What did Ayn Rand Know About Adverbs?

The reason I ask this question is the following excerpt from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

Adverbs are concepts of the characteristics of motion (or action); they are formed by specifying a characteristic and omitting the measurements of the motion and of the entities involved – e.g., “rapidly”, which may be applied to “walking” or “swimming” or “speaking”, etc., with the measurement of what is “rapid” left open and depending, in any given case, on the type of motion involved. (ITOE, p. 16f.)

If this is meant as a definition of “adverb”, it is far too narrow. Yes, it applies to the example of “walking (swimming, speaking) rapidly”; but the vast majority of adverbs in the language have nothing to do with the velocity of motion or any other characteristic of motion. Let me give some examples:

“Here” and “there”, “now” and “when” are adverbs; but they have very little to do with motion. Take the simple sentence “I sit here now (in front of my computer).” But “sitting” is not a motion, it is an absence of motion, a state of rest. Well, I sit here typing, and I can type slowly or rapidly, but the “here” and “now” still do not apply to my speed of typing, nor to how well or badly I type, or to any other imaginable characteristic of typing. They apply solely to my location in space and time: when and where do I type?.

In modern English, the words “here” and “there” signify either location (“I sit here”, “I was there yesterday”) or direction (“I came here”, “I will go there tomorrow”. – Incidentally, in Swedish we have different word for location and direction; we still make the distinction between “here” and “hither”, “there” and “thither”, which seems to have been lost in modern English.

Or take the sentence “I’m thinking about adverbs, therefore I write about adverbs”. “Therefore” is an adverb answering the question “why?”. But is it about motion? Well, maybe the motions inside my mind. – And I might as well say “I write this for a reason”. “For a reason” is not an adverb but an adverbial phrase and serves the same function as the single adverb “therefore”.

So what is an adverb? – I was taught in school many years ago that an adverb answers (or asks) certain questions, such as “where?”, “when?”, “how?”, “why?”, “to what degree?”, etc. (They don’t ask or answer the questions “who” or “what”; nouns or pronouns answer those questions.) A more precise definition (taken from a dictionary) is:

1. A part of speech, comprising a class of words that modify a verb, adjective or other adverb. 2. A word belonging to this class. (The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language.)

Most often, an adverb modifies a verb (this is why it is called an “adverb”). It may modify an adjective, as in the phrase “she is very beautiful”, where the “very” tells you the degree of her beauty. (You may think of your own examples. If you think really hard, you will find that “hard” modifies “think”, telling you the degree of intensity of your thinking, and that “really” in its turn modifies “hard”, telling you more about how hard you think.)

“Yes” and “no” are also adverbs – at least they are classified as adverbs in the dictionaries. They answer such question as “Is this true or not” or “Do I agree with this or not.” But there connection to motion is tenuous, at the very least.

What measurements are omitted when we form a concept that is an adverb? That is fairly easy to answer. “Here” must be some place, but it could be any place. “Now” must be some point in time, but it could be any point in time. “Therefore” must be some cause or reason, but it could be any cause or reason. “Yes” and “no” must be the answer to some question, but it could be the answer to any question.

“Well” is an adverb that is often used as a preamble to a sentence (“Well, I don’t think so” or “Well, you may be right”) and may be said to modify the whole sentence rather than some single word. But here, I simply cannot put my finger on what is the exact meaning of “well”, much less then what measurements are omitted.; I have to confess it eludes me. (In Swedish we have a whole host of such adverbs – something that I think gives translators headaches.)

I hope this is enough to show that Ayn Rand’s definition is far too narrow (“far” and “too” being adverbs modifying the narrowness of the definition but having nothing to do with motion or any characteristic of notion).

The adverbs I have mentioned this far are adverbs “in their own right”, but there are also adverbs that are derived from adjectives, turning an adjective into an adverb. In English, this is done by adding a “-ly”; Romanic languages typically add a “-ment” or “mente”, and in Swedish we add a “-t”.  – Also, in those cases, it is easy to re-write the sentence and turn the adverb back to an adjective; e.g. “I think slowly”; “I am a slow thinker” or “Ayn Rand writes beautifully”: “Her writing is beautiful”. One cannot do this with “here” and “now” and those other adverbs I mentioned. – But his does not change anything in my reasoning; it is just an interesting observation.

Quibbling and nit-picking? Maybe – but I get frustrated when I discover a mistake in Ayn Rand’s writings, and I have to get if off my chest. And grammar is a subject I know fairly well.

I may return to other aspects of Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation later, because I have some question marks that I would like to straighten out.

(For Scandinavian speaking readers, I write about this in Filosofiska smulor; you have to scroll down a bit to find it. Also, I take up some of those other question marks I have.)

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Update May 2015: Further examples:

“Yes” and “no” are adverbs (at least they are classified as adverbs in dictionaries). They perform the function of condensing information – like “I agree/don’t agree” or “It is so/not so”. But they say nothing about the speed with which one agrees or disagrees.

Even the simple “not” is an adverb; it qualifies the sentence in which it occurs.

Anyone can find further examples. Just mark all the adverbs you find in a text, look them up, if necessary, and check what they have to do with velocity. You will find that only a minuscule number of them do.

