Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2014

The Legal Writer

Think Different:
The End of the Adverb?
By Suzanne E. Rowe

If you read signs blazoned around town, you might think that the adverb is about to go the way of the dodo. When you read legal briefs and memos, you might think that adverbs are on their way to becoming subsumed into the closest adjectives (or other random words passing by). Either end to the adverb would be unfortunate. I humbly beg you to respect the very important role that adverbs play in well written documents.

Grammar 101

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. That sounds more confusing than it is, so check out the examples below:

They spoke quickly. (The adverb quickly modifies the verb spoke.)

He was well known for his advocacy. (The adverb well modifies the adjective known.)

She is a relatively rapid reader. (The adverb relatively modifies the adverb rapid.)

Crucial to understanding the plea of this article is realizing that adverbs are not adjectives. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs; in contrast, adjectives modify nouns. Again, an example helps clarify the distinction.

The tall lawyer walked quickly. (The adjective tall describes the lawyer, who is a noun; the adverb quickly modifies the verb walked.)

Adverbs can be grouped by what they tell us about the sentences they enhance: how things happened, where they happened, when they happened, and how often they happened.

How: very, really, well, almost, barely

Where: here, there, everywhere

When: now, then, today, tomorrow, already, still

How often: seldom, often, frequently, never

Some of the most popular adverbs are words like well, very and soon, which exist only as adverbs. Some adverbs and adjectives, however, are identical. Compare:

She speaks fast. (The adverb fast modifies the verb speaks.)

She is a fast speaker. (The adjective fast is describing the noun speaker.)

Generally, the adverb in English is formed by adding –ly to the end of an adjective. So the adjective quick gets an –ly to become the adverb quickly. And that’s where the first problem arises.

The Lost –ly

The signs around parks and schools are screaming bad grammar at you. “Drive slow. Children at play. The word slow is typically used as an adjective, which isn’t supposed to be hanging out with a verb like drive. What would its mother say? The sign needs the adverb slowly instead. “Drive slowly. Children at play.” Of course, the state doesn’t have the budget to rewrite all its signs. So, please, just think about the children, not the abysmal grammar.

Here are two more examples to make the point that bad grammar surrounds us. At a national event on the campus of an excellent, but not-to-be-named-by-me university, I saw a sign that said “Track Town USA. Thanks for visiting. Drive home safe.” Had the sign not been 30 feet in the air, I’d have gotten my red pen and changed the sign to read, “Drive home safely.

As a final example, remember Apple’s advertising campaign a few years ago, encouraging us all to “Think Different.” I’m all for thinking differently (adverb), but wouldn’t we be better off conveying our different thoughts (adjective + noun) in standard English?

Yes, I know that the legal world is becoming more casual, and the lost –ly isn’t strictly required in casual writing. But really!

The Schmoosh

We turn now to the second problem. Suddenly, hyphens are drawing adverbs — formerly quite able to stand alone — into the gravitational field of adjectives. It can’t be too much longer before the two become one, and curmudgeons like me will hang our heads in shame.

Some of the biggest culprits in this nasty affair are –ly words, though the adverb well is also showing up in bad company. There’s absolutely no reason to hook up these adverbs with the adjectives that follow:

She is a highly regarded attorney.

The firm is well respected for its pro bono work.

We all know where hyphens lead — an illicit union of words. Think of how on line became on-line and is now online. Can highlyregarded or wellrespected be far off?

While those ugly examples are only 14 and 12 letters in length, respectively, is there an end to this slippery slope? The veryhighlyregarded attorney might be delighted to be so described, especially if she’s of German descent and accustomed to monster-sized nouns. Oh, the horrors!

What Adverbs Aren’t

Not every word that ends in –ly is an adverb. A few examples of adjectives ending in –ly are friendly and lonely. Remember that an adverb cannot modify a noun. In the following sentence, teacher and child are nouns, and friendly and lonely are adjectives: The friendly teacher talked to the lonely child.

Moreover, not all adjectives can be magically transformed into adverbs with the wave of an –ly. There is no word fastly; the adjective and adverb are both fast. And, please, stick with First, Second, and Thirdto enumerate your arguments. The adverb abominations can be confusing. And even if some of you are becoming accustomed to Firstly and Secondly, don’t you grin a bit sheepishly when you get to Thirdly, Fourthly, and especiallyFifthly? Don’t start something you can’t finish.

Avoid Intensifiers

Some adverbs do no more than turn up the heat, intensifying what the sentence already says; really, very and extremely are in this camp. A really bad day is the one that went haywire from the moment your alarm went off at 3:45 rather than 6:45. Your writing will be more concise and more exciting if you choose a strong adjective and delete the adverb. So a terrible day seems worse than the really bad day. (Quick aside: Do you remember the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? It’s fabulous, and I love the title!)

Adverb Placement

Some adverbs can move around grammatically in the sentence. The good news is that they typically don’t change the sentence as they move, as shown in the following examples:

Solemnly the judge sentenced the defendant.

The judge solemnly sentenced the defendant.

The judge sentenced the defendant solemnly.

Adverb Power!

Adverbs can pack power into your writing. As I said at the beginning, I humbly beg you to respect the very important role that adverbs play in well written documents. My initial sentence was dull: I beg you to respect the important role that adverbs play in written documents. I added humbly, very and well to show how strongly I feel about the issue.

That said, don’t start asking adverbs to do the work of a hefty verb. I could have simply asked rather than begged, but that sounds weak and boring. Askleaves open the possibility that I asked boldly, or reluctantly, or softly or even humbly. Even adding the adverb humbly to ask doesn’t pack the same punch as simply begging. The verb beg itself proves my earnest state of mind, with a pleading face and sad eyes. But for real emphasis, combine a concrete verb with a colorful adverb: I humbly beg you!



ESLgold.net, at www.eslgold.com/vocabulary/common_adverbs.html

Guide to Grammar and Writing, at http:// grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adverbs.htm

H.L. Menken, The American Language, at www.bartleby.com/185/42.html

The New Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010).


Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2014 Suzanne E. Rowe

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