The Write Stuff
“NASCAR driver Austin Dillon’s son adorably lost his pacifier in the car before Daytona race”
— USA Today headline, Aug. 28, 2021
Adverbs have become a punching bag for purists who often recommend you avoid them like the plague — or like any other overused simile. That’s extreme. Adverbs are a legit part of speech with a role to play. But they’ve been allowed to run amok in recent months — in headlines, of all places. The use of –ly adverbs, which the purists detest, seems to have accelerated at a time when reporters feel they have a duty that extends beyond reporting the facts. (Thank you, Donald Trump and MSNBC.)
It’s no longer good enough, apparently, to report what someone said; now journalists feel a moral and professional obligation to let the reader know they question what that person said, lest they be suspected of complicity. More than that, they want you to know that they find some assertion not only untrue but preposterous. Or, when they agree, that they think it’s amusing.
We’ll be told that someone “hilariously” trolls someone else, or that they “ridiculously” claim something or other. This typical example is from Newsweek: “Trump himself controversially delivered remarks that day, which were perceived to be inciting his supporters to attack the Capitol as lawmakers debated then-President-Elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.”
It used to be said that you should “let the facts speak for themselves,” though this adage seems to have fallen out of favor. Even so, the idea still has merit. Writers sometimes do need to offer context and information that contradicts a claim they are reporting on. But when it comes to whether something is funny or not — much less hilarious — is for the reader to decide. The writer shouldn’t signal what the reader is supposed to make of what follows, and when that is done, it often misfires and leads to a sense of letdown. No one was funnier than Mark Twain, but in his lectures he never let on when he was about to say something intended to amuse; he kept a straight face, and when the crowd laughed, he would act surprised, which made the joke even funnier.
Another problem with the –ly adverbs mentioned above is that they are long and multisyllabic. They are jawbreakers that destroy the rhythm of a sentence, and they tend to weaken the verb they are intended to beef up.
Finally, the use of an adverb often requires two words to do the work of one. If you pick the right verb, you don’t need to modify it at all. A few paragraphs back, I could have said purists “really dislike” –ly adverbs, but “detest” is better. So are “hate,” “loathe,” “abhor” and “despise.” “Abominate” is good, too, but if I had written that, I would be guilty of multisyllabification.
P.S. The lamest of all adverbs might be “very.” Which is better, “He ran very fast,” or “he raced”? “Very, very” is, of course, inexcusable.
P.P.S. Words ending in “y” must be treated carefully. Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer offers as examples the words ugly and funny. Here common sense should prevail. You should never write “He behaved uglily” or “She grimaced funnily.”
Annoying Word of the Month: Weaponize. Its first usage appeared in 1957, when, in The New York Times, Wernher von Braun spoke of weaponizing uranium to produce nuclear warheads. Like so much jargon, this coinage made its way from the military bureaucracy into everyday speech, and today it is everywhere. And like so much jargon, it loses its punch each time it is used. In July, for example, a writer on CNN’s website complained the word “lazy” “has been wrongly weaponized, especially over the past year, to shame anyone who doesn’t jump at the chance to give up unemployment benefits” and get a job. That’s a long way from nuclear warheads, which suggests the time may have come to give weaponize a rest.
Mix That Metaphor: “President Biden doesn’t stay up nights twisting himself into a pretzel to whitewash a gaffe and massage a fragile ego.” Ron Leshnower, Palmer Report, Aug. 28, 2021.
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