'Notoriously Known'


Private schools are notoriously known for their small class sizes.

It's been years since I saw this sentence in an article I was editing. But it stands as one of my favorite cautionary examples about adverbs.

The adverb "notoriously" shouldn't be in that sentence. Period. It's redundant with the word "known" -- kind of like saying "famously famous." Except it's worse because "notoriously" has a negative connotation -- it means something is bad -- though everyone agrees smaller class sizes are good. So instead of underscoring the writer's point, the "notoriously" undermines it.

How did this adverb end up here? Did the writer really think that "known" failed to tell the full story? Probably not. More likely, the writer was aiming for a certain oomph and was more focused on things like rhythm and drama than on the substance of her words.

That's fine in a first draft. My own writing tends to produce an alarming number of adverbs like "very" and "really" and "actually." But when I reread what I've written, I try taking them out. Here's what I've learned in the process: Some adverbs help your sentence, others hurt it. Often, the difference is as simple as this: The adverbs that add information help, the ones that add only emphasis hurt.

Mary quickly left the room.

Here the adverb "quickly" tells us more about what's going on than we could glean from just Mary left the room. There's real information in that adverb.

Joe quickly ran away.

In this sentence, "quickly" isn't pulling its weight. The verb "ran" already conveys quickness. So here the adverb adds nothing.

Unnecessary adverbs can be a cue to the reader that the writer isn't a pro. Compare, "The senator was totally, absolutely, unbelievably contrite" with "The senator was contrite." See how the stripped-down facts have a certain power butthe adverbs come off almost like pleading -- a weak attempt to convince the reader of something, as if the facts alone weren't enough. Pros don't do that. Which is why the adverbless alternative sounds more professional. Which is why the only adverbs that appear in your writing are ones that survived the survival test.


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