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There was some chat earlier about adverbs. We were trying to demonstrate that maybe is an adverb.

Reg did this deftly by replacing maybe with other adverbs and then a noun, to show that the noun doesn't make sense. The original sentence is:

The detective maybe does not solve the crime.

In my head I replaced maybe with hastily. It passed my grammar check, but my semantic alarm went off.

? The detective hastily does not solve the crime.

I am happy that

The detective hastily solves the crime.

makes sense.

I have the same issue with quickly, but not slowly or lackadaisically.

Can I say "I quickly didn't do something"? Why is it ringing semantic alarm bells?

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Seems that you've proved that, contrary to popular belief, adverb placement matters. "The detective does not hastily solve the crime" & "The detective does not solve the crime hastily" both make sense. You can say "I didn't do it {quickly/slowly/lackadaisically}", and you can say "I {quickly/slowly/lackadaisically} stopped doing it" but not "I {quickly/slowly/lackadaisically} didn't do it". I can't come up with a reasonable explanation why this is true, though. –  user21497 Nov 15 '12 at 12:17
    
"The detective maybe does not solve the crime" is an awkward sentence to begin with. A more natural wording would be, "The detective may not solve the crime." To say that you took an awkward sentence, replaced one word with another word of the same part of speech, and the result was another awkward sentence, is pretty much the result I would expect. –  Jay Nov 15 '12 at 14:55
    
@Jay, while I agree that maybe isn't the best word, probably and possibly fit without bother. –  Matt Эллен Nov 15 '12 at 15:08
    
@MattЭллен I think it would still be more natural to say, "The detective probably will not solve the crime" rather than "probably does not". It's odd to use a present continuous like that for a discrete event. I mean, it would be natural to say, "The detective probably does not solve many crimes", but "does not solve the crime"? I guess it works if you are talking about a book or a movie, where the outcome is already determined, but you don't know what it is yet. –  Jay Nov 16 '12 at 18:48

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

If your detective takes slow, methodical steps to solve the crime, but fails to solve it, then he has slowly failed to solve the crime.

The statement has more to do with rhetoric than with parts of speech. It is an inversion of expectations, so it would be perceived as humorously critical.

I recall one bad winter in Chicago in which my car antenna froze in the "up" position. I used to relate to people how I tried to fix it so that it would not be snapped off in the car wash, but it was frozen. I said,

"I spent the next twenty minutes, patiently and with great effort, not fixing the problem. The antenna did not survive and had to be removed completely.

The problem, I believe, is that you expect the construction to work like a mathematical operator of negation. It doesn't. It brings new meaning and interest, and in that sense I would say it swiftly fails to disappoint, or to even fail.

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But what if you'd "spent the next five seconds hastily not fixing the problem"? Is that OK? –  Matt Эллен Nov 15 '12 at 12:14
    
If you meant it humorously, I would say it's fine. –  Robusto Nov 15 '12 at 12:23
    
A sentence like "I spent twenty minutes not fixing the problem" is grammatically awkward, but is used for exactly that reason: The awkwardness is intended to make a point. If you were simply being descriptive, you would be more likely to say, "I spent twenty minutes attempting to fix the problem but failed" or "I did not manage to fix the problem despite twenty minutes of effort." But you use the construction you do for its ironic or humorous effect. My point is that it's not an example of normal grammar, and should not be used as such. –  Jay Nov 15 '12 at 15:00

The absence of action cannot be modified by an adverb because there is nothing to modify. In the sentence ‘The detective maybe does not solve the crime’, maybe is not to be read as an adverb modifying the manner in which the detective does not solve the crime. It is a particular type of adverb, a disjunct, and, in the words of ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’,

‘disjuncts affect the interpretation of the whole clause or sentence, either as judgements on the likelihood of something happening (maybe, possibly, probably, surely); or as expressions of attitude towards the event (fortunately, mercifully, regrettably, worryingly).

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I think this is a matter of semantics, not syntax. Your alarm is signalling that only action, not inaction, can be characterized as hasty.

The detective does not solve the crime hastily.

This would be acceptable, because the haste is embraced in the negation.

There's a different issue with this:

*The detective hastily stopped solving the crime.

Here there's no disparity between the adverb and “stopped”. There is, however, a disparity between “stopped” and “solving”: solve is a telic verb which implies a completed action. You would have to write

The detective hastily stopped investigating the crime.

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The mathematician hastily stopped solving the equation. –  Andrew Leach Nov 15 '12 at 12:24
    
@AndrewLeach That sets off my alarm. I'd say "stopped trying to solve". –  StoneyB Nov 15 '12 at 12:25
    
That's an interesting turn you put on it, "didn't solve" -> "stopped investigating". –  Matt Эллен Nov 15 '12 at 12:41
    
@MattЭллен I'm not suggesting that they're equivalent; just that one accommodates "hastily" and the other doesn't. –  StoneyB Nov 15 '12 at 13:15

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