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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Adverbs and Other Enemies

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Don’t let adverbs cough in the face of your style. Truman Capote, with a pout and a moue, would have agreed. His original manuscript of In Cold Blood began:


“Holcomb is a very visible village, located on high wheat plains of western Kansas, where the air is Swiss-clear and the flat views lonesomely, awesomely extensive.”


He improved it no end in the published book:


“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.”


Shedding these -ly -lly  false notes from our writing is as urgent as suppressing the “you knows”  that clutter our speech like a stutter.


Elmore Leonard told writers of dialogue never to use the word “suddenly” or any other word to modify the verb “said”. He added, “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin,” and quoted himself, “I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances 'full of rape and adverbs.’’’


But even laconic Leonard can’t do without sneaky little adverbs like much and more:


“He’d said to Helene, ‘Did you know women snore as much as men? I’ve made a study. Women aren’t as loud, but they’re more original. Some of  ‘em go, ‘chit ..chit.’ like a little sneeze. Some of ‘em go,’pissssss,’ on the exhale.” (Bandits, 1987)


“Adverbs are the enemy of the verb,” said Ernest Hemingway. Always the hunter, he saw them as an excuse for giving up the chase for the right verb. He wanted nothing to do with space fillers like actually, really, and totally. He swatted small fry like rather, quite and very like flies that had nothing to contribute to the meal,


However, the -ly parasites clung like stink bugs and chaffer beetles on safari. In Selected Letters, 1927, the Great White Hunter writes:


“Got a sheet to fill out from Who’s Who and my life has been so fuckingly complicated that I was only able to answer two of the questions.”


And there is the wonderful exchange from The Sun Also Rises:


“How did you go bankrupt?”


“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”


So let’s back away from paranoia and admit with a grudge that a total adverb purge—(not, for heaven’s sake, grudgingly and totally)—isn’t feasible. We will settle for what Sir Ernest Gowers says about adverbs  in ABC of Plain Words, 1951:


“Be sparing of them, and use them to give precision rather than to add emphasis. Distrust all those that vaguely intensify, such as very, considerably, appreciably, unduly and substantially, and those that vaguely mitigate such as relatively, comparatively, duly, somewhat, rather. The unreflecting use of very is a bad habit easily acquired. So is the insertion of necessarily or inevitably into a plain statement of fact.”


Note that Sir Ernest has to call on vaguely and easily in order to have his say against adverbs.



We will concentrate  our fire on  hopefully, with which the tin-eared have a shameful love affair.


(Outlawing -ly ending false notes would remove a temptation for foreign learners of English. Stalled in conversation, they often grab for something Anglo-familiar, and dump a hopefully on us.)


It came in with the 1930s, as I did, when everything began to go wrong. Maybe the Great Depression—what the British called the Slump—can be blamed. Hope was scarce in a Salvation Army soup kitchen where some no-hoper with an empty stomach uttered it between thin courses, a prayer and  a wish for something more worthy of a belch. Hopefully, he said, and we have been  plagued with it ever since.


I’m not talking grammar, a lesser consideration in my book. I’m talking about gut turning disgust. Pedants have arguing about the splash of verbal sludge since President Herbert Hoover was wheeled out of the White House. At first they said no to a sentence like this:


Hopefully, his mother-in-law will recover her wits soon.


Because it wasn’t clear whether the insane termagant or the poor son-in-law had the hope.


But they approved a sentence like this:


Nevertheless, he looks hopefully for an early death.


Because, we knew who hoped and, it was assumed, who would be escorted to the Happy Hunting Ground.


Better to impose a full ban on hopefully that has proliferated like mouth rot among kissing cousins. That would also strike a blow at every adverb that fades out with the  -ly, or worse  -lly, so comforting to mental vacuum.


We are not alone:


The ranks of hopefully  haters grew steadily, reaching a peak around 1975, which is the year the issue seems to have crossed the Atlantic (the OED Supplement has British examples of use dating from 1970). Viewers with alarm there would repeat all the things American viewers with alarm had said, and add the charge of ‘Americanism’ to them.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.


In 1987, Kingsley Amis, during a rare sober moment in his later life, said it for the ages:


“Sorry, but this is a case too famous to be passed over in a work of a present sort. [The King’s   English] Unlike refute, hopefully in the sense of ‘it is to be hoped (that)’ has never been respectable. When someone says or writes, ‘Hopefully, the plan will be in operation by the end of the year’, we know immediately that we are dealing with a dimwit at best”.


Dead in 1995, Amis could no longer sit on his barstool and fight the good fight with Steven Pinker. That self-styled ‘“thinking person” in The Sense of Style, 2014, vaunted his anti-purist (impure?) views and defended the too-often-spoken unspeakable.


“Irrational resistance [to hopefully] lingers, but dictionaries and newspapers increasingly accept it.”


So? Must we grit out teeth and hold our ears with E.B. White  who wrote in a letter of February 16, 1970:


I regard the word ‘hopefully’ as beyond recall. I’m afraid it’s here to stay, like pollution and sex and death and taxes”.


No, not this Depression-baby. Never!

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