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Words at Play

5 Writing Rules Destroyed by the Dictionary

Omit needless rules


Don't be so eager to cut adverbs that you destroy the meaning of your prose.

The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs ...are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.... With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
—Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

There are numerous usage "rules" regarding the placement of adverbs in prose: one shouldn't split a compound verb or infinitive with them (so no "to boldly go" or "must be heartily congratulated"); one must place them closest to the word they are modifying (so no "Quickly the news anchor corrected himself"; go with "The news anchor quickly corrected himself"); one shouldn't start a sentence with them, especially if the adverb in question is hopefully; one should know when to use a flat adverb (like quick in "move quick" and safe in "drive safe") and when to use an inflected -ly adverb (like "quickly move aside" and "safely drive the truck"); the overuse of qualifying adverbs like perhaps and somewhat "amounts with English journalists to a disease," as Henry Fowler put it in 1908, adding that "the intemperate orgy of moderation is renewed every morning."

The words that get picked on the most are, as King points out, the -ly adverbs. They're derided as lazy and redundant, particularly when paired with a speaking verb:

He shouted angrily at her. "Don't go in there!" she said fearfully. "I'm sad," he said sadly.

These are terrible sentences: shouting usually implies upset; you can find a better speaking verb like "whispered" or "shrieked" to get the idea that she's afraid across; and it's a good thing that last sentence is fictional, because were it to appear in writing, it would likely cause the deaths of millions of copy editors due to rage-aneurysms upon first read. The advice to, as King puts it, "use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of cases....and not even then, if you can avoid it" makes sense when one is faced with a sentence like "I'm tired," she said jadedly. We're tired of these sentences too.

But the idea that adverbs as a whole need to be excised from prose is ridiculous. First, the targets are always words that end in -ly, some of which (like manly and friendly) are not adverbs at all. Second, a wide variety of words that we use in everyday, idiomatic prose are adverbs. Here's an example:

But the idea that adverbs as a whole need to be excised from prose is ridiculous. First, the targets are always words that end in -ly, some of which (like manly and friendly) are not adverbs at all.

The adverb is one of our hardest-working parts of speech, and it doesn't deserve the scorn heaped upon it. Before you cut an adverb, make sure it's not vital to the meaning of your sentence ("They treated him brutally" is not the same as "They treated him," though it's also not as powerful as providing concrete details of the way he was treated), and if you do decide to hack away at them, make sure that your -ly words are actually adverbs. But don't try to get rid of all of them. Even Stephen King uses them, and in the paragraph telling you not to:

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.


You don't have to be active all the time.

"Never use the passive where you can use the active."
—George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," April 1946

English verbs have two voices: active and passive. We use the active voice in sentences like this one, and it shows who is doing the acting (we are) and what is being acted on (the active voice). But the passive voice is often used in more formal sentences, like this one, where the actor—here, the invisible writer of this sentence, who is the one using the passive voice—is hidden from view. Here are a few examples of sentences written in the active voice and then recast in the passive voice:

The teacher told us to use the active voice. vs We were told to use the active voice.

The police questioned the suspect. vs The suspect was questioned.

I made a mistake. vs Mistakes were made.

You'll notice that the passive voice seems to distance an action from its perpetrator, or it makes the thing being acted on ("we," "the suspect," and "mistakes" above) more important than the doer. For this reason, the passive voice is very common in more formal writing, where the authors want to keep the perpetrator of the action or the speaker distant.

Writing advice has eschewed use of the passive voice since at least 1920, when "Use the active voice" was a point of composition in William Strunk, Jr.'s, The Elements of Style. But much of the advice against using the passive voice ignores something very important: it's an integral part of the way that we use verbs in English.

The passive voice flourishes in modern English because we have a need for it. The passive refocuses our attention on the recipient of an action, particularly when the writer wants to emphasize the recipient or the doer of an action isn't known:

The child was hit by a drunk driver.

For this reason, the passive voice is used in scientific writing, since the emphasis is on the results of research and not on who is doing that research.

Passive voice is also handy when stating something that should be obvious:

Valuables should not be left in unlocked cars.

Sometimes, however, the passive voice is used to evade, and this is the type of passive that Orwell (and many other commentators) object to the most. The press asks why thus-and-such happened, and a spokesperson responds "Mistakes were made." Sure: but by whom, and why?

Should you steadfastly avoid the passive voice? Our Dictionary of English Usage says no:

The point, finally, is that sentences cast in the passive voice have their uses and are an important tool for the writer. Everyone agrees you should not lean too heavily on passive sentences and that you should especially avoid awkwardly constructed passives. The few statistical studies we have seen or heard of indicate that you are likely to use the active voice most of the time anyway.


'Said' isn't the only word that can carry dialogue.

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated," and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
—Elmore Leonard, "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle," The New York Times, 16 July 2001

This is a rule that is often repeated, something that is supposedly the province of "showing, not telling." But this is less a rule of writing and more of a personal preference of Leonard's. There's plenty of lovely prose that uses dialogue verbs besides said:

It came out of the third storey; for it passed overhead. And overhead—yes, in the room just above my chamber-ceiling—I now heard a struggle: a deadly one it seemed from the noise; and a half-smothered voice shouted—“Help! help! help!” three times rapidly. “Will no one come?” it cried; and then, while the staggering and stamping went on wildly, I distinguished through plank and plaster:—“Rochester! Rochester! for God’s sake, come!”
—Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847

Brontë uses shouted and cried here, when we, as astute readers, could probably deduce that the disembodied voice was likely shouting, if Jane Eyre could hear it one floor down. Leonard's dictum that said should be substituted here substantially changes the meaning of the passage: instead of a loud struggle above Jane's room, we'd just have a lot of furniture moving and some mumbling indistinguishable from the floor below. Shouted and cried also serve to increase the tension of the passage.

