I'm thinking specifically of they way words like "frankly" are sometimes used in modern English.

Take the sentence: "His speech was uninhibited, unprepared, and frankly insulting to half of his audience."

Now it could be read that here "frankly" is describing the way that the speech was insulting, saying the speech was openly and obviously insulting. However it seems another reading could be made where "frankly" is describing the tone of the sentence itself, reading almost like:

"His speech was uninhibited, unprepared, and frankly (I am going to be frank about this) insulting to half of his audience."

Is this interpretation of the sentence valid? If so, is there a term for this linguistic phenomenon? How exactly does the word "frankly" fit into this sentence (such as if you were to diagram it)?

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    In your second interpretation, "frankly" is called a 'speech act-related adjunct'. In your example it can be glossed roughly as "I tell you frankly". – BillJ Apr 25 '17 at 18:59
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    They are traditionally called sentence adverbials ('frankly' being a comment by the speaker / writer). Swan calls them 'discourse markers'; a more general term is 'pragmatic markers'. 'Frankly' is in subclass 'Showing one's attitude to what one is saying' [Swan] (probably better phrased as 'showing one's attitude in actually going ahead and saying what follows'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 25 '17 at 20:43

Given the way you interpret the sentence, this phenomenon is nothing more than a parenthetical self-reference. But, in written form, it must be set aside as such, which is not how you wrote it. In spoken form, parenthetical elements are set aside through tone and cadence.

If you consider that frank is synonymous with honest, then you can see how frank or honest insults can be frankly or honestly insulting. But only without the parenthetical separation.

As it's written, frankly is an adverb modifying insulting. To separate frankly from this position as an adverb, it should be placed within commas, which act as parenthetical punctuation, like this:

His speech was uninhibited, unprepared, and, frankly, insulting to half of his audience."

With the parenthetical punctuation, it takes on the meaning you have in your own parentheses.

  • It has that meaning even without the commas as well. The commas make it clearer that that is the meaning intended, but they're not necessary, just disambiguating. This doesn't answer the question of how these kinds of discourse- or speech act–oriented adjuncts and their usage are referred to. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 25 '17 at 20:26
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - I updated my answer to address the question posed in the title. But I disagree that the phase has the same meaning with or without the parenthetical punctuation. It may be the intent of the author of the sentence, but without proper parenthetical emphasis, it would be generous to say that it's ambiguous. I don't think you have to be prescriptivist to say so, you only have to agree that where there is a method to eliminate ambiguity, then that method should be used. To suggest otherwise doesn't really provide anything helpful to the OP. – Canis Lupus Apr 25 '17 at 21:10
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    I quite strongly disagree with that. I would use the commas to indicate prosody: a minor pause in speech to indicate that frankly is parenthetical. It needn't be parenthetical to be discourse-oriented, though, and I would always write it without the commas if I didn't intend any pause in speech—which would be most of the time. I would say suggesting that anyone would realistically be likely to interpret frankly here as ‘insulting in a frank manner’ is less useful to the OP. At least I would never naturally read it like that, and I don't think most others would either. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 25 '17 at 21:17
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    The preference against commas is even clearer in cases like “I'm honestly so sick of this”, which clearly does not refer to being tired in an honest manner, but which you'll also practically never see punctuated as “I’m, honestly, so sick of this”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 25 '17 at 21:20

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