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A Word, Please: Did the definition of ‘adverb’ slip past a renowned spy novelist?

The English writer John Le Carre walking along the Cornish coastline, Cornwall, Great Britain in 2003.
The English writer John Le Carre walking along the Cornish coastline, Cornwall, Great Britain, Nov. 15, 2003. Grammar columnist June Casagrande writes that the spy novelist often used adverbs despite his protestations against them.
(Antonin Kratochvil / AP)

David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John Le Carre, passed away in December. The author of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” leaves behind a legacy of treasures not just for readers but for any writer who would learn from a master. Take, for example, this expert bit of writing wisdom attributed to Le Carre: “I don’t use adjectives if I can possibly get away with it. I don’t use adverbs. I try to make the verb do the work.”

As someone who spends her days fixing bad writing, I can tell you there’s gold in those words, especially the part about adverbs. Novice writers use adverbs hoping they’ll strengthen their writing, but their efforts usually boomerang. For example, which has greater impact? “The spy brutally and cruelly totally gunned down the traitor” or “The spy gunned down the traitor”?

Adverbs often weaken the information you’re trying to strengthen. So whenever you notice one in your writing, try taking it out. If the passage is better, leave it out. If not, put it back in. Make this a habit and you’ll become a better writer. Guaranteed.

But despite Le Carre’s obvious wisdom, there’s a problem with his advice: Le Carre, it seems, didn’t know what adverbs are. Turns out he used them all the time. Take, for example, this sentence from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”: “Yesterday, Jim had amazed Latzy.”

Another: “The fire was quite dead.”

Another: “With time, Jim seemed to respond to treatment, however.”

Another: “He dropped ‘Bill’ and called him ‘Jumbo’ instead.”

Another: “He heard what sounded like a single note played on a flute: it came from a car, most likely, braking in the street outside.”

If you don’t see the adverbs, don’t feel bad. Most of us are never taught that “yesterday,” “quite,” “however,” “instead” and “outside” are adverbs.

Dictionaries and style books won’t just make writer’s happy. They’re also easy to wrap.

Adverbs aren’t just words that end in “ly,” like “quickly.” And they’re not just words that modify actions, like “fast.” Adverbs are a much broader word category of which “manner adverbs” — those that modify actions — are just a subset.

In the broader sense, adverbs have several jobs. They modify actions. These types are sometimes called manner adverbs. Others serve as connective tissue between sentences, like “however” and “therefore.” Others answer the questions where? or when? That’s why both “yesterday” and “outside” are adverbs.

This isn’t just analysis or some overstretched interpretation of word categories. This is the dictionary talking. Look up all those words and you’ll see that they’re categorized as adverbs depending on the job they’re doing.

In “Yesterday, Jim amazed Latzy,” the word “yesterday” is answering the question when? That makes it an adverb. But it can be a noun, too, for example when it functions as the subject of a verb: “Yesterday was rough.”

“Outside” usually answers the question where? In those cases it’s an adverb: Put it outside. But it can do other jobs, too. For example, it can function adjectivally by modifying the noun “chance” in: There’s an outside chance we’ll get rain.

So even if he never used an “ly” adverb (which we know he did from the word “possibly” in the above quotation), Le Carre used adverbs all the time. Like every English speaker, he had no choice.

Obviously, I’m busting him on a technicality. It’s clear that when he said he didn’t use adverbs he meant he avoided words like “cruelly” and “totally” and “hurriedly” — manner adverbs — whenever possible. That’s good advice.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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