Much of what we do each day is planned or expected but not everything. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we suddenly do things that we are not expecting to do or have not prepared for. This week, we’re looking at the language that we use to express this.
Let’s start with a very useful adjective: spontaneous. A spontaneous action is sudden and done as a natural response to what is happening at the time: The silence was broken by spontaneous applause. / When she got up to leave, everyone applauded spontaneously. The noun from ‘spontaneous’ is spontaneity: We all need a little spontaneity in our lives.
An impromptu event is not planned but happens because it seems right at the time: The singer gave an impromptu performance at a restaurant in Paris last week. Meanwhile, something that is done ad hoc is done only when it is required and is therefore not planned in advance: We deal with problems on an ad hoc basis (=as they happen). ‘Ad hoc’ is also used as an adjective: an ad hoc committee
Moving on to a useful idiom, if you do something on the spur of the moment, you suddenly decide to do it, without planning or thought beforehand: We hadn’t planned to do the trip – we just did it on the spur of the moment. We also use this phrase adjectivally: It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Three adjectives which describe slightly different sudden actions are automatic, instinctive and involuntary. These words describe actions that are done without thought or intention, as a natural reaction, for example, to a dangerous situation: As an instinctive response, she covered her eyes. / My automatic response was to pull my hand away. / I didn’t mean to shout – it was involuntary. Similarly, a reflex action is one that you do immediately, without thinking about it: It was a reflex response to hide.
A number of phrases refer to unplanned speech. For example, if someone ad libs, they speak in public without having planned what to say: I ad-libbed my way through the entire speech. The phrase can be used adverbially and adjectivally too: She spoke ad lib for twenty minutes. / an ad-lib speech An off-the-cuff remark is not planned in advance: It was an off-the-cuff remark which he came to regret. This can also be used adverbially: I didn’t have a speech prepared but I said a few words off the cuff.