The Non-Expert

Adverb Your Enthusiasm

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we help a reader determine if her one true love is letting adverbs get in the way of romance.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


* * *

Question: If someone tells you that they “love you seriously,” and they want you in their life, is that being a friend, or is it more?—B. West

Answer: Your use of a first initial, as well as the lack of any revealing pronouns in your letter, complicates the matter a bit. If this declaration came from a woman, I think she just wants to be friends. She’s warning you away with a wishy-washy adverb. If it came from a man, it’s possible he’s trying to be sincere but you’ll never know. Strunk & White didn’t single out the word “seriously” in their famous Elements of Style, but I can almost imagine their entry if they had:

Seriously: Probably not, used from a habit of indecisiveness.

Love should be described, B., never qualified. Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew this. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” she wrote. Not, “How do I love thee? Seriously, I want you in my life.” Later in the same poem she does say, “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right / I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.” But I think we can all agree that “freely” and “purely” are much better than “seriously.”

Who wants to be serious about love? Wild, crazy, passionate, that’s what you want. Seriously comes later, when you’ve got a toddler swim class, a dentist appointment, and one car. Or the words “moms’ night out” start cropping up regularly. Then you love each other seriously, because what else have you got? But if this is the beginning of a relationship, my goodness, no. You don’t want serious.

Perhaps your “seriously” isn’t a potential lover. Perhaps he was an obsequious concierge, charging you three times the box office price for tickets to Mama Mía. Or a novice hairdresser, desperate to build her client list. It could be the new phrase of greeting at Banana Republic. Intimacy is the new advertising.

Your confusion, however, is telling. You’re invested in this. You want more, I can tell. So I suggest you find out exactly what “seriously” means to this guy. Here are some sample scenarios you could try.


You: You eat a lot of cereal.
Him: Yeah.
You: You must like it a lot.
Him: (nods)
You: Seriously?

Watching Television

You: I like shows like this.
Him: Me, too.
You: I love them. I love them happily.
Him: Happily?
You: Why? What word would you use?

Cut off in Traffic

Him: That is fucked up.
You: Yeah. Seriously fucked up.
Him: Yeah!
You: Shit.

Basically, B., the metaphor is what you want (“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate”), but men are not all Shakespeare, even when moved to declare undying love. Those gentlemen of the word, Strunk & White, knew this. At the back of the book, in a section called “An Approach to Style,” they sanctioned the use of adverbs in a pinch, essentially letting men the world over off the hook. So here’s a list of the most common love adverbs you’ll hear by nationality:

Frightfully (English)
Precisely (German)
Superbly (Italian)
Warmly (Canadian)
Loch Nessily (Scottish)

Probably almost anyone in the world could succeed with “wonderingly”—but the last person to use it died in 1964, and his name was Cole Porter.

One further thought. Is it possible your “seriously” is a clown? A real, working clown, who spends his days making jokes of everything? Because if so, to love you “seriously” might really be saying something. Maybe, in fact, he loves you. Seriously.

But I doubt it.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane