I don’t feel compunctious admitting that the Oxford Dictionary of English is one of my favourite books. I have a copy on my shelf next to my most comfortablest chair and I often find myself perusing it in idle moments. Just the other night, I stumbled upon this little bijou:
an adverb or adverbial phrase that expresses a writer’s or speaker’s attitude to the content of the sentence in which it occurs (such as frankly, obviously), or places the sentence in a particular context (such as technically, politically).”
Obviously, I was aware of words like this. I had used them for most of my life but, quite frankly, I had never thought about how they worked. I was bowled over! I had always thought that adverbs modified verbs, but they had been transmuting entire sentences right under my nose for all these years.
Now my Oxford is not the Brobdingnagian 20-volume O.E.D. proper, but it’s not the concise version either; there was a further note about this heteroclite grammatical marvel and I read it with interest.
“The traditional definition of an adverb is that it is a word that modifies the meaning of a verb, an adjective, or another adverb, as in, for example, he shook his head sadly. However, another important function of some adverbs is to comment on a whole sentence, either expressing the speaker’s attitude or classifying the discourse. For example, in sadly, he is rather overbearing, sadly does not mean that he is overbearing in a sad manner: it expresses the speaker’s attitude to what is being stated. Traditionalists take the view that the use of sentence adverbs is inherently suspect and that they should always be paraphrased, e.g. using such wording as it is sad that he is rather overbearing. A particular objection is raised to the sentence adverbs hopefully and thankfully, since they cannot even be paraphrased in the usual way (see hopefully (usage) and thankfully). Nevertheless, there is overwhelming evidence that such usages are well established and widely accepted in everyday speech and writing.”
The Oxford Dictionary speaks the truth! And just two days before my collision with sentence adverbs I had discovered in those same august pages that there is a creature called a mitten crab. How adorable!
The Oxford English Dictionary was first conceived by members of the Philological Society of London in 1857. Work began in earnest in 1884 and the O.E.D. website says “It was estimated that the project would be finished in approximately ten years. Five years down the road, when Murray and his colleagues had only reached as far as the word ‘ant’, they realized it was time to reconsider their schedule. It was not surprising that the project was taking longer than anticipated.” Wikipedia says: “As of 30 November 2005, the Oxford English Dictionary contained approximately 301,100 main entries. Supplementing the entryheadwords, there are 157,000 bold-type combinations and derivatives; 169,000 italicized-bold phrases and combinations; 616,500 word-forms in total, including 137,000 pronunciations; 249,300etymologies; 577,000 cross-references; and 2,412,400 usage quotations.”
P.S. I didn’t do my block quotes properly because it’s a pain in the keister to indent in html.