New Year’s resolution: no adverbs

Posted by on January 17, 2013

Nouns are what the world is made of. Verbs are how you put them together. Adjectives are straightforward. And adverbs are … monsters.

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.

(Of course, you may have another problem if you were writing an assignment which needs to be, say, 500 words, and you realise that the removal of these words and phrases has lost you 30%. But, for now, let’s assume that the purpose of writing is communicating, not keeping your boss or teacher happy.)

Whenever I see “surprisingly” or “interestingly” I always think: surprising to whom? Interesting to whom? Perhaps it was surprising to the author because they didn’t have the intelligence to anticipate what they then found surprising. If I am going to be surprised or interested by something I read, it will be because I find the content surprising or interesting, not because the author has told me to.

Adverbs are the dustbin of English grammatical categories. There are the -ly adverbs of manner which can be formed from almost any adjective (smugly, intelligently, squashily), the very-high-frequency time adverbs  (soon, often, yesterday), and then a ragbag of hedges (maybe, possibly, probably), emphasizers (very, extremely, absolutely), sentence adverbs (however, consequently, funnily (enough)) and extreme horrors like just and quite which, depending on many precise characteristics of context and placement, can mean anything from “very much” to “scarcely at all”, with many deviations in between.

The time adverbs I allow. The hedges I forgive, after careful consideration, if the sentence would be untrue without them, but this does not happen as often as you might think. Compare “blips are blops” with “almost invariably blips are blops”. Do they say anything different? Not really, because the first is not claiming that all blips are blops; it is silent on that question. The sentence adverbs are wildly overused by many authors. (For a more measured discussion, in the context of language learning and of academic English, see Paquot (2010). The reason may be that they are taught, and students learn to use them – and then never stop using them.)

Many adverbs of stance – emphasisers, hedges and so forth – have a job to do in dialogue, where they are used to manage the relationship between the speakers, indicating who is senior and who is junior, who wants to be friendly and who wants to assert themself, and so forth. But these factors do not apply when we write. Cut them out.

As for –ly adverbs of manner, they often put things clumsily. Whoops! They are often just clumsy.

Fifteen years ago I attended a talk by a science journalist, who said, out of the blue, “an adverb is for the linguistic dwarf unable to reach for the correct verb”. My goodness it stuck.  (He had some other good advice, too: “The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.” I traced that one to G. K. Chesterton. I never did trace the dwarf quote.)

Now is the New Year, time of resolutions. Make one now. No adverbs.

Reference
Paquot, M. Academic Vocabulary in Learner Writing. Continuum, London and New York, 2010.

Comments (12)
  • Oh dear, and I thought the world had had its share of prescriptivists. It seems there’s always room for a new one. :/

    Posted by Natália Guerreiro on 17th January, 2013
  • Adam: I can understand why no one has challenged you about this: everyone has taken your advice and sought “a more measured discussion” in Paquot (2010). Or maybe they are busy counting the number of adverbs you yourself use in this piece, and wondering what it’s all about. So I’ll barge in to state the obvious – adverbs are a huge diverse class and a necessary part of the systems of choices available to us. You say that if you take all the adverbs out of a text, then “usually, the meaning is still exactly the same” (I counted three adverbs there!), But this applies only to bad writing; in good writing every word is doing something useful.The adverbs you throw out are themselves innocent. (Well most of them are, though I agree about ‘interestingly’, and its pal ‘arguably’. )

    Secondly, adverbs are the dustbin among word classes, as you point out. But maybe it is more like a high street charity shop than a dustbin: you can find some indispensable stuff in there. ‘Off’, ‘away, ‘down’, ‘back’, ‘out’, ‘first’ and ‘last’ are all adverbs in one or more of their major senses, and without them we wouldn’t have a clue where we are or how we got there.

    Posted by Gill on 18th January, 2013
  • Wonder if you are familiar with M. K. Halliday’s metafunctions of language? (Ideational. textual and interpersonal). Adverbs have a key role to play both in textual and interpersonal meaning. Suggest you checkout Systemtic Functional Lingusitics and try to be just a tad less prescriptive.

    Posted by Frank Smedley on 21st January, 2013
  • I have heard people say similar things about adjectives. I think Marc Twain hated them to the point that he even exhorted people to kill any adjective they catch. Anyway, I like every word in the language. It is true that adjectives and adverbs don’t add much meaning, but if you remove all of them, your writing will be reduced to bare bones. I don’t think that any sensible writer would do that.

    Posted by Manjusha on 22nd January, 2013
  • The world would be a sad place without adverbs, just as it would be a sad place without adjectives, or any other “word class” we can name. Just because adverbs are a “dustbin category” (I believe Crystal was the one who coined that term, in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language ) doesn’t mean they are to be discarded. Crystal called them a “dustbin category” because anything we can’t classify easily can be shoved into the “adverbs” pigeonhole. So let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater here. True, they can be over-used, but so can complex noun phrases, for instance, and I don’t remember hearing or reading about people complaining about complex noun phrases.
    Leave adverbs alone: they have much to contribute in the communication of thoughts, feelings and opinions. A text without them communicates information about the world, perhaps, but not about our place in it.

    Posted by Gill Philip on 25th January, 2013
  • Well said Gill.
    Much of what you say relates to Halliday’s interpersonal metafunction in language. I tend to think the dropping of adjectives and adverbs is like reducing language to a black and white photo.

    Posted by Frank Smedley on 25th January, 2013
  • I cannot but disagree, Adam. Leaving adverbs aside renders writing and speaking semantically weak.

    Posted by Inés Frigerio on 26th January, 2013
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  • Often, the “ly” adverbs let us use active voice more so than otherwise. “They often put things clumsily” is active. “They are often just clumsy” is passive. I and most readers much prefer active voice. Also, “ly” adverbs give us more oppty to change up the phrasing, cadence and formation of a sentence, keeping our writing fresh. I see no reason to avoid their use!

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