News From The Front In The War On Adverbs


Mark Liberman blogged on Slate (Stop Hating on Adjectives and Adverbs) about repeated advice from experts to eliminate adverbs & adjectives. Like this:

“So how do we produce readable and clean scientific writing? One of the good elements of style is to avoid adverbs and adjectives (Zinsser 2006). Adjectives and adverbs sprinkle paper with unnecessary clutter. This clutter does not convey information but distracts and has no point especially in academic writing, say, as opposed to literary prose or poetry.”

           —Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, Scientometrics 2013, Cluttered writing: adjectives and adverbs in academia

“When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

           —Mark Twain, in a letter

Mark wrote a Python script to count what fraction of words were adverbs & adjectives in these texts:

Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (“It was a dark and stormy night”), first chapter:           .117

Jacques Derrida’s Chapter 2 of Of Grammatology, selected for its unreadability:     .139

Zinsser, On Writing Well (advises avoiding adverbs & adjectives):                            .128

Mark Twain’s death-to-adjectives letter:                                                                      .141

Okulicz-Kozaryn, “Cluttered writing: adjectives and adverbs in academia”:                 .158

I don’t know exactly what the Python NLTK module counts as an adverb or adjective. Those all sound high to me. But we see that the three writers complaining about adverbs & adjectives used a lot of them even as they complained about them. (I notice the title of “Cluttered writing” is 50% adjectives.)

One problem with adverbs is that so many of them end in -ly that it gives a repetitive sound to a paragraph, particularly when adverbs end sentences. Erin Brenner claims in When Adverbs Fall Flat that this is the destructive work of eighteenth-century grammarians, who set about converting all non-Latinate English words to -ly forms to make them more like Latin.


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