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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Filed under Communication, Grammar, Language, Writing

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