*Adverbs That I Kill on Sight

Flipping channels recently, I stopped on mugshot of a terrifying-looking man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit with tattoos all over his face, including a swastika on his forehead. I stopped on that program, which turned out to be “Real Time with Bill Maher,” to hear Bill say this. “I don’t know what that guy’s accused of, but whatever it is he did it.”

The joke is that blanket condemnation and snap judgments are absolutely wrong, except when they’re not. And when you’re talking about a guy as terrifying looking as that one, contempt prior to investigation … well, it seems a little more justified.

That sums up how I feel about certain adverbs. I’ve long argued with the popular “avoid adverbs” advice. It’s usually applied too broadly and sometimes interpreted as “all adverbs are bad.” That, of course, is ridiculous. Adverbs are essential parts of speech, and even the much maligned manner adverbs – the ones that modify verbs and often end in “ly” – can be just what a piece of writing needs to make it sing.

Even so, there are some adverbs that I kill on sight. Anytime one of these crops up in an article I’m editing (or when I catch it in my own writing), I delete it without hesitation.

Truly. Formerly. Currently. Absolutely. Definitely. Utterly.

These are the pudgy, overpaid middle managers of language. They contribute nothing and are almost always dispensable.

Consider the sentence: Peterson is currently the CEO of the company.

Editors see stuff like that a lot. And all the editors I know agree that currently adds nothing whatsoever to this sentence. Formerly, which often goes hand-in- hand with the verb was, is no better. The verb is already in the past tense. So the reader doesn’t need to be told the situation is former.

Truly, absolutelydefinitely, really and utterly say a mouthful. Unfortunately, their message boils down to, “I really, really, really want you believe the thing I’m about to say.” Ironically, that makes the statement that follows seem less plausible.

For these adverbs -- and any other that adds no new information whatsoever to a sentence -- we can justify applying the old “Shoot first and let God sort ’em out” philosophy.

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One Response to “*Adverbs That I Kill on Sight”

  1. One (bad) resoan people still get upset."Hopefully" differs from most other sentence adverbs in that when you write it out as a clause you have to use a past participle than a simple adjective. To take your examples: AMAZINGLY — it is AMAZING that; STRANGELY — it is STRANGE that; FORTUNATELY — it is FORTUNATE that. For "hopefully" to be analogous to these, you would have to write, "it is HOPEFUL that"; but instead we chop off the FUL and make it "hoped." Ignorant sticklers think this is wrong; they see the HOPE and they see the FUL and by their amazing powers of resoaning they decide that "hopefully" can only mean "full of hope." They commit what any linguist or anybody who’s breezed through a few articles by linguists will tell you is called the "etymological fallacy": words don’t mean what they used to mean, and you can’t figure out what a word means just by looking at it. As you noted, people have been using "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped" since the 18th century; by any standard, the usage is legitimate.