Aroint Thee, Unholy Adverb! Hie Thee Hence! Fie! Fie!

ShaltNot-ShaltTooA few years ago, there suddenly appeared, as if from Heaven, a new rule for writers, no doubt engraved somewhere in marble or ivory: THOU SHALT NOT USE ADVERBS. (For those who are unclear as to what an adverb is, the rule has a variant: GET RID OF ALL LY WORDS. [1])  The source of this rule is unknown to me at this time, but one authority blames it on Ellmore Leonard, who wrote an article in the NYT entitled: “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. [2]”  In fairness to Leonard, he’s not quite that rigid, though he does refer to use of “any adverb” as a mortal sin. And some trace this dictum back to Strunk & White, of which I have two copies that I don’t intend to check.

The result is perhaps an improvement in much writing, but can be mere awkwardness as new-to-the-game writers dance around each adverb by rephrasing, usually with an adverbial phrase or clause. “He chose carefully,” becomes “He chose in a careful way.” One adverb has been dutifully removed at a cost of adding four words back, and the adverbial “sin” is not eliminated, merely disguised by the absence of “ly.” They remain unshriven, and the English Inquisition shall pay them a call in due time, unexpectedly.

The actual logic behind the no-adverbs rule is that adverbs are too often used as a substitute for a strong verb. Beginners are prone to write, “‘Get out,’ he said loudly,” instead of “‘Get out,’ he yelled.” Thus it is absolutely no improvement to substitute, “‘Get out,’ he said in a loud manner,” for the former.[3]

For a great illustration of the use of strong verbs, see Keith Roberts’ The Signaller, from his novel, Pavane.[4] A sample:

“. . . What trees there were grew in clusters, little coppices that leaned with the wind, their twigs meshed together as if for protection, their outlines sculpted into the smooth, blunt shapes of ploughshares. One such copse crowned the summit of the knoll; under the first of its branches, and sheltered by them from the wind, a boy lay facedown in the snow . . .  ”

A few years ago, Geoffrey Pullum savaged a post from the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, weighing  in on this subject with Being an Adverb.[5] Pullum says, among other heretical things, “The truth is that nothing as mechanical as abandoning adverbs (or certain subclasses of adverbs) is going to uniformly improve your prose.”

Who started the “adverbs are a mortal sin” notion? Do you still use them?


[1] This assumes that any word ending in “ly” is, ipso facto, an adverb, like incorrectly, jocularly, and barfly.


[3] Yes, just plain, “Get out!” is sometimes even better, depending on the context.





3 thoughts on “Aroint Thee, Unholy Adverb! Hie Thee Hence! Fie! Fie!

  1. Writers are given many rules that “MUST” be followed, but most of them can and should be broken. And broken often! Good post – thanks for the permission and the humor.


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