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Adverbs on Trial: Guilty, Innocent, or It Depends?

Several years ago, a Wall Street Journal legal columnist put adverbs on trial.

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

Witnesses for the defense: Famed adverb fan Justice Scalia, an academic “legal anthropologist,” and the author of the article, who claims that adverbs “wield power” in the American legal system, critics who “look askance” be damned.

If these Adverb Wars make you scratch your head a bit quizzically, help is on the way. Immediately.

I issue below a mixed verdict: An “innocent” finding on two types of adverbs, but a “guilty” verdict on three others.

Innocent on Count One: Shorthand Adverbs

The Journal article makes much of high-profile cases over adverbs like 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: There’s no way to define ahead of time 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 to what end?)

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 just violate his own anti-adverb rule?

Innocent on Count Two: 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.

Thank goodness for adverbs that tell us how often something happens. If you cut adverbs like these from your sentences, you would be lying. And I can’t put it more bluntly than that.

Guilty on Count Three: 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.

When writing, we often (note the proper “frequency” adverb), 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. A better strategy? Take a deep breath and search for a precise, vivid 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”?

But we shouldn’t stop there:

reluctantly + stated = conceded

dramatically + increased = jumped

painstakingly + examined = scrutinized

assertively + claimed = insisted

Guilty on Count Four: Rhetorical Adverbs

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

  • “I’m so right”: clearlyobviouslypatently (these are often known as “intensifier” adverbs)
  • “They’re so wrong”: blatantlyspeciouslypreposterously

Both sets violate the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle. If your point is so clear, then just state it clearly. And if the other side’s points are so blatantly specious or preposterously illogical, then let your words speak for themselves.

Guilty on Count Five: Sentence Adverbs

Also resist what’s known as the “sentence adverb.” These adverbs hover over the start of sentences, modifying at once everything and nothing.

For attorneys and judges, the four most common culprits are SpecificallyArguablyNotably, 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.)

To sum up, just remember the following:

Is the adverb necessary shorthand or a reflection of how often something happens? Then leave it 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 take it out.

And I recommend that approach most emphatically.