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Being an Adverb

John Lewis ad from ABC Copywriting

Dictionary publishers these days try to maintain Web sites that do more than just advertise books. They offer word-of-the-day features, blog posts, English lessons, hints for teachers, educational technology news, all sorts of things. Macmillan offers Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where a January 17 post on writing asserted that “adverbs are monsters,” and made an explicit recommendation:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those “surprisingly”, “interestingly”, “very”, “extremely”, fortunately”, “on the other hand”, “almost invariably”. (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like “we may consider that”, “it is likely that”, “there is a possibility that”.)

Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?

Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.

I want to hang my head and cry when I see writing advice as boneheadedly misguided as this (and unfortunately that’s way too often).

Take a look at the last sentence quoted: “Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.” The underlined words are all adverbs, so under its author’s advice the sentence should have read, “The meaning is the same but the piece is easier to read.”

If adverbs are monsters, and the main point of the piece is to recommend deleting them all, what happened here? Either the advice-giver is so stupid that he believes his advice but didn’t notice his own four flagrant violations of it, or the advice is so stupid that no advice-giver would dream of applying it to someone sensible like himself. I don’t see any other possibilities.

Applying this adverb-erasing recommendation across the board would be disastrous, in random ways. In some cases it would cause a spectacular change of sense: the slogan of the British department-store chain John Lewis, Never Knowingly Undersold, would become Undersold. Quite often it would yield vapid slop with the wrong meaning: Defusing a bomb must be done carefully would become Defusing a bomb must be done; The dog had been brutally treated would become The dog had been treated. Sometimes it would create outright ungrammaticality: a carefully worded letter would become *a worded letter.

What mindless adverb erasure cannot be trusted to do, though, is improve bad or indifferent writing.

The post does back off a little when it gets into detail. It divides adverbs into manner adverbs (smugly, intelligently, squashily,) time adverbs (soon, often, yesterday,) hedges (maybe, possibly, probably,) emphasizers (very, extremely, absolutely,) sentence adverbs (however, consequently, funnily, (enough)), and finally “extreme horrors like just and quite,” and proposes that differential levels of forbiddenness apply.

“The time adverbs I allow,” says our guide to better writing, magnanimously. Moreover, “The hedges I forgive, after careful consideration, if the sentence would be untrue without them.” So he would not necessarily have us replace Earthquakes are seldom predictable by Earthquakes are predictable.

But manner adverbs, emphasizers, and sentence adverbs are all to be committed to the flames. “The sentence adverbs,” we are told, “are wildly overused by many authors.” (Wildly overused, mark you: that’s a manner adverb.)

The truth is that nothing as mechanical as abandoning adverbs (or certain subclasses of adverbs) is going to uniformly improve your prose. Similar advice is handed out elsewhere (by the royally knighted but linguistically benighted broadcaster Sir Alistair Cooke, for example, and naturally, by Strunk & White’s toxic little compendium of misguided maxims); but like the familiar advice to avoid passive clauses, it is never followed by the people who recommend following it.

The writers they admire never follow it either. And I don’t mean just that fine writing with adverbs is possible; I mean that all fine writing in English has adverbs (just open any work of literature you respect and start reading).

This profoundly silly post ends with a mention of a science journalist who remarked that “an adverb is for the linguistic dwarf unable to reach for the correct verb.” The metaphorical equation of dwarfism with inadequacy seems unpleasant, but setting that aside, the presupposition is that for most adverb-plus-verb combinations in English there is an alternative choice of verb that is synonymous with the combination, and you should use it. That is flatly and plainly false. You can’t substitute a synonymous verb for usually walks, or wildly overused, or boneheadedly misguided, or rarely participates, or fidgeted incessantly; the verbs don’t exist.

Do as the advice-giver does, not as he says. When he needs an adverb, he uses one. You should too. Decisively, proudly, and fearlessly.

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