Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tighten your legal writing by reducing reliance on adverbs

Most adverbs are unnecessary according to Bryan Garner and other writing experts. Instead, just choose stronger verbs. The Lawyerist blog has a helpful post summarizing this particular bit of self-editing advice.

Adverbs are words that modify—usually for emphasis—verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases. As Lily Rothman writes in The Atlantic, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs because even though “there are many times when a more precise verb can narrow the gap in understanding,” there are other times when “verbs can’t be fine-tuned any further.”

But when adverbs appear repeatedly in legal writing, they greatly inhibit good diction, terribly annoy the reader, and depressingly weaken the words the writer is contrivedly modifying. Indeed, although unnecessary adverbs might be a dubious luxury of non-lawyers, they can poison otherwise good legal writing. So says the following writing authorities, a Supreme Court Justice, and a fiction writer, all quoted here for good measure:

  • Strunk & White, The Elements of Style: “Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs . . . .”
  • John Trimble, Writing With Style: “Minimize your adverbs . . . especially trite intensifiers like very, extremely, really, clearly, and terribly, which show a 90% failure rate.”
  • Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style: “[A]dverbs often weaken verbs. Think of the best single word instead of warming up a tepid one with a qualifier.”
  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well : “Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence any annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. . . . Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the winning athlete grinned widely.”
  • Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Interview with Bryan A. Garner: “I think adverbs are a cop-out. They’re a way for you to qualify, and if you don’t use them, it forces you to think through the conclusion of your sentence. And it forces you to confront the significance of your word choice, the importance of your diction.”
  • Stephen King, On Writing: “The adverb is not your friend. . . . Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. . . . I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

All legal writers—especially law clerks and young associates—should heed this advice.

Want some examples of how to identify and then eliminate unncessary adverbs, then click here to continue reading.


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