February 27, 2013

Defending the adverb


I love it when someone punctures a “rules of good writing” myth with a large resounding pop, and so this week I’m indebted to Geoffrey Pullum, who has a post up on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Lingua Franca blog about adverbs, and how they are really not so bad. Pullum is responding to a post on the Macmillan Dictionary blog, which proposed this:

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.

To which Pullum retorts:

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.

Hotcha! May I also point out that the advice-giver both validates and ignores his own advice in the very first sentence? If the point he wants to make is that adverbs are sometimes used by people to waffle, instead of ordering the reader around in a clear and confident way, then “ideally an essay of your own” is a perfect example of this. The post is intended to make you, the reader of the Macmillan Dictionary blog, a better writer, or at least to make you think more critically about your own writing. The best, simplest way to do this is by looking at your writing; otherwise, and I speak from experience, you can read style guides all day and still ignore the advice when actually sitting down to write anything.

The bottom line is, as Pullum puts it:

The truth is that nothing as mechanical as abandoning adverbs (or certain subclasses of adverbs) is going to uniformly improve your prose.

Just about the only virtue of the post was that it didn’t frame the whole question in terms of making your prose more “muscular,” which has always seemed like simple metonymy to me: I was meant to think of Hemingway and his burly chest. And then put the pen to paper. And write. Adverbs being the preserve of ladies who presumably don’t know whether they’re very unsure of what they’re saying or only a little unsure. Or in some cases, dictionary bloggers.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.