A Word, Please: If your adjectives and adverbs don’t provide information, take them out

Consider one of William Strunk’s better pieces of advice in “The Elements of Style”: “Omit needless words.” Now consider this rejoinder from University of Edinburgh Linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum, posted on the Language Log blog.

“I’ve been a longtime critic of everything in ‘The Elements of Style,’ not least William Strunk’s platitude that you should omit needless words. ‘Needless’ is not defined even vaguely; nobody really writes in a way that sticks to the absolute minimum word count; and if neophyte writers could tell what was needless they wouldn’t have to be handed this platitude,” Pullum wrote.

There are a lot of spot-on criticisms of Strunk out there, many from Pullum himself. But this one’s hogwash. As editors know, plenty of writers could use a reminder to be on the lookout for words that don’t carry their own weight. And it’s not true that any writer who can understand this advice wouldn’t have written needless words in the first place.

I, for one, am always going back through my writing and deleting stuff like “It’s important to note that” and “truly” and other flabby bits that come out of me when I’m thinking more about what I want to say than how I’m going to say it.


Strunk simply meant: Keep an eye out for words and phrases that slow down your prose while adding nothing of substance. If you spot a potential culprit, try taking it out. If that doesn’t work as well, put it back in.

“Omit needless words” was just a concise way to say that.

“Avoid adverbs” is another widely maligned piece of advice. As I’ve pointed out in this space, “outside,” “there” and “tomorrow” are adverbs, and it would be impossible to communicate without them.

However, taken in reasonable proportion, “avoid adverbs” is great advice. “I truly want to passionately thank you for your uniquely and totally helpful contributions” would be a much better sentence without those manner adverbs.


Which brings us to the pope. In his speech to his communications staff, Francis talked more about adjectives than adverbs. But it’s clear he holds them in the same regard. He cited examples of writing he’s “allergic to,” like “This is something authentically Christian” and “this is truly so.”

Then he noted: “We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns … This is a mission of communication: to communicate with reality, without sweetening with adjectives or adverbs.”

If you’re looking for nits to pick in the pope’s statements, you’ll find them. “Authentically Christian,” you could argue, draws a contrast with the inauthentic kind. Also (and this is no small nit), in the sentence “This is something authentically Christian,” the word “Christian” is itself an adjective.

Still, his core idea — that adjectives and adverbs can dilute the power of the words they modify — just happens to be true. Sometimes.

Some adjectives and adverbs add nothing but emphasis, like “awesome” in “The awesome power of this cleaning product blows me away.” Those can usually be nixed.

Others, especially when they appear in the predicate of the sentence, convey information you can’t take out. “This new cleaning product is awesome.”

That’s the test every adjective and adverb should meet: If it adds essential information, keep it. If it does nothing but shout “I really, really mean it,” take it out.

Take the same measured approach with every bit of writing advice you hear. Most of it contains at least a grain of truth you can use.


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