Avoid the Adverb

The novelist Graham Greene – a master of lean, mean prose – called adverbs ‘beastly’. (In spite of the -ly ending, that’s an adjective.)

Think of the adverb ‘quite’, which is either ambiguous or weak: ‘quite good’ can mean ‘better than expected’, ‘something a bit less than good’, ‘actually good’, ‘very good’. In any case, it lacks oomph.

Or indeed ‘very’, which the nineteenth-century newspaper editor William Allen White called ‘the weakest word in the English language’. Very true.

In legal writing, adverbs are often used as qualifiers or fillers. I’m thinking of words like ‘generally’, ‘clearly’, ‘unfortunately’.

In opinions, ‘generally’ may have a valid place as a signal of potential uncertainty in the law (although even there it can be overused, when it’s a substitute for actual analysis). In an article or blog, try to eliminate ‘generally’. You’re not writing an opinion (and there will be a boilerplate disclaimer saying that your piece is not to be taken as legal advice anyway), so all it does is soften your impact.

If you have to say ‘clearly’, odds are the point isn’t clear at all. The word is just filler – or an attempt to make the best of a bad job.

Even worse is ‘unfortunately’, which I see a lot in student memos (‘Unfortunately, there appears to be no case law on point …’). It’s not unfortunate, it just is.

And please don’t misuse ‘literally’ as mild form of emphasis. It means ‘as opposed to figuratively’. It would be correct to say ‘I literally have to run’ if the starting gun for your 10-km race is about to go off; incorrect if all you mean is ‘I must go’.

As linguistics prof Geoffrey Nunberg puts it, ‘Adverbs tend to show people at their worst – posturing, embellishing, apologizing, or just being mealy-mouthed.’

Next tip: apostrophe catastrophes.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

Start the discussion!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)