In teaching an eighth grade English grammar class today, we discussed the questions that adverbs answer: when (dance now!), where (sit down!), how (sing merrily!), how often (sneeze frequently!), and to what extent (abandon completely!). I had a student trace stencils and put these questions on a poster that I hung above my whiteboard, right in plain sight of the students when they doze off in the middle of a grammar lesson, as I expect they do. (Grammar is hardly stimulating.) But the poster also mentions a final question that adverbs sometimes answer: “Why.”
The grammatical reasons why adverbs provide this answer are complicated, but the use of adverbs that answer this question is not. It’s the questions most frequently asked by toddlers: Why is the sky blue? Why are boys different the girls? Why (as I once asked myself), if everyone likes pizza, don’t we just eat chicken and pizza every day? The process of asking “why” diminishes as we age, but I, like Michel Faure, who asked in the Spring 2011 column of France Magazine, questioned today the reason why we stop questioning.
“All children are philosophers. They aren’t aware of it,” Faure writes. He explains that, like most intellectuals, children are simply looking for the Truth of what the world is and how they fit into it. However, for most of us, philosophy stops at school, that institution that helps condition us to fit into society. Students are taught to measure margins, type properly, and write papers to the hundrenth word. That helps people become good, productive, and organized citizens, but that particular adverb “why” can become lost.
As an English teacher, I’ve often felt confined by the grammar-centric portion of my curriculum. However, beneath the structure of the words that we speak, the words and their meanings still remain. Getting a student to understand “what” is the focus of his essay is hard enough; being dedicated to him the “why” behind his writing is even harder.