Words Matter

Words matter – how the use of the adverb “well” requires the existence of “not-well,” aka “poorly”

Adverbs modify and restrict verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adverbs require the existence of both that their opposite and a standard by which the restriction is judged.

Let’s start with a simple sentence:

I see a house.

We know a lot from this sentence – that I am present, that a house exists, that my sight is functioning, and that I am physically within sight range of a house. There may be more houses, there may be other people present, the house may have other characteristics, but we don’t know any of that from this simple sentence.

Now, let’s add an adjective. Adjectives add detail to the noun, but that detail also restricts the noun. Let’s add the adjective “red.”

I see a red house.

We still know everything that we knew before, we still don’t know a lot about the scene, but we know something new about the house – we know it’s red. We also know that color exists and that there are at least two colors – “red” and “not red.” By adding “red,” we’ve restricted the house’s color.

Let’s add another adjective to “house.”

I see a big, red house.

We now know that the house is not merely red, but also has a size to it – “big.” As opposed to “not-big,” which by English convention usually means “small.” Strictly speaking, however, “not big” could include “huge” or “tiny” as well as “small.”

Now, let’s look at an adverb. Like adjectives, adverbs modify other words (in this case verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs) to restrict the modified word in some way. We can use our simple sentence from previously, but let’s modify the adjective “big” with an adverb.

I see a slightly big, red house.

In this case we’ve taken the adverb “slightly,” meaning in this case “small of its kind or in amount,” and applied it to the adjective “big.” By adding “slightly” we learn a whole lot more about the reality that I and the house exist in. For starters, we now know that other houses exist because the word “slightly” requires a comparison against other houses that are bigger than the house I’m looking at. We don’t know how many or where they are, but they must exist or else the word “slightly” doesn’t have any meaning.

Now let’s add an adverb to our verb, “see.”

I barely see a slightly big, red house.

The word “barely” in this context means “scarcely,” or “almost not”. We could replace “barely” with “almost don’t” and have a sentence that says the exact same thing:

I almost don’t see a slightly big, red house.

What do we know now from our sentence? We now know, in addition to everything else we’ve learned about the situation, that there is something that is preventing me from seeing the house clearly. It could be distance, my poor eyesight, fog, darkness – there’s no way to tell without yet more information. But as with all our previous modifiers, we now know that there is some other modifier that must be the opposite of “barely.” In English, and in this context, the opposite of “barely” is “clearly.”

Any time we add a detail to a general word, either with an adjective or an adverb, that detail gives us more knowledge, but restricts the word in some way. And adding the restriction means that we’ve split the meaning of the word in two. Furthermore, the restriction also requires some standard by which we differentiate between the two regions. Looking at the following Venn diagram, “big” is the entire rectangle, the yellow region is “slightly big,” the remainder is “not slightly big,” and the black line separating the two is the standard used to differentiate between “slightly” and “not slightly”.

Venn diagram of how “big” is separated into two regions by the adverb “slightly.”

So why the English lesson? Because I want to take what we’ve learned about adverbs and apply it to to the adverb “well.”

Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are 15 different definitions of the adverb “well.” I’ve summarized them below, but by all means review the primary source.

  • 1a: in a good or proper manner – justly, rightly
  • 1b: satisfactorily with respect to conduct or action
  • 2: in a kindly or friendly manner
  • 3a: with skill or aptitude – expertly, excellently
  • 3b: satisfactorily
  • 3c: with good appearance or effect – elegantly
  • 4: with careful or close attention – attentively
  • 5: to a high degree
  • 6: fully, quite
  • 7a: in a way appropriate to the facts or circumstances – fittingly, rightly
  • 7b: in a prudent manner : sensibly —used with do
  • 8: in accordance with the occasion or circumstances – with propriety or good reason
  • 9a: as one could wish – pleasingly
  • 9b: with material success – advantageously
  • 10a: easily, readily
  • 10b: in all likelihood – indeed
  • 11: in a prosperous or affluent manner
  • 12: to an extent approaching completeness – thoroughly
  • 13: without doubt or question – clearly
  • 14: in a familiar manner
  • 15: to a large extent or degree – considerably, far

Even if we didn’t know that adverbs restrict meaning, even if we couldn’t see from the Venn diagram above (replace “big” with “well) that this is true, we can tell from looking at each of these definitions that “well” requires the existence of an opposite (“not well) and some way by which “well” is determined.

  • 1a uses the words “good,” “proper,” “justly,” and “rightly.” Good requires bad, proper requires improper, justly requires unjustly, and rightly requires wrongly.
  • 1b and 3b use the word “satisfactorily,” but that requires the existence of “unsatisfactorily.”
  • 2 uses the words “kindly” and “friendly,” which require the existence of “unkindly” and “unfriendly.”
  • 3a says “with skill,” “with aptitude,” “expertly,” and “excellently.” If something can be done with skill or aptitude, it can also be done without them. Expertly requires inexpertly or amateurishly. And excellently requires poorly or terribly.
  • 3c uses “good” and “elegantly,” but good requires bad and elegant requires inelegant.
  • 4 uses “careful” and “close.” Careful requires careless and close requires loose.
  • 5 uses “high,” which requires low.
  • 6 uses “fully” and “quite,” both of which require partly or incompletely.
  • 7a uses “appropriate,” “fittingly,” and “rightly.” Appropriate requires inappropriate, fittingly requires unfittingly, and rightly requires wrongly.
  • 7b uses “prudent” and “sensible.” Prudent requires imprudent. Sensible requires insensible.
  • 8 uses “in accordance with” and “propriety.” If something can be in accordance, it can also be out of accordance. And propriety requires impropriety.
  • 9a uses “as one wishes” and “pleasingly.” As one wishes requires as one would not wish, and pleasingly requires unpleasantly.
  • 9b uses “success” and “advantageously.” Success requires the lack thereof and advantageously requires disadvantageously.
  • 10a uses “easily” and “readily.” Both require with difficulty or strenuously.
  • 10b uses “likelihood,” which requires unlikelihood or improbability.
  • 11 uses “prosperous” and “affluent.” Prosperous requires unprosperous or unsuccessful. Affluent requires impoverished.
  • 12 uses “completeness” and “thoroughly.” Completeness requires incompleteness and thoroughly requires unthoroughly.
  • 13 uses “without doubt or question,” and “clearly.” If something can be without, it can be with, and clearly requires unclearly.
  • 14 uses “familiar,” which requires unfamiliar.
  • 15 uses “large extent or degree,” “considerably,” and “far.” Large requires small, considerably requires negligibly.

In every case, the definition of the adverb “well” requires that “not-well” exists, and it requires that there be some standard to differentiate between the two.

In English, “not-well” is “poorly” or “badly,” or any of the antonyms of “well” identified in a dictionary or thesaurus.

Words matter – understand how they work and why.