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Adverbs on Trial: Innocent on Two Counts, but Guilty on Three More

The Wall Street Journal put adverbs on trial some time ago.

Witnesses for the prosecution: Stephen King (“The adverb is not your friend,” says he), a slew of anti-adverb judges, and legions of legal writing teachers.

Witnesses for the defense: famed adverb lover Justice Scalia, an academic “legal anthropologist,” and the author of the article, who claimed that adverbs “wield power” in the American legal system, no matter how much critics might “look askance.” (The author is the lead writer of the Journal’s Law Blog.)

If these Adverb Wars leave you scratching your head a bit, well, quizzically, help is on the way. Immediately.

Confusion over different types of adverbs runs rampant. So I issue below my own mixed verdict in cheat-sheet form: an “innocent” finding on two types of adverb usage, but a “guilty” verdict on three others.

Innocent: Shorthand Adverbs

The Journal article makes much of recent high-profile cases over adverbs such as knowingly or substantially.

But no language expert has ever suggested that we could avoid such “shorthand” adverbs even if we wanted to. The great linguist Geoffrey Pullum offers the adverb carefully as an example: Stripped of the adverb carefully, Pullum notes, the sentence “Defusing a bomb must be done carefully” would morph into the nonsensical “Defusing a bomb must be done.” Carefully here, like reasonably in a commercial contract or recklessly in a criminal statute, is purposely vague, because there’s no way ahead of time to define exactly what conduct would be “careful” or “reckless” or “reasonable.”

(True, you could replace shorthand adverbs like carefully with long phrases like while exercising abundant caution, but you wouldn’t gain any precision points that way.)

Justice Kennedy makes this very point in the article—though unknowingly so. Instead of using adverbs as “a cop-out,” Kennedy is quoted as saying, “You just discipline yourself to choose your words more carefully.” Oops. Did Kennedy violate his own anti-adverb rule? Yes, but good for him.

Innocent: Frequency Adverbs

Consider another type of adverb-laden sentence. “Courts rarely find for plaintiffs in these cases.” “I have always loved you.” “The Agency has consistently argued as much.”

You see the point? Also innocent of anti-adverb charges are adverbs that tell you how often something happens. If you cut adverbs like these from your sentences, you would be lying. And I can’t put it any more bluntly than that.

Guilty: Prop-Up Adverbs

So much for the innocents. Now let’s venture into Stephen King territory: “guilty” adverbs that are superfluous or that prop up a weak verb.

Very often in writing (note the proper “frequency” adverb), we type the first verb that comes to our mind, realize that it’s not quite right, and then plop in an adverb to clean up the mess. But a better strategy is to begin afresh in search of a stronger verb.

The Journal article unwittingly offers up a case in point: “On the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy has assiduously sought to banish them from his own prose.”

Assiduously sought? Let’s do the math: “Assiduously” + “sought” = ?

How about “Kennedy has strived” rather than “Kennedy has assiduously sought”?

In fact, substituting strong verbs for weak verbs and adverbs is one of the best edits you can make:

“reluctantly” + “stated” = “conceded”

“dramatically” + “increased” = “jumped”

“painstakingly” + “examined” = “scrutinized”

“assertively” + “claimed” = “insisted”

Guilty: Rhetorical Adverbs

Now let’s talk about rhetorical adverbs, which come in two stripes:

  • “I’m so right”: clearly, obviously, patently (these are often known as “intensifier” adverbs)
  • “I’m so smart”: blatantly, speciously, preposterously

Both sets violate the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle. If something is so clear, then just state it clearly. And if the other side’s points are so blatantly specious or preposterously illogical, then just make them sound bad through how you word them.

The bottom line: Readers don’t like having conclusions shoved down their throats.

Guilty: Sentence Adverbs

I would also be wary of what’s known as the “sentence adverb.” These adverbs lurk at the start of sentences, modifying at once everything and nothing at all.

For attorneys and judges, the four most common culprits are Specifically, Arguably, Notably, and Tellingly. (The article’s author is a superb writer, but he falls into this trap himself when he introduces a surprising finding with notably—a finding that already sounded notable on its own.)

Rid your writing of needless sentence adverbs, and just let your points speak for themselves.

To sum up, just remember the following:

Is the adverb necessary shorthand or a reflection of how often something happens? Then it’s in.

But is the adverb propping up a weak verb, trying to force the reader to see things your way, or lurking for no reason at the start of a sentence? Then it’s out.

And I feel this way emphatically.