#SecondThoughts: Weighing your words

I while ago I wrote a piece in defence of adverbs.  I don’t intend to rehash it here, but a precis of the thesis I put forward is that the modern directive to eliminate adverbs completely is erroneous (no matter how high profile the proponents of the concept), and that the advice to replace an adverb + verb with a stronger verb is not always correct.  An ancillary argument was that the various grammar checkers and writing aids that are available should not be followed slavishly but can be helpful to highlight things that you might want to think about.  I don’t know if anyone who does follow the no adverbs rule read the article; if they did, they certainly didn’t choose to comment.

As I say, I’m not going to tread old ground; instead I’d like to go into one aspect in more depth.  Last time I said:

The English language