Adverbs (not for the first time I would guess!)
Posted: 25 February 2013 06:21 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  246
Joined  2007-02-16

Geoffrey Pullum, writing in today’s (2/25/13) edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, takes out after an author of a piece who advocates the abandoning of (many, not all) adverbs.  In the article he refers somewhat vitriolically(sic) to Strunk & White.

“The truth is that nothing as mechanical as abandoning adverbs (or certain subclasses of adverbs) is going to uniformly improve your prose. Similar advice is handed out elsewhere (by the royally knighted but linguistically benighted broadcaster Sir Alistair Cooke, for example, and naturally, by Strunk & White’s toxic little compendium of misguided maxims); but like the familiar advice to avoid passive clauses, it is never followed by the people who recommend following it.”

Back in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of S&W, Pullum wrote a hard-hitting piece which may be found at this second site:

Perhaps WO covered it at that time. In case not, it’s worth a read.

Posted: 25 February 2013 06:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  3583
Joined  2007-01-29

At around the same time, he and I both had a go at S&W at the online NY Times.

Posted: 25 February 2013 09:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Total Posts:  368
Joined  2012-01-10

The admonishment to avoid adverbs (and, sometimes, adjectives) is a fairly commonly given piece of advice.  It is also rather silly, as Pullum skillfully points out.  What is interesting to me is that the articles and blogs that dispense this silly advice often suggest, as an experiment of sorts, that the reader look over a piece of their own writing, delete all (or certain classes of) modifiers, and see whether this improved their writing or not.  The idea is that one would be astonished at how much better this simple device makes a given writing sample.

Out of curiosity, I conducted this exercise on one of my own writing samples: a 40-page legal brief I wrote in 2008.  I found precisely two modifiers that could be deleted without sacrificing necessary information.  Of those, deleting one of them, in my judgment, would have been a wash: it would have made the sentence just a bit more succinct, but it also would have made it just a bit less clear.  Deleting the other one, I think, would have improved the sentence, but only slightly.  Deleting the rest of the modifiers would have been a terrible blunder.

I did, of course, find plenty of things that would have benefited from revision.  From a superficial and mechanical standpoint, I did, in general, overuse phrases like “it may be the case that” (in place of something like, “it may be").  But the majority of the things that I found that could have been improved could not have been cured through any simple and formulaic device.

[ Edited: 25 February 2013 09:41 AM by Svinyard118 ]
Posted: 25 February 2013 10:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Total Posts:  4904
Joined  2007-01-03

But the majority of the things that I found that could have been improved could not have been cured through any simple and formulaic device.

I would say that is generally true of any writing advice. The problem is that good lists of “things to watch out for” are turned into “delete all instances of” when put into practice by those who promulgate pithy and easy bits of writing advice. The call to eliminating unnecessary modifiers, like S&W’s more general “omit needless words,” isn’t bad advice. The trick is to know what is “unnecessary” and “needless.” That determination is not reducible to a mechanical and formulaic fix. If good writing could be reduced to such lists, computers would have been doing it twenty years ago.