out for beers, and that in order to cook dinner, the oven needs to be hot, and for it to be hot, it needs to be preheated.
There are so many pieces of information to store, catalog, and recall that it’s amazing our brains have time for anything else.
As a result of this constant data-bombardment we inevitably forget things that aren’t important to our daily survival. Things like the specifics of molecular structure or which side of the plate the salad fork goes on or to finally water that poor house plant in the corner of our bedroom. Our brains work like massive databases where the most relevant, frequently accessed, and important information is kept at the ready, while everything else is crammed and stuffed into parts of the brain that aren’t frequently visited. You haven’t completely forgotten the stuff down in the dusty tomes of your archive, but it takes some effort and a big Swiffer Duster to bring it back up to the light of your main study.
That’s where your grammar lives. Unless you’re a ferocious copy editor or the reincarnation of E.B. White, chances are your understanding of grammatical rules has sunk deeper than the Titanic.
That’s OK. I’m here to raise the wreck and help figure all this “grammar” stuff out.
I’ve read a lot of contemporary writing advice and the general consensus seems to be, “don’t use adverbs or adjectives unless you really need to.”
In a literary vacuum this is good advice. Don’t write “He walked aimlessly” when you could write “He sauntered.” A good verb will almost always trump a bad verb with an glued-on adverb trying to pick up the syntactic slack.
But to avoid using adverbs and adjectives at all would lead to peculiar if not nigh unreadable language. You could avoid using single world adverbs and adjectives for a while, but to give no description to any of your nouns or any of your verbs seems masochistic for the reader and sadistic for the writer.
The explanation is simple: don’t rely on single words, use phrases. A phrase is a group of words that can stand for a single part of speech. For example, “He ran up the bank of the river.” The simple sentence is, “He ran.” But that sentence is boring and non-specific and no one wants to read it. Enter the adverbial phrase, “up the bank of the river.” Now we know where he ran. That whole string of words equals a single adverbial phrase (it’s also a prepositional phrase, but we’ll ignore that for now).
Of course, you can overuse phrases just like you can overuse single words and turn your prose into an insipid nightmare of nothing but pointless, unwavering description. But let’s pretend you won’t do that because you know better. Please don’t do that. It hurts our brains.
An important thing to remember about a phrase is that it does not contain a subject and predicate, meaning it isn’t a sentence or a clause. “Under the waves” is a phrase because it clearly doesn’t have a subject or predicate (or verb for that matter), it only functions to describe where, in some other, imaginary sentence.
There are two types of phrases: prepositional phrases (which, to everyone’s alarm, contain prepositions) and verbal phrases (which in turn has three sub-forms: infinitives, past participles, and present participles.) For now, we’ll just focus on how to identify and use the larger concepts of adverbial and adjectival phrases, regardless of their status as prepositions or verbals.
To help you understand how adverbial and adjectival phrases work, I’ve called on my friends: “Adjectival Arwen” and “Adverbial Aragorn.”
They are currently in post production of “Lord of the Ings: Two Gerunds”, slated for a 2027 release.
Adjectival Arwen rides towards Rivendell in a saddle made of soft leather
As a refresher (no one is judging anyone here) an adjective is a word (or series of words) that describes a noun. The word “Adjectival” in Arwen’s name is itself an adjective (I’m so meta). You know these words and use them all the time: drunken, sharp, red, gooey, awkward, etc. They add specificity to the noun, so the reader knows exactly which subject the writer meant. You could say “the man” which could mean any random dude, or you could say, “the man with the giant purple mustache” which pretty much points directly to a specific, crazy guy.
Adjectives give nouns unique identity. Arwen is not just an elf. She is a pretty elf who wields Hadhafang, sword of the Elven queens. Adjectives!
We use adjectival phrases all the time without really thinking about it. Any time you try to describe your subject, you’re using an adjectival phrase. It can be as simple as describing the look of something, “Arwen dyed her flowing hair bright red” (she didn’t just dye her hair, she dyed it a specific color) or as complicated as an appositive, which completely renames the noun, “Arwen, only daughter of Elrond of Rivendell, rode out to meet the battle.”
The key thing to remember her is that adjectival phrases always reference a noun. If something is describing the verb, or explaining how/where/when/why the action happened, it can’t be an adjectival phrase.
Adverbial Aragorn fights the orcs valiantly
Adverbs are the beasts that labor in the fields of our language, doing most of the heavy lifting and manual labor. They are words or phrases that describe verbs. These are often the “-ly” forms of adjectives (drunkenly, hazily) but can come in many other flavors.
An adverbial phrase always describes a verb in the sentence. If “Aragorn swings Narsil with the might of his Dúnedain ancestors,” the adverbial phrase (“with the might of”) describes the way he swings. It emphasizes and explains the action of the verb, giving sentence some spice, and clarifying just how the action took place. That adverbial phrase also contains a secondary adjectival phrase that describes what kind of might he was swinging with. Sweet.
All of this stuff builds on itself. Look at the basic sentence first, “Aragorn swings Narsil” then the adverbial “with the might” then the adjectival “of his Dúnedain ancestors.” It’s like a Russian doll of phrases, all of which eventually gives you a sentence that describes multiple things in specific ways.
So, adjectival phrases modify nouns, adverbial phrases modify verbs. All pretty simple, right? You’ll be able to use these left and right, with purpose, to make your writing all awesome now, right?
If you’re confused, that’s OK. Sentence variation in English is damn near infinite. You can and will have adjectival phrases inside of adverbial phrases that are part of compound predicates with multiple verbs that may or may not be prepositional. They may be part of a direct object or a subject compliment or just a tulle dress that you put on your subject to make it fancier so it will get more attention during its debutante ball. The great part about understanding these rules is that you can intentionally play with them and have fun with your writing, which, with practice, eventually becomes a part of your style and voice.
I know I’ve dumped a lot of ideas on you and presented a lot of unqualified terms. If anyone has any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
I’ll cover more next week. These guy may pay a visit:
For the record, this is The Pirate of Prepositions, The Appositive Adventurer, and The Clause Clown. They mean business.