One could argue that Brontë was, compared to Leonard, a florid writer and so a bad example of what Leonard means here. But even other writers who preferred a sparser style indulged in a few dialogue verbs apart from said every once in a while:

"Ain't she cute?" Red Sam's wife said, leaning over the counter. "Would you like to come be my little girl?"
"No I certainly wouldn't," June Star said. "I wouldn't live in a broken-down place like this for a minion bucks!" and she ran back to the table.
"Ain't she cute?" the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.
"Arn't you ashamed?" hissed the grandmother.
—Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," 1953

O'Connor, one of the American South's most iconic and spare writers, was a devotee of said, but this passage shows that a well-deployed repeated and hissed can add just the right amount of color to a passage, as well as obliquely show the reader something about the character. The hissed here shows that the grandmother in the story is embarrassed at June Star's impertinence, but is also too proper to holler, rant, or yell. The repeated here tells you that the woman is merely doing her social duty: though you don't know much about this woman, you know that she certainly doesn't believe that June Star is cute.

It goes beyond dialogue markers, too:

Beatrice: I / had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man / swear he loves me.
—Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, 1598

How much more vehement is Beatrice's declaration when Shakespeare has her use "swear he loves me" over "says he loves me"?

Of course, lots of these non-said dialogue markers are almost as old as said itself is. Check your dictionary and you’ll see that dialogue verbs like crow, yell, whisper, and groan are contemporaries of said and had ample use in Old English as well as in Modern English.

Leonard does have one good bit of advice, however: don't use asseverate for said.


What if that blade of grass is what gives the lawn its character?

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
—Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, 1959 (2000)

Held to be The Writer’s Handbook, The Elements of Style is an expanded pamphlet originally written by William Strunk, Jr., and expanded upon by E. B. White (he of Charlotte’s Web fame) in 1959. Along with advice about the passive voice and keeping your writing in the same verb tense is this oft-quoted axiom: omit needless words.

The question is, of course, what’s a needless word and who gets to say? Take this paragraph:

Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.” Thinking although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old.

Ready your red pens: how many redundant statements and words are in this paragraph? Quite a few. The use of mount here implies that the motion is upward: do we need “the hill”? What about Lena’s first sentence? Or the last sentence? We could lose half this paragraph and the meaning would still be clear.

Luckily for William Faulkner, his editor let the sentences stand. This is the opening paragraph to A Light in August, one of Faulkner’s many novels, and it’s representative of his stream-of-consciousness style of writing. To edit out the needless words here would be to strip Faulkner of what makes him Faulkner.

Sometimes authors use words for rhythmic emphasis:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1606

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow: the rhythm of the first line of Macbeth’s famous soliloquy stops the reader and listener short and tells us something about Macbeth’s state of mind (spoiler alert: it’s not good!). “Tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” means the same thing, but “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in his petty place from day to day” slows the listener down so that they, too, can wallow with Macbeth.

If we have words in our language (and our dictionaries), then it is because they are needful, not needless. And though we tend to focus on the meaning of words, we can’t deny that they can have extra-semantic uses: authors can employ them for emphasis, zip, bite. They are there to be used, and used with skill and abandon.

"Avoid Colloquial Language"
Up Next

The Vocabulary Test From Hell


The "Harry Potter" series is full of words that aren't in dictionaries, and J.K. Rowling seems to be doing all right.

Slang is everywhere. When we use it in everyday life to communicate with friends informally, it’s usually fine. In fact, sounding too formal around our friends is kinda weird. Slang, or colloquial language—to use the formal term—is not appropriate in academic writing and many professional communication situations.
—Karen Langbehn, USF Writing Studio blog post, 18 May 2012

Some writing teachers tell their students to avoid certain classes of words: slang, jargon, new words whose meaning isn’t apparent. The idea behind this is that you don’t want the words you use to snag the audience’s attention and detract from the point you’re making. This is a guideline that many of us learn as we go through school, where most of our writing is more formal and academic, and it’s a good guideline to follow in academic and formal writing.

But context is everything. Sometimes writers and editors will forget that not all writing is academic writing, and they’ll expand on the rule a bit to say that one shouldn’t use words that aren’t entered into a dictionary (regardless of what one is writing).

Take it from the dictionary: this way madness lies. No dictionary you consult will be a complete record of the language, but merely a snapshot of some of the language in use at a particular time. We’re not saying that your writing will be terrible if you limit yourself to the words entered in that $5 paperback dictionary you picked up at the bookstore, but we will be sad that you won’t have the word smellfungus (which has nothing to do with smells or fungus) at your disposal.

Additionally, dictionaries follow the language. A new word appears; people begin to use that word more and more; it shows up consistently in edited prose; we eventually enter it into the dictionary. If writers are supposed to avoid words that aren’t entered into the dictionary, then the whole process falls apart at the third step.

Plenty of writers have used words that aren’t entered into dictionaries. From a purely chronological point of view, there were centuries of authors who wrote before general English dictionaries were even a thing—Shakespeare, for instance. Even now, writers may choose to use words or jargon not in dictionaries for world-building purposes. Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange is full of a fictional slang called Nadsat; the Harry Potter series is full of words that aren’t in dictionaries.

In short, keep your audience in mind, but certainly use words that aren’t in the dictionary. We like reading them as much as we like collecting them.

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