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Learn the difference between copular verbs and adverbs

An administration official, it has been reported, “put his foot deeply in his mouth.”

Is that right? Or is it more likely the White House staffer put his foot deep in his mouth then the writer who reported it did the same by taking an oversimplified view of adverbs?

We all learned in school that adverbs modify verbs. You walk quickly, not quick. She sings beautifully, not beautiful. He writes well, not good. In casual situations, we don’t think about this rule much. We just speak in a way that comes naturally to us. But when we’re trying to be proper, we speak or write with those grammar lessons top of mind. That can cause problems — hypercorrection, trying too hard to speak or write properly, can cause us to make worse choices than we would if we weren’t being careful at all. And no part of speech invites hypercorrection more than the adverb.

The author of that line about the administration official likely figured he was modifying the verb, “put.” After all, the sentence is describing an action, placing a foot in a mouth (figuratively speaking). Following the logic of “You walk quickly, not quick,” the writer assumed the verb “put” should be described by an adverb, “deeply.” But is “deeply” really a manner in which you can go about the act of putting?

It’s debatable, but I say no. And before I get into the syntax, I’ll submit my most compelling piece of evidence: Put the book highly on the shelf. Syntax-wise, this sentence is nearly identical to our foot-in-mouth passage. But it makes it easier to see that an adverb isn’t the best choice. The person who put the book on the shelf didn’t do so in a highly manner. The action wasn’t taking place highly. Instead, the book was high.

Here’s another example using a similar structure: The hero shot the villain dead. One more: Homes around here don’t come cheap.

In cases like these, a simple analysis of the sentence might suggest you need an adverb. But in fact, the modifier we’re looking for doesn’t describe an action — putting or shooting or coming — it describes a noun, the book or the villain or the homes. As we know, adjectives, not adverbs, describe nouns. The book is high. The villain is dead. The houses are not cheap.

That’s why the administration official put his foot deep in his mouth.

Another situation that causes people to mistakenly reach for an adverb comes up in the common phrase “I feel badly.” That’s acceptable as an idiom. But if you’re choosing it because you think it’s grammatically superior to “I feel bad,” you’re missing an important fact about grammar.

There’s a category of verbs called copular verbs that, instead of conveying action, convey states of being or seeming or becoming or one of the five senses. These copular verbs often indicate that an adjective, not an adverb, is called for in a sentence.

Chuck is nice. Marianne seems clever. Steve became angry.

In each of these examples, the modifier isn’t describing the verb “is,” “seems” or “became.” It’s describing the noun Chuck or Marianne or Steve. That’s why adverbs wouldn’t work here. “Chuck is nicely,” “Marianne seems cleverly” and “Steve became angrily” are wrong because the verbs are all copular verbs that, by definition, point back to the noun that is the subject.

And though it’s less intuitive, verbs describing the senses are often copular, too. The coffee smells bad, not badly. A vacation sounds good, not well. The sauce tastes delicious, not deliciously.

“Feel” is sometimes, but not always, copular. You can carefully feel your way along the wall in a dark room. In that case, the adverb “carefully is modifying the action of feeling. And you could, in fact, feel badly if you were trying to read Braille with numb fingertips. But when you’re talking about feelings of pity, shame, guilt or sympathy, the verb “feel” qualifies as a copular verb, which is why “I feel bad” is usually the best choice.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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