By Jason Zweig | July 19, 2017 9:17 pm ET
Image credit: John Martin, “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1851-1853), Tate Britain
Like most people who write for a living, I have fierce convictions about the right and wrong ways to use words. Most of the time I keep them to myself; nobody likes being nagged by a grammar nanny. It’s boring and annoying to be — or to listen to — the pedantic style police.
But I’ve run out of patience with people using adverbs as insidious tools for marketing and propaganda. That misuse of language has made me so angry that the constant pain of biting my tongue has forced me to stop keeping my mouth shut.
So what follows is a rant to relieve my own frustration on why I hate adverbs. I hope, at the least, it will make you question words harder before you use them.
In shunning adverbs whenever I can, I’m in good company.
Mark Twain disliked them:
I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me….
this is her demon, the adverb is mine….
I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more, I won’t.
Stephen King dislikes them:
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.
And as for me, I really, truly, actually, literally dislike adverbs.
No: I hate them.
The simplest search-and-destroy mission — annihilate adverbs on sight — reveals them to be what they are. If parts of speech were foods, adverbs would be Twinkies: insipid, empty calories pumped full of air.
Look what happens when you delete the adverbs from my sentence above, “And as for me, I
really, truly, actually, literally dislike adverbs”: You force yourself to justify the verb dislike and to ask why, if it is the right word, you needed to upholster it with all those modifiers in the first place.
The answer: because it wasn’t the right word. It wasn’t strong enough in its own right. Pick a hotter verb — hate instead of dislike — and the need for the adverbs falls away. The action speaks for itself once you figure out what it is that you were trying to say.
It isn’t that adverbs are never necessary. It’s that they are so rarely necessary and so often misused.
(Yes, I know: Never, rarely, and often are adverbs. Here, I’m using adverbs deliberately!)
But adverbs aren’t just chronically misused. They are intentionally abused.
Because they are emphasis words, dragooned into place as reinforcements for language and ideas that would otherwise be too feeble to defend themselves, adverbs are often a signal that someone is trying to deceive or manipulate you. At a minimum, adverbs should put you on notice as a reader that the evidence isn’t convincing enough to hold itself up without an adverbial crutch.
Look at this example:
He is truly a legend in his own time.
Now parse it by deleting the adverb and using basic skills of critical thinking to interrogate what’s left of the sentence:
truly a “legend in his own time.”
- According to whom?
- What does it mean to be a “legend in your own time”?
- Who measures or determines how famous you have to be to qualify?
- If the person is as famous as you imply, why do you have to remind your readers that he’s a legend?
- And isn’t “legend in his own time” just a cliché anyway?
Look what has happened here. The adverb, a lexical wave of the hand intended to convince you without supporting evidence, is the weakest link in the sentence. Yank it out, and the whole sentence comes apart and falls clanking to the ground.
“Truly” is there as marketing, not meaning — to get you to suspend your disbelief about something that is at best unproven (or unprovable) and at worst untrue. A sign in the window of the restaurant declaring “TRULY THE BEST PIZZA IN TOWN” is telling you to prepare for a bad case of indigestion.
Thus, the ultimate reason I hate adverbs is because they so often mean the opposite of what they imply. Actually, certainly, clearly, obviously, really: All are noodge words, wielded by writers who are either too lazy to find a better way to make the point or too deceptive to use honest verbs and nouns that can stand on their own without being propped up.
The only way to see if a word is indispensable is to eliminate it and see whether you miss it. Try this exercise yourself:
- Take any sentence containing “actually” or “literally” or any other abstract adverb, written by anyone ever.
- Delete that adverb.
- See if the sentence loses one iota of force or meaning.
- I’d be amazed if it does (if so, please let me know).
Concrete adverbs, such as wildly or coldly, inject specificity into sentences. Conceptual adverbs like truly or really drain the vividness out of sentences, replacing it with unsubstantiated claims you have to take on faith alone.
Here’s my translation of what adverbs purport to mean, and what they do mean.
|Adverb||What it ought to mean||What it does mean|
|Actually||I've analyzed objective, long-term evidence to arrive at a fair conclusion||In my opinion
|Certainly||The probability is 100%||Maybe|
|Clearly||I saw this coming and said so||I had no idea this would happen, but it's obvious now (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) that it had to happen
|Definitely||Pretty close to completely certain||I'm pretty sure, I guess|
|Extremely||Significantly more than the expected average, based on a large historical sample||Kind of / sort of / somewhat
|Increasingly||At a greater rate over time||I don't have any supporting data, because if I did I would have used it instead of just saying 'increasingly'|
|Literally||Exactly as written or recorded||Not literally|
|Overwhelmingly||By a statistically unusual margin||By a lot, but I’m not spoiling the dramatic mood by telling you how much|
|Possibly||The probability appears to be greater than 0% and less than 50%||Probably not|
|Probably||The probability exceeds 50%||Possibly|
|Really||More than usual||Not really|
|Totally and completely||Without any possible exception||Kind of / sort of / somewhat|
|Truly||Proven by analysis of the data||We're making this up|
|Undoubtedly; indubitably; indisputably||Beyond the shadow of a doubt||Because I say so|
|Very||Somewhat more than the expected average, based on a large historical sample||Not very|
Even the way people use adverbs in everyday speech shows how weak many of these words have become in common usage. To make them work at all anymore, you have to festoon them with irony and air quotes. Think of how “absolutely” has mutated into “absof*ckinglutely,” or how people say “I literally died laughing” to mean “I literally didn’t die laughing.”
I would never advise you, of course, to avoid using adverbs completely! The world’s greatest writers have all used them. Added judiciously, appropriately and, above all, sparingly, adverbs make good writing great. Used lazily, mindlessly or deceptively, adverbs turn into neurotoxins that numb the minds of readers — and of many writers, too.