Writing Concisely

This cartoon is a very concise explanation for why one has to be careful about grammar strictures.

It raises a couple interesting questions, though.  One, did Rick Griffin mean to further point out the problems with so many grammar guides by having the guide use an adverb, or is that simply a function of the fact that it is so freakin’ hard to say something with emphasis without using them?  Two, did he deliberately use a poor first example as well as a poor second example?  Because, of course, “running quickly” isn’t necessarily the same as “sprinting”.   It could mean the same thing in some circumstances, but it could also describe someone running who happens to be good at it, and thus does it faster than someone who runs at a more average speed.

But really, what it gets to is that a lot of people are a bit vague on what adverbs are, and I don’t just mean people who don’t know that they are things that modify verbs.  I often notice a sort of sleight of hand when someone is telling me I musn’t use adverbs.  They start off by saying something like “avoid ‘-ly’ adverbs”, then, as they warm to their subject and expound on the evils of the the things, sort of drift into talking about adverbs in general.  There are two problems with this, of course.  One, not all ‘-ly’ words are adverbs.  I was recently scolded for using ‘actually’ because it is an adverb.  Now, it is entirely possible that I should have avoided ‘actually’ in that case, but not because it is an adverb (because it ain’t one), nor even because it is an adjective (because a blanket rule against adjectives is even more ridiculous than one against adverbs), but possibly because it fuzzed things up or was awkward, a role verbs and nouns can also play.  I can’t decide whether the issue is more that people just like to have a set of simple rules and over-apply them, or whether they lack the confidence to just say something sounds awkward without having a particular prohibition they can cite.

Second, not all adverbs end in ‘-ly’.  So.  Are adverbs the problem, or are words that end in ‘-ly’ the problem?  I guess to answer that, we need to know what the problem is, and this is where things seem to get tricky.

I’ve heard a couple rationales for avoiding adverbs.  One is that they clutter things up and make prose verbose.  The cartoon above nicely demolishes this for adverbs in general, and even in the case of the Eeeeevil “-ly” adverb tacked on to dialogue or the like it is often plain wrong.  I will admit that it is a lot easier to tack on a wholly unnecessary adverb, than, say, an unnecessary noun, but in many cases an adverb is just a way of avoiding whole lines of windy description, and they can be quite elegant at doing so.  People who emphasize this rationale often overlook the fiendish subtly of the English language, and really do think that “running quickly” always means “sprinting”.

Another thing I hear is that adverbs “tell” rather than “show”.  The whole “show don’t tell” thing is the subject for another post, but for the moment let’s stipulate that in general, it is good advice.  I’d also agree that adverbs are probably a bit more prone to misuse in this regard, but adjectives, nouns, and verbs are hardly blameless either.  Also, if you get down to the single-word level, sometimes you just gotta “tell”

So what it boils down to, it seems to me, is that one shouldn’t use adverbs if they are unnecessary, or if there is a more dynamic way of saying the same thing.  You know what, though?  That advice is just as good if you replace “adverb” in that sentence with “adjective”, “verb”, or “noun”.  Adverbs may wave a bit more of a red flag than other things, but that’s about it.

As they are fond of pointing out at Language Log, the sorts of people who tell us not to use adverbs tend to use them just as often, or more often, than everyone else.  They just use them carefully, if they are good writers, like they use everything else.

~ by smwilliams on October 6, 2011.