I hate to find fault with Ayn Rand, but sometimes (an adverb) I just (an adverb) have to.

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Update August 31, 2015: There is a group of adverbs that denote frequency: “always”, “often”, “sometimes”, “seldom”, “never”. (There are also adverbial phrases, such as “now and then” or “once in a blue moon”.)

What measurements are omitted when forming those questions? Well, things can happen more or less often, or more or less seldom. But there is no more or less regarding “always” and “never”.

Just a thought …

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Update October 29, 2015: I cannot get this issue out of my head. Whenever I see an adverb, I say to myself: “What on earth (or even in hell) does this have to do with speed or velocity?” (For example “whenever” in the preceding sentence.)

The issue is not important enough to occupy my mind like this. Ayn Rand makes a relatively minor mistake, and I cannot stop thinking about it.

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Update November 3, 2015: It is actually doubtful whether “yes” and “no” are adverbs. Some dictionaries in different languages that I have consulted call them “adverbs”, others call them “interjections”, and still others say they can be both, depending on context.

My own best definition of “adverbs” is that they are modifiers or qualifiers: they modify or qualify a word, a clause or a sentence. (Wikipedia agrees with me here.) But “yes” and “no” do not modify or qualify; they affirm or deny what somebody has said or written.

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Update September 19, 2016: If you do not believe me, then go through a text and underline each adverb you find. (If you are uncertain whether a particular word is an adverb or something else, then look it up in a dictionary.) I would be surprised if more than one in a thousand of them has anything to do with speed or velocity. Or underline every adverb you find that actually signifies speed or velocity; there would be very few words underlined (and leaves open what the rest of the adverbs are, if they are not adverbs).

A commenter suggested that Ayn Rand did not intend to give a definition of “adverb” but merely to illustrate the process of concept formation. Fine – but then, why didn’t she say so?

That “rapidly” or “slowly” are adverbs is undeniable. But it is equally undeniable that the vast majority of adverbs are not in this rapid/slow category.

And compare what she says about adverbs to what she says about adjectives and prepositions:

Adjectives are concepts of attributes or of characteristics.

Prepositions are concepts of relationships, predominantly [but not, I might add, exclusively] of spatial or temporal relationships, among existents. (P. 17.)

But this is true af all adjectives and of all prepositions. You would look in vain for an adjective that does not refer to an attribute or a characteristic, or for a preposition that does not refer to a relationship of one or another kind. The only mystery here is why we would need an Ayn Rand to point this out to us.

Nouns may also refer to attributes or characteristics, but almost exclusively they are formed from adjectives by adding a suffix to them – a “-ness” or a “-hood” or an “-ity”. (The only exception I can think of in English is “beauty”, where the adjective “beautiful” is formed from the noun. But if you look at the etymology, you will find that it was originally formed from the French “beau”, to which a “-ty” was added to make it a noun.)

One nit-picking objection one might raise is that a large number of prepositions are about other relationships than spatial or temporal ones – for example, “about” in this very sentence, or “from” in the paragraph above. But I do not have the space or time to go into this at length to find out what kind of prepositions are predominant; neither do I see the necessity of it.

Anyway: With regard to adjectives and prepositions Ayn Rand states something that it would be a contradiction in terms to deny; but with regard to adverbs she states something that is only true for a slight sliver of adverbs. With regard to adjectives and prepositions, she says something that everybody knows anyway; with regard to adverbs, she says something that nobody knows, for the simple reason that (in most cases) it isn’t true.

Why she did so remains a mystery to me. It is even more mysterious that none of her detractors have ever taken her to task for it.

But then, none of her detractors read her carefully. If they read her at all.

3 Responses to What did Ayn Rand Know About Adverbs?

  1. From the context of where this appears in chapter 2, I would say Ayn Rand intended this passage to be construed not as exhaustively definitional of “adverb,” but primarily as an illustration of measurement omission. Her point throughout this section is that measurement omission is the mental process one invokes to form concepts. In the excerpt you chose, she is applying this to a particular type of concept; it is natural for her to progress from concepts of motions, which she does right before the passage you quoted, to concepts of characteristics of motions. Perhaps she thought it would be confusing or “crow-busting” to illustrate the point with all adverbs at that point, and so limited the example to modifiers of “motions.” (In fact, Ayn Rand did add “or action” parenthetically to remind the reader that the point could be extended to verbs in general.)

    If this section were intended to define grammatical terms–“nouns” are this, “verbs” are that, “adverbs” are such and such, and so on–then I would agree that it would be incomplete to write, “Adverbs are concepts of the characteristics of motions (or action).” Obviously, adverbs modify adjectives as well as verbs, which I have no doubt Ayn Rand knew. But in the context of applying her principles of concept-formation to various types of concepts, it is understood that “characteristics of motion (or action)” is a subset of “adverbs,” not a definition.

    • Yes, that’s possible, but it is not clear from her wording. Had she written “some adverbs”, there would be nothing for me to object to. But if she writes “adverbs”, I take it that she means all adverbs or adverbs in general.

    • And yes, the preceding paragraph is about concepts of motion and how they are formed, so maybe that explains why she restricts herself to this narrow category of adverbs.

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