Grammatically Speaking, September 2008

Hello Richard,

I have a question I hope you will answer. What is the difference between an adverb of frequency and an adverb of degree? They aren't the same, are they?

Anna Pechak


Dear Anna,

Adverbs of frequency tell us how often something happens. Words in this category are always, usually, frequently, often, sometimes, occasionally, rarely, seldom, hardly ever, andnever. When we use adverbs of frequency, we normally place them after the verb be (They are usually on time) but before all other main verbs (They usually come on time).

Some of these adverbs can be placed in other parts of the sentence. The words frequently, occasionally, often, sometimes, and usually can be put at the beginning or end of a sentence for emphasis: Sometimes they eat Mexican food. / They eat Mexican food sometimes. And if that’s not enough, the words rarely and seldom can be placed at the end of a sentence: They eat Mexican food rarely.

Adverbs of degree, also known as intensifiers, tell us how intensely something happens or how intense our description of something is, and they're used with gradable adjectives. Typical adverbs of degree are almost, completely, enough, extremely, hardly, just, nearly, quite, scarcely, too, and very. When we use this kind of adverb, we normally place it before an adjective or adverb that it’s intensifying: Sorry, but I'm completely confused. / He finished the work quite quickly.

The one exception is enough. We usually place enough after the adjective or adverb: This soup isn't hot enough. / I'm afraid that you didn't work carefully enough.

If we're intensifying the main verb of a clause or sentence, we place an adverb of degree before the verb: I had hardly finished my lunch when . . . . / She nearly drowned in the lake.

I hope that clears up the differences for you, Anna. Thanks for sending in your question.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

I'm hoping you can help answer a question that I have had for quite some time, because nobody else has been able to give me a clear-cut explanation. Could you please tell me if there are any rules about when to use certain prefixes that have the same meaning? For example, im-, in-, il-, and un- all mean "not," but how come we say unimportant rather than ilimportant or inimportant, other than it looks/sounds funny? Likewise, super- and supra- both mean "above," but why do we say supernatural and not supranatural? Are there any concrete rules about this? I hope so, because my students are pressing me for some!

Thank you for your time and expertise.

Stephanie Foran

Cherry Hill, NJ  USA

Dear Ms. Foran:

I wish there were clear-cut rules to offer your students—not to mention all ESOL teachers—but there really aren't. There are, however, a few more or less basic guidelines that we can go by. First, it's helpful to understand that the negative prefixes that all stem from in- are of Latin origin. So that prefix plus its phonological offshoots il-, im-, and ir- typically are added to Latinate words. That's how we get independent, illegible, improper, and irreverent. It shouldn't be too hard to explain to your students that those offshoots came about to make pronunciation easier. The il- goes with words beginning with l, the im- goes with words beginning with a bilabial sound like [m] or [p] because the prefix contains a bilabial, and the ir- goes with words beginning with r.

A problem comes about, however, because the Anglo-Saxon negative prefix un- started getting attached to Latinate words. That's why the original inimportant (which you said sounds "funny" today) became unimportant and so on. Now the Anglo-Saxon un- gets attached to many Latinate words. So where there might have been a nice, neat rule, there isn't one.

As for super- and supra-, here we can get a little more comfortable about which prefix is used because they don't mean exactly the same thing. Super- can mean "over," "above," and "in addition." It also can mean "more," "larger," or "greater than" something else. When we say things like supervise, the prefix means "over." In fact, we have the exact same word from Anglo-Saxon origin: oversee. (The second element, -vise, is derived from the Latin verb videre, "to see.") And when we say things like super-intelligent, we’re saying that somebody is "more intelligent" or "of greater intelligence" than others. 

On the other hand, supra- can mean "above," but in the sense of "beyond" or "transcending," so the meaning can be different. For example, there's the adjective supranational, which means "transcending nations," in other words, "universal" or "disregarding individual nations." Or take the example supreme, which basically means "placed above and beyond" something. I hope you can see the subtle difference in meaning here from super-. 

The long and the short of it is that there's no easy solution for your students or for us teachers. Yes, we can deal with the phonological influences that have created those offshoots ofin-, but it's much harder to try to find easy answers for when we use one of those or when we use un-. At least it's a bit easier to figure out super- versus supra-. Sorry I can't offer more. Thanks for asking a question that, I'm sure, many teachers and students have grappled with.

Dear Richard,

I find the following passive sentences rather strange:

1. We were explained this theorem by our new math teacher.

2. He was conferred an honorary degree by MIT.

3. He was administered the oath yesterday.

Do you find them well formed or natural?

Best regards,

Narsu K. Nihalani

Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India

Dear Narsu,

Your first sentence is not ungrammatical, but it's a perfect example of forcing the use of the passive voice when it shouldn't be used. Of the three potential subjects that the sentence contains (we, this theorem, our new math teacher), the subject of least importance is we. To my way of thinking, that's why the sentence comes off as so unnatural and almost silly. The whole point of the passive voice in such an instance is for the speaker or writer to show which person or thing is the focus. If it’s the theorem, the sentence should be in the passive voice:

This theorem was explained to us by our new math teacher.

And if it's the math teacher, the sentence should be in the active voice:

The new math teacher explained this theorem to us.

I can argue a case for saying We were explained this theorem by our new math teacher if the speaker or writer needs to focus on himself and his fellow students, but it certainly is an awkward way to express this idea.

As to the other two sentences, because the agent—the doer—is not mentioned, those sentences look and sound perfectly fine. The speaker or writer wants to focus the attention on those subjects, so the passive voice is required because the subjects didn't do anything themselves.

Thanks for such an interesting question being sent in to me, Narsu. (Only kidding!)

Here's the Brain Teaser from my June 2008 column: What is a ditransitive verb, and how does it work? Can you give some examples of ditransitive verbs?

The first correct response was sent in by Ann Lehr of Lafayette, CA, USA:

A ditransitive verb is one that takes two objects, one direct and the other indirect. Common ditransitive verbs are give and send. For example:

Please give me your book. [me (i.o.) your book (d.o.)]

He sent his wife a bouquet of flowers. [his wife (i.o.) a bouquet of flowers (d.o.)]

An interesting situation occurs with the passive construction. Normally, to form a passive sentence, we move what was the direct object in the active version to subject position. However, with a ditransitive verb, the indirect object takes the subject position:

Passive version: The staff were given layoff notices.

Active version: The boss gave the staff layoff notices. [the staff is the i.o.]

A very nice answer, Ann! Here are some more points about ditransitives. We need to remember that when the direct object immediately follows a ditransitive verb, a preposition will be required before the indirect object, so Please give me your book will become Please give your book to me. / She baked us a cake will become She baked a cake for us.

One other point has to do with the passive voice. The fun part here is that both the direct and indirect objects of the active voice sentence can become the subject of the passive voice sentence. You gave the example using the indirect object the staff (The staff were given layoff notices), but we can do this with layoff notices as well: Layoff notices were given to the staff.

Thanks for a very nice answer, Ann!

And now for a new Brain Teaser. Is it necessary to repeat the in the following sentence? The rice and the beans are ready. Let's eat! If it is necessary, why? If it's not necessary, why not?

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