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Deathly adverbs

Even Harry Potter's most loyal fans would concede that his creator, J.K. Rowling, has a weakness for adverbs. Four years ago, in an otherwise admiring review of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," Stephen King observed that Rowling "never met [an adverb] she didn't like." Harry, he noted, "speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often -- given his current case of raving adolescence -- ANGRILY."

King found this flaw "endearing rather than annoying," but not all readers are so indulgent. In December, when the title of the final volume was announced but "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was not yet finished, a writer at the online review Blogcritics told Rowling it wasn't too late to improve her style.

"Ms. Rowling, I have a challenge for you while you're still in the editing stage of book seven," proposed M.J. Ryan. "Take a highlighter and mark those adverbs up. Get rid of them. Release yourself, and your readers, from 'Adverb Hell.'" And start at the top, said Ryan: "'Deathly' is an adverb. In the title. How lazy can you get?"

Ryan was echoing a band of adverb bashers, including Stephen King himself, who wrote elsewhere that "the road to hell is paved with adverbs." (Except, of course, for Rowling, whose adverbial path was a highway to publishing heaven.) Strunk and White urge writers to avoid "cluttery, annoying" adverbs. And in his book on the parts of speech -- "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It" -- Ben Yagoda lists Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Elmore Leonard among novelists who scorn the adverb. (Yagoda's adjective-zapping title comes from Mark Twain.)

The danger of such advice is that it starts out specific but slumps into shapeless generalization: "Everything I've ever read or been taught is that to use adverbs in writing is lazy," Ryan wrote. But the anti-adverb advice began as a caution against the tic that Rowling is prone to -- modifying every "he said" with politely, dejectedly, resoundingly, and the like. As a rule for writing in general, it's ridiculous. Not everyone wants to write like Elmore Leonard, and not everyone should.

The good news, though, is that even misguided adverb bashing may be having an educational effect. Nearly 100 readers responded (at last count) to Ryan's piece, and a heartening number pointed out that she had misidentified deathly as an adverb, when it's obviously an adjective:

"The phrase Deathly Hallows is preceded by a definite article (the), which means Hallows must be a noun and Deathly must be an adjective. The meaning of 'the Deathly Hallows' is ambiguous, but the parts of speech are not."

"'Deathly' modifies 'Hallows.' And what modifies nouns? Yes, that's right, adjectives, and not adverbs....The structure of the title tells you everything you need to know."

They're right, of course; it's the adjective deathly ("deathlike, gloomy") and the noun hallows, meaning "hallowed place" or, says the Oxford English Dictionary, "the gods of the heathen or their shrines." (Whether that "hallows" will be the Horcruxes, as some Potterites are predicting, I have no idea. But it's definitely a noun.)

And it's not just unedited amateurs (as some of Ryan's critics suggest) who are vague on the parts of speech. Looking at print sources in the past month, I found these labeling mistakes:

Albany Times-Union: "Skeptical. Flexible. Self-reliant. Risk-taker. Technologically savvy....All of the adjectives can be summed up this way: entrepreneur." (Risk-taker is a noun; so is entrepreneur.)

Times of London: "'Humiliation' might be a more appropriate adjective for an outcome that could permanently and sensationally shift the balance of power between the two men." (Humiliation is a noun.)

The West Australian (Perth): "Throughout the interviews, she invariably describes what happened using the collective noun 'we.'" (That is, the plural pronoun we.)

The Observer Sunday magazine (London): "Prozac is now in the dictionary, no more a slavish noun but a fully fledged adjective....Someone lively and excited may safely be described as 'on Prozac'." (On Prozac: Preposition plus noun. And since when are nouns the slaves of adjectives?)

Clearly, we all need a refresher course on parts of speech -- and maybe a dose of discretion, too. As one of the Blogcritics commenters said, "Condemning an entire class of words as 'lazy' is the epitome of laziness. It's one of those moronic rules for better writing similar to 'short sentences make for clearer writing.' True quality in writing is far more difficult to judge." (As someone who's re-reading "The Egoist," a delightful thicket of 19th-century verbiage, I couldn't agree more.)

And condemning a class of words you can't accurately identify -- well, that's just reckless. If you catch an adverb, kill it? Fine, if your goal is an adverb-free style. But first, make sure you know one when you see it.

E-mail Jan Freeman at For the Word blog, go to