March 05, 2007

Automated adverb hunting and why you don't need it

After the dumbest story of the year so far about adjectives, I now have for you, if you can bear it, the dumbest story of the year so far about adverbs. It is also the story of the dumbest piece of hard work in the software field I have seen for some time. Gina Trapani has kindly written for us all, and made available for free, a little script that will yellow-highlight all words ending in -ly in your Firefox browser window. The idea is that those who publish on the web can use this feature to hunt for adverbs and then alter their posts to obey E. B. White's absurd dictum (from the fifth chapter that he added to William Strunk's The Elements of Style in the 1950s) that you should "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs."

Why is this dumb? Let me count the ways.

  1. Not all adverbs end in -ly.
  2. Not all words that end in -ly are adverbs.
  3. There is no reason to avoid adverbs anyway. This is just another manifestation of the madness that leads to usage advice saying that if you could possibly do without them they must be banned, and that if students tend to do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.
  4. Fine writers of the past did not avoid adverbs; there has probably never been a great piece of literature that lacked them except perhaps for a few poems so short that they never got to the first one.
  5. Strunk never avoided them in his writing: the first adverb in his original Chapter 1 of The Elements of Style, "Elementary Rules of Usage", is in the first paragraph.
  6. White did not avoid them in his writing either: the first adverb in his Introduction to the revised edition of The Elements of Style is in the first paragraph.

Strunk and White were a pair of hypocritical old grousers whose inaccurate grammar and usage edicts dated not from the last century but the one before that. Yet people not only treat them as if their words came from God and had been chiseled into granite slabs during an encounter up a mountain; they also fail to read those words to see if the old fools practice what they preach. Of course they don't. Nobody writes only with nouns and verbs and never with adjectives and adverbs, and you will not improve your prose by any mechanical hunt for adverbs to delete. In fact you are likely to ruin it. Poor Gina Trapani has been duped into thinking that a tool for hunting for adverbs would be a valuable addition to the writer's toolbox. As a result she wasted some valuable programming time. It's not her fault; it's White's fault. (Though it is Gina's fault that the tool, which I have downloaded and tested, doesn't actually work very well: it neither highlights all the adverbs nor highlights only adverbs.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 5, 2007 01:37 PM