A Plague of Adverbs?

Adverbs placed in front of verbs irritate me as a reader and someone who writes. I realized that this was the prime source of my irritation as a result of my reflections and research on the admissibility of the split infinitive. Until its 1993 edition, the Chicago Style Manual (“CSM”) forbade using split infinitives categorically (or, “categorically forbade” or “forbade categorically”?). Strunk & White, among others, advise against it, unless the result would be an awkward circumlocution that would arrest the flow of ideas for the reader. In its 1993 edition, the CSM relegated all discussion of the topic to a footnote, in which the authors noted their prior prohibition and current approval only in “judicious” contexts.

The split infinitive has been used by careful writers, including those esteemed or elevated to “best” status by other careful writers and careful readers, for the entire history of Modern English. I’m sure I’ve failed to notice its use in Hume, Mill, Locke, or some list of eminent contemporary philosophers who write in English and translations of works by philosophers who don’t write in English. I’m sure I’ve failed to notice its use by journalists, essayists, historians, physicists, mathematicians or literary critics or any other genre.

I haven’t mentioned writers of fiction as a group. Decisions about grammar, syntax, punctuation and style are subordinate to decisions about story and voice. Pynchon, for example, uses adverbs as a principal instrument of his orchestra. His use of them doesn’t irritate me or slow me down; they’re essential to the voices of his narrators. T. H. White and Richard Powers don’t use them in that way.

But, I do notice adverbs placed in front of verbs, so, I notice split infinitives, which are a frequent, perhaps unnecessary, byproduct of this placement. Some of examples of this placement:

  • He quickly ran to his child.
  • She slyly slipped him a piece of paper with her phone number on it.
  • To better understand the statement, she read…
  • In cooking recipes, “quickly stir”, “slowly fold”, “finely chopped”, “lightly beaten”, “coarsely chopped”, etc. (you get the picture).
  • To more clearly depict the devastation…

Rather than, “quickly ran”, why not “darted”, “dashed”, “sprinted”, or, simply, “ran”? Instead of “very large”, why not “huge” or “enormous”? Instead of “to better understand”, why not “to understand” or “to understand better”? Why not, “onions, chopped finely” instead of “finely chopped onions”? Why use “more clearly depict” at all; “to depict” suffices when the context specifies the medium of depiction. Why does this practice irritate me? What does it say to me about the writer? What impact does it have on the reader?

First, “to better understand” and “to more clearly depict” represent the writer’s introduction of adverbs to state a conclusion that the reader should reach on his own by reading the piece. Second, they introduce a comparison that inserts context between the compared objects, thereby making the comparison weaker or less visible. Or, they introduce a comparison without providing both sides of the comparison: “better understand” than what or when, or “more clearly depict” using than what medium than some other medium? Advertising prose and political speech are rife with this practice: “Papa John’s pizza: better ingredients, better pizza”; “we believe that our approach provides greater opportunities for our constituents”. Introducing comparative terms without the compared objects, acts or events is, at best, lazy or, worse, disingenuous.

Third, writers who rely on this practice evidence, in their approach to writing, sloth, inattention to detail, lack of appreciation for the value of concision, and ignorance. Writers who don’t invest time and energy in finding a colorful or precise verb to convey meaning are less energetic or diligent than those who do. They don’t use a Thesaurus or Dictionary (which includes synonyms and alternatives). English is replete with colorful, precise verbs and adjectives that don’t need modifiers to attain clarity or impact. On the contrary, frequent use of adverbs weakens their prose, reduces its impact and impedes the reader’s interest and understanding. Adverbs function like a sauce: too much obscures the flavor, texture, and appearance of the dish; too little changes the texture of the dish without enhancing its flavor.

