October 12, 2009

Not Surprising, This Sounds Awkward

The other day at work I came across a strange construction: an author had used “not surprising” as a sentence adverb, as in “Not surprising, the data show that. . . .” I assumed it was simply an error, so I changed it to “not surprisingly” and went on. But then I saw the same construction again. And again. And then I saw a similar construction (“Quite possible, yada yada yada”) within a quotation within the article, at which point I really started to feel weirded out.

I checked the source of the quote, and it turned out that it was actually a grammatically normal “Quite possibly” that the author of the article I was editing had accidentally changed (or intentionally fixed?). My suspicion was that the author was extending the pseudo-rule against the sentence adverb more importantly and was thus avoiding sentence adverbs more generally.

This particular article is for inclusion in a sociology book, so I thought that perhaps there was a broader rule against sentence adverbs in the APA style guide. I didn’t find any such rule there, but I did find something interesting when I did a search on the string “. Not surprising,” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found sixteen relevant hits. All the hits appeared to occur in social science or journalistic works, ranging from the New York Times to PBS New Hour to the journal Military History. A similar search for the string “. Not surprisingly,” returned over 1200 hits. (I did not bother to sort through these to determine their relevancy.)

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. As I said above, the only explanation I can come up with is that someone has extended the rule against more importantly or perhaps other sentence adverbs like hopefully that don’t modify anything in the sentence. Not that the sentence adjective version modifies anything either, of course, but that’s a different issue.

If anyone has any alternative explanation for or justification of this construction, I’d be interested to hear it. It still strikes me as a rather awkward bit of English.

Editing, Prescriptivism, Usage, Words 7 Replies to “Not Surprising, This Sounds Awkward”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


7 thoughts on “Not Surprising, This Sounds Awkward

    Author’s gravatar

    Ugh, super awkward. Also, why not just “unsurprisingly”?

    Author’s gravatar

    Good question. In COCA, “not surprisingly” outnumbers “unsurprisingly” by about 14 to 1. A Google search turns up 3.5 times as many hits for “not surprisingly”. I’m not sure how to explain the distribution, but for whatever reason, it seems most people prefer “not surprisingly”.

    Author’s gravatar

    Could the examples be an attempt at brevity?

    1) “It is not surprising the data show that…”
    2) “It is quite possible yada yada yada”?

    An attempt to mimic speech, where such phrases are used as fragments or interjections.

    Example: “Professor, the monkey killed the rabbit with its tail!”
    “Not surprising. In fact, monkeys perform many tasks with their tails.”

    Author’s gravatar

    My heart skipped a beat when I read “relevancy.” Ooh, genius! Either that, or it’s bait and I just bit.

    Author’s gravatar

    I just came across another example in a proofread of the same book: “Interesting, Lehrer called for additional study. . . .” It doesn’t look like a fragment that was tacked onto a sentence. Obvious, the writer has a problem with sentence adverbs.

    Bruce: I’m not sure what you’re talking about, unless you think there’s something wrong with the word “relevancy.” But that would be silly, because it’s in the dictionary and actually predates “relevance.”

    Author’s gravatar

    So what did you do editing-wise? Did you add “ly” to them all or leave them as they were?

    Would it be possible that the author is from a small town where that’s common in the local dialect?

    Author’s gravatar

    Yes, I just added “-ly” to all the adverbs that were missing it.

    I doubt it was dialectal. While many people drop the “-ly” on some adverbs in casual speech, this was an academic paper, and the adverbs in question were more learned. And there really wasn’t any other sign of dialectal constructions. I think the author just got it in his head at some point that sentence adverbs were forbidden but sentence adjectives were okay.

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