Why pick on adverbs?

Posted by on February 07, 2013

The former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was fond of the expression “totally and utterly”. We were regularly told that something was “totally and utterly unacceptable”, or that she “totally and utterly condemned” some recent outrage. (She wasn’t alone in favouring this combination: our corpus includes 130 examples.) Not one adverb but two! So Mrs Thatcher would be doubly condemned by Adam Kilgarriff, whose recent post advised against using adverbs at all. But as some commenters hinted, there’s more to language than the functional business of getting your message across. There are pragmatic (or interpersonal) aspects too, and Thatcher’s choice of adverbs tells us a lot about the speaker and her mindset. She was what we call a “conviction politician”: not the kind of person who likes to consider everyone’s point of view, but someone who believes they are “totally and utterly” right.

It’s a good discipline, as Adam advised, to review anything you have written and see what can be omitted without loss of meaning (or impact), and the resulting text will be tighter, less rambling, and easier to read. And when you look at the words you have cut, they’re more likely to be adverbs than anything else. But adverbs come in many shapes and sizes (as Adam says, they are “the dustbin of English grammatical categories”), so it’s worth looking at each type to see which are the worst offenders – and which are harder to do without.

Top of the list of indispensable adverbs must be those small words like off, away, and back (which are also fundamental to the way metaphor works). As Gill Francis commented, “without them we wouldn’t have a clue where we are or how we got there”. Next come the “manner” type (slowly, calmly, rudely and so on) – the prototypical adverbs. Adam’s favourite quotation (“an adverb is for the linguistic dwarf unable to reach for the correct verb”) seems most apposite in this case. Try our thesaurus entry at walk, and you’ll find a string of specialized verbs which provide more elegant ways of describing ways of walking: for instance, stride (instead of “walk confidently and energetically”) or stroll (“walk slowly and nonchalantly”). There is a rich set of options available here (no adverbs needed!) but that’s not the case with every verb. Is there an adverbless way of saying that a decision was “cautiously welcomed” or “enthusiastically welcomed” (apart from using an adjective – “it received a cautious/enthusiastic welcome” – but it’s not clear why that is any better). So the best advice would be: use these when you need to, but use, err… cautiously.

Then there are “viewpoint” adverbs – the ones you can paraphrase as “from a __point of view”. A novel set in the time of the French Revolution may be entertaining but “historically inaccurate”. Corpus data shows these often come in pairs, indicating contrasting perspectives:

policies which are both politically acceptable and environmentally sustainable
the competing agendas of geographically close but politically divergent countries
[a decision that is] economically necessary but politically difficult

Without the adverbs, these sentences wouldn’t make much sense, and substituting the kind of paraphrase mentioned above would be more long-winded rather than less.

Next come the adverbs of  “stance”: these don’t modify a verb or adjective, but apply to an entire sentence, and indicate the writer’s assessment of the the whole utterance. This group includes two which Adam singles out for criticism (interestingly and surprisingly), as well as words like apparently, annoyingly, and undoubtedly. Its most famous incarnation is in Rhett Butler’s immortal line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Removing the adverb in this case is not recommended, but is this category overused? Perhaps it is, but arguably (!), the adverb is there to tell us what the writer thinks about a situation, not to tell readers what they ought to think. As in these examples:

Surprisingly, nearly all the hostages showed sympathy for their captors
Inexplicably, only one episode of the show was ever made.
Thankfully, no-one was seriously injured.

Which brings us to the most problematic class of adverbs, the “intensifiers” (or “amplifiers”). In an interesting paper, Graeme Kennedy (2003) has analysed corpus data for 24 of these words, including utterly, terribly, enormously, and highly. His research demonstrates that not only are words like this frequent in every kind of text, but also that there is a complex system at work. To give one example, completely has a strong tendency to occur with words ending in –ed (verbs or participial adjectives), such as unrelated, mystified, ignored, and eradicated. And it tends to be associated with negative states or with the idea of “abolition”. Although many of these adverbs essentially mean “very” or “very much”, they are not always interchangeable: something can be highly improbable or absolutely ridiculous, but not the other way around. Because of their frequency and unpredictability, collocations like these are often highlighted in the Macmillan Dictionary and covered in more detail in the Macmillan Collocations Dictionary.

But what if Adam is right, and we can do without these adverbs altogether? It’s true that combinations like these sometimes cross the line from “frequent and idiomatic combination” to “cliché” (categorically deny comes to mind), and there’s a case for saying that adverbs of this type tend to be overused. Abandoning intensifiers would make life easier for learners, but wouldn’t our speech and writing lose something in the process? As Gill Philip commented on Adam’s post, adverbs “have much to contribute in the communication of thoughts, feelings and opinions”. There’s a sentence in our corpus discussing the “war on drugs”, where the writer says that “prohibition has failed completely, totally and utterly”.The meaning would be the same without all those adverbs, but they give us an insight into his depth of feeling on the subject. Then again, I could be totally and utterly wrong.

Reference

Graeme Kennedy. 2003. ‘Amplifier collocations in the British National Corpus: Implications for English language teaching’. TESOL Quarterly 37/3. 467-488.

Comments (8)
  • [...] Macmillan Dictionary blog, Michael Rundell picked on adverbs and Stan Carey praised serendipity. On his own blog, Stan traced the diffusion and variety of folk [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: 30 Rock, gaslighting, dictionary news | Wordnik on 8th February, 2013
  • Michael’s post shows convincingly that words like ‘away’, ‘slowly’, ‘geographically’, ‘apparently’ and ‘utterly’ really haven’t got a great deal in common, in terms of how they relate to other words, phrases, sentences and utterances – and that ‘adverbs’ isn’t actually a very useful category. Time for a terminological clearout, and some new categories that reflect 21st century English more accurately and transparently? Absolutely!

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 10th February, 2013
  • [...] Why pick on adverbs? [...]

    Posted by Link love: language (51) « Sentence first on 21st February, 2013
  • Great post! I strongly agree that we shouldn’t pick on adverbs!

    FYI, there’s a mistake in this sentence: “His research demonstrates that not only are words like this frequent in every kind of text (…)”. It should be “His research demonstrates that not only are words like THESE frequent in every kind of text (…)”

    Posted by Priscila L. S. on 12th April, 2013
  • When I used to read aloud to my children I couldn’t help noticing J K Rowling is the queen of the ‘manner’ adverb. Open a HP book at any page of dialogue and you will find people saying things coldly, shortly, briskly, sheepishly, hoarsely, indignantly etc. I think the most frequently occurring trigram in the whole series is ‘…Harry said hotly’.

    Posted by Roz Combley on 16th April, 2013
  • [...] http://grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/adverbquotes.htm (Richard Nordquist)http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/why-pick-on-adverbs (Michael Rundell)http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/02/20/being-an-adverb/ (Geoffrey [...]

    Posted by Who Murdered Those Poor, Pitiful Adverbs? | JaniceHeck on 12th June, 2013
  • Posted by Rough Draft- Now What? | Kiki Lynnwood on 25th June, 2013
  • […] or subversive adverbs: Adverbs can spice up your verbs and shift their meaning in important ways. (Michael Rundell gives a great description of how Margaret Thatcher used the adverbial phrase “totally and […]

    Posted by In Defense of Adverbs on 17th December, 2013
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields Notify me of follow-up comments via email