Fourth, many writers place adverbs in front of verbs to increase the impact or importance of the modified verb. For example:

  1. “To more clearly depict the devastation wrought by the flood, she displayed artifacts from and photos of the aftermath, photos of victims and recordings of their stories with translations rather than the written word alone.”“More clearly” is unnecessary, unless the point of the piece is to compare communication media. If this comparison were the point of the piece, he or she should use it after “flood” in order to emphasize the comparison as a buttress to his or her point. The placement in the example reduces the impact of the comparison, counter to the writer’s intent. If it were inserted there to buttress the clarity of the depiction only as described, it was superfluous.
  2. “To better understand its legal ramifications, she sent the contract to her lawyers for review.”This example appears harmless. Compare it to, “She sent the contract to her lawyer for review in order to better understand its legal ramifications.” In both cases, the writer wants to emphasize that she wants to understand the legal ramifications of the contract “better”. As the term of emphasis, “better” should be placed at the end of the sentence or the relevant clause. “To understand its legal ramifications better, she …” or “She sent … to understand its legal ramifications better.”

You should place the term of emphasis at the end of most sentences or phrases, if there is one. Its impact on the reader is greater and its relation to subsequent context is reinforced. You maintain the flow of ideas and the emotional content better than if you hide it in the interior of its sentence.

By using adverbs frequently and placing them in front of the terms they modify, writers add to their word count without increasing the impact, clarity or completeness of their prose, and they complicate their structures. Such complications interrupt the flow of their ideas, obscure their underlying logic and diffuses the emotional impact of their prose. Its effect is cumulative; no single sentence with an abundance of adverbs has much impact on this reader. But, a steady barrage of qualifiers wears me out, slows me down, and increases the degree of difficulty of the piece by creating uncertainty as to the writer’s intent or by diffusing his or her message. That is, they just get in the way of my grasp of the writer’s message and intent. Examples of this practice are ubiquitous and easy to find, but, would take pages to quote, which is inappropriate for this context.

Use adverbs sparingly. Find stronger or weaker verbs and adjectives and colorful nouns. If you must use an adverb (which you will), place it with care. The adverb you deem necessary is very important to your message, so place it with care after the verb or phrase it modifies. You will improve your prose in small increments, sentence by sentence. Your readers’ return on their investments in reading it will improve. Its effect on you and them will accumulate and the result will be readers who are more satisfied and more readers who will get your point.

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Skirmish at Sentence Break

I started on this post a while ago, intending to write a prescriptivist tirade about the integrity of the infinitive forms of verbs and how violation of this integrity is a serious crime. After doing a bit of research and reflecting more about the split infinitive and its properties that might irritate me, I determined that split infinitives, per se, are not the source of my irritation. Indeed, there are contexts in which the best course of action is to split an infinitive. Before I go any further, I should say that I realize, now, that none of the language usages that irritate me are violations of some natural law of grammar, syntax, usage or style. Nevertheless, they irritate me still, but prescriptivists’ claims about these subjects are even more irritating than the practices.

A post by novelist Lucy Ferriss on the blog, Lingua Franca, which is maintained on the web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled, “To Space or Not to Space” impelled me to laugh aloud at the entire situation. Note that this post is about whether to single- or double-space before starting a new sentence after a period/full-stop. In this post, Ms. Ferriss cites two other blog posts (on other blogs), one by NY Times technology blogger, Farhad Manjoo (blogging for Slate at the time, titled “Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever, Add Two Spaces After a Period”) and another by Robb Forman Dew on her web site. Apparently, this topic is incendiary. Manjoo, the technology blogger, takes the biblical position, that is, he cites the convention to insert one space after a period, which convention was agreed by a committee under the auspices of a Higher Authority, the typesetter’s guild, following centuries of rampant individualism by the members of said guild wreaked havoc on the publishing and printing industries (or so I’m told). Dew and Ferriss observe that those among us who have used a typewriter, viz., those over 40 years of age, learned to insert two spaces when typewritten manuscripts were in monospace type because sentence breaks were easier for typesetters to spot. According to Manjoo (and others cited by Ferriss), the introduction of variable-space fonts obviated any need for a second space after the period by rendering the single-spaced break between sentences visible (whereas, I suppose, it was invisible prior to this technological advance). Moreover for Manjoo, the single-space break is “aesthetically more pleasing.”

One result of my investigation, however non-scholarly it has been, is that I’ve discovered (yes, yes, many others discovered it before I did) a war between prescriptivist and evolutionist grammarians, stylists and writers that has raged for centuries. As an observer with a scientific perspective might expect, the evolutionists win all of the battles in this battle-without-end. Despite their losses and continuing retreat, the prescriptivists will never lose the war, at least by capitulation; they will continue to wage guerilla warfare at the fringes as they retreat still further into the wilderness. The battle of spacing is at one of those fringes and is not a battle, but a skirmish, fierce though the participants may be.

Another result is that I’ve identified most of the sources of my irritation, but I know only that some of them irritate me because some authority figure told me in my youth they should (the prime example of this is the split infinitive). I have yet to determine why other practices, such as passive voice, are irritants.

The final result, and probably most important and useful, is that I’m not irritated (or less so as the case may be) by so-called grammar, usage, style or punctuation errors. I am still irritated by prose, fiction or poetry that impedes the flow of ideas and my access to them. The battles between writing that impels versus impedes the reader’s grasp of the matter at hand are the major battles. The writer fights these battles with him or her self every day he or she writes. And, I will continue to double-space at sentence breaks without compunction, unless I’m preparing a manuscript for publication.

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The “Chicken(expletive) Club”


The Baseline Scenario

By James Kwak

The only “Wall Street” “executive” to go to jail for the financial crisis was Kareem Serageldin, the head of a trading desk at Credit Suisse, according to Jesse Eisinger in a recent article. Serageldin pleaded guilty to—get this—holding mortgage-backed securities at artificially high marks in order to minimize reported losses on his trading portfolio. 

Now if that’s a crime, there are a lot of other people who are guilty of it. In fact, a major premise of the federal government’s crisis response strategy was exactly that: allowing banks to keep assets at inflated marks in order to pretend they were solvent when they weren’t. FASB changed its rules in April 2009 in order to make it easier for banks to inflate their marks. And the Obama administration’s “homeowner relief program” was designed to allow banks to delay realizing losses on their mortgage loans by dragging out—but generally not preventing—foreclosures. (Remember…

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Why people accept the things they do

I just read this outstanding post on Phil Ebersole’s blog. Everyone should read it.

Phil Ebersole's Blog


I don’t know when, where or if this experiment was actually carried out, but it is a good parable of why bad customs persist.

Hat tip to Carol Avedon (who is listed on my Blogs I Like page).



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It’s obvious, “Those who own the country should run the country.” – John Jay, first chief justice of the SCOTUS

John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) wrote this sentence.  In 1800, this claim was axiomatic to governance in the U. S.  The population of the country was 3,000,000; agriculture was the primary source of income for its citizens and land ownership was the primary store of value (source of wealth).

They understood the meanings of “own”, “run” and “country”, as well.  “Own” was a legal term:  legal title was necessary and sufficient.  “Run,” meant, “to manage as a business or farm.”  And, “country” referred to the 13 original colonies.  Everyone knew what Jay meant:  land and business owners should vote and no one else should vote.  Thus, women, slaves, indentured servants (none of whom could own property), tradesmen and merchants who rented their place of business from a landlord couldn’t vote.

Around the time of the founding of the republic (circa 1770), agricultural land constituted about 50% of the total stock of public and private capital assets in the U. S.  Today, it constitutes less than 1% of total capital.  Housing constituted about 25% of capital and other domestic capital (commercial buildings, equipment, private harbors, roads, etc.) constituted about 25%.  Net foreign capital (capital owned by U. S. citizens or corporations) was tiny and remains tiny.  Today, housing amounts to about 40% of domestic capital and other domestic capital constitutes about 60% (I know this list totals to 101%, but these are estimates and I’m not quoting the exact figures, anyway).  In 1800, the population of the United States was about 3,000,000.  Today (2010), it’s about 350,000,000.  Population grew by a factor of 117 during the intervening 210 years.  The United States in 2010 is different from the United States in 1800 in practically every meaningful way.  Its population is larger and more diverse, its territory is larger and more diverse, its sources of income are different, its relative standing in the world is different, forms of ownership and “personhood” are different (corporations are “moral persons”, whatever that means), women can vote, children and women have rights and there are no slaves (legally) here, not to mention the technology gap (essentially, the entire industrial revolution and a good chunk of the information revolution).

Who, then, “owns the country” and “ought to run it”, today?  One unstated and widely believed answer to this question is something that resembles, “the U. S. citizens who own the financial-economic assets located within the borders of the United States own the country and should run it”, an echo of Jay’s pronouncement 214 years ago.  This principle excludes some obvious groups:  U. S. citizens living abroad who own no property in the U. S. and no financial instruments that evidence ownership of U. S. entities; U. S. citizens living in the U. S. who own no real or financial assets located in the U. S.; and U. S. residents who are not U. S. citizens.  This principle includes whom?  It includes me, my spouse and two of my adult children (both of whom own homes), but it excludes my other two adult children (who are college or university students of voting age).  It includes the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch (not a citizen), Barack Obama, Ted Turner and George Soros (these folks are just some of the well-know owners).  It includes homeowners, the investor class and owners of private businesses and farms.  In the current demographic, the owners are the middle class, upper middle class and wealthy, while the indigent, working poor and lower middle class are generally excluded from the owner class and, therefore, from the voting class.

Yet, who, then, owns public property and public assets?  Does every citizen own, by proxy, a share of the national parks, monuments and forests, undeveloped or unincorporated land, wilderness, government buildings, or the oceans within the 12-mile boundary?  Do local residents of a municipality own its public parks, public jails, wastewater treatment plants, public landfills and streets and curbs as well as such service organizations by proxy?  Are all citizens, then, property owners?

What could “run the country” mean, today?  What could “run the country” mean in any period during a democratically elected, representative governing body?  Leading an elected body is not coaching a team, managing a commercial enterprise or growing grain (see my blogpost on this topic).  To “run the country” seems to mean that elected, representative officials would comprise people who own domestic assets (financial, productive or real).  Citizen-owners would direct or influence their elected officials to pass laws that those owners want passed and erect administrative structures of which such owners approve for their implementation.  If the class of owners constitutes all citizens (some as indirect owners of government assets, then, this definition seems to be consistent with the U. S. Constitution.  If, however, the class of owners constitutes a subset of the citizenry and their influence exceeds their portion of the population, this definition describes a situation that is inconsistent with the U. S. Constitutional principle of universal suffrage.  This idea, universal suffrage, expresses the idea that each vote counts equally and connotes its extension to the idea that each voice is heard and understood on the same basis as every other voice.  The day laborer’s vote, the doctors’ vote and the CEO’s vote count once each; the laborer’s voice, the doctor’s voice and the CEO’s voice should be heard equally well.

In the United States, today, there seems to be disconnect between the idea of universal suffrage and its implementation in the political election process.  The SCOTUS majority seems to have forgotten that the world and the U. S. have changed significantly and meaningfully since its founding 238 years ago.


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It’s obvious: “Government should be run like a business.”

It’s obvious:  “Government should be run like a business.”

This assertion has a corollary, which has a strong form and a weak form:

  • Strong form:  “Business leaders should govern.”
  • Weak form:  “Government officials, elected or otherwise, should have at least some business experience.”

It also has an analogous assertion:  “Government finances should be managed like family finances.”

First, we should try to understand the phrase, “like a business”.  How is a business “run”, and, to achieve its goals, how is a business structured?  Economists, sociologists and business people propound more than one “Theory of the Firm”, but, this article is a blog post, and I see no need and insufficient space to discuss this entire topic here.

We can, however, point out some salient characteristics of management structures that are found in almost all companies and non-profit organizations.  I don’t claim that these characteristics are essential for effective management, only that they are endemic to it.  I also claim that these characteristics are a product of design, evolution.  They are:

  1. Command and Control management structure:  The CEO, with the assistance of his or her small circle of senior lieutenants, determines policy unitarily; members of the organization implement it uniformly throughout the organization.
  2. Tightly Restricted speech:  Organization policy determines message content to other organizations (public relations, transaction content, professional and commercial communication) and among the members of the organization (informal and formal speech and writing norms).
  3. Non-representative governance:  Leaders at every level are chosen to lead by their superiors or peers within the organization (or its governing Board, a very small circle of “friends”).  Individual producers have no direct influence on the appointments of leaders, nor do policy makers consider their personal life interests or requirements when forming policy (except as an afterthought).
  4. Opaque operations, structure and decision processes:  The company attempts to hide its operations and specific intentions about many aspects of operations from competitors, observers (the press, the government, the tax authorities, for example) and employees to gain competitive advantage.
  5. The stated goal of for-profit corporations:  to maximize the financial wealth of company owners (shareholders, members, as in LLCs, partners).
  6. Singular focus on achieving this goal, i. e., “winning the game by any means ”.

Promised outcomes, accordance to economic theory of the firm, of this structure include:

  1. Superior (“economic”) returns to shareholders;
  2. Nothing else.

A representative governance structure and management has at least the following salient characteristics:

  1. Distributed Power:  Decisions are taken as a result of collective action; the most frequent form of collective action in governments is voting under the principles, one person, one vote and a majority decides the issue in its favor.
  2. Loosely restricted speech:  Members of the governing body are permitted to participate in framing, arguing and voting issues equally; they make speak to non-members as they wish about any subject they want to discuss.
  3. Constituent representation:  Presumably, representatives express the preferences of their constituents and act on them by voting consistently with them.
  4. The stated goals of the government are several and the representatives and their constituents dispute their composition continuously.
  5. Transparent operations, structure and decision processes.  Admittedly, no government is completely transparent, but citizens require a significant minimum transparency of their governments.
  6. Foci on various means and limitations on means to achieving such goals.

By comparing these lists, item-by-item, it should be obvious that economic entities and political entities differ materially along at least these five dimensions.  Indeed, almost no citizen of any Western democracy would want government according to business principles.  It would be tantamount to wanting governance in the style of Somalia, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Burma, or any other totalitarian dictatorship that you want to name.  What, then, can one mean by asserting, “Government should be run like a business?”

To run a government like a business means, apparently, that its managers should devise a budget that represents the planned implementation of strategic policy, they should be allowed to deviate from it only by special approval of strategic-level management, and total expenditures should not exceed total operating cash inflow in any single year.  This position is naïve.  The federal and state government have budgets, and expenditures that would exceed budgeted amounts require approval of their legislative bodies.  Private companies do require budgets, and upside deviations from budget do require approval by more senior managers.  But, total expenditures frequently exceed total cash operating cash inflow for companies in a given period and they may do so for several periods (years) without damage to the future viability of the company.  To the argument that this operating cash outflow must turn positive at some time (but no particular time) and over the life of the firm cash inflows must exceed cash outflows, I note that so long as lenders are willing to lend and investors are willing to invest in it, a given company may never achieve positive net operating cash flows during their lifetimes.  Many companies never do achieve positive cash flow.

So, the proposition, “Government should be run like a business,” seems quite dubious to me, at least from the perspective of a citizen of a country with a representative form of government.  No two organizations are structured or operate less dissimilarly than a private-sector company and a representative body.  Representative government is a recent development in the history of civilization; private enterprise is ancient.

Having pointed out some considerable de facto differences between representative governments and private-sector companies, I haven’t addressed the question as to whether governments should be run like businesses or vice versa, i. e., whether businesses should be run like representative governments.  There are successful cooperative private companies that are run and/or owned by their employees in the United States and in Europe.  There was, at least, one in Brazil, documented in two articles in The Harvard Business Review in 1983 and 1985.  The degree of employee (vs. owner) participation in management processes varies among companies and the incidence of companies that include such participation varies from country to country.

One could draw an analogy between the primacy of corporate stockholders and the primacy of the citizenry and claim that as corporations seek to maximize the wealth of their shareholders so should governments seek optimize the well-being of their citizenry.  This analogy only shifts the comparison from goals to methods.  Businesses are managed from the top down with great flexibility and little accountability for any particular actions; governments are managed from the top down according to strict rules developed within the framework of laws passed by their legislative bodies.  The managers of government agencies are accountable to their managers, their legislators and, ultimately, their constituents.

I just don’t see the advantage of business experience versus experience as a professional, non-profit manager or other non-government employee.  I do believe that a political career should be a second career.

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Econ 101: What is a free market? (it’s obvious, isn’t it?) – a short quiz

Econ 101: What is a free market? (it’s obvious, isn’t it?) – a short quiz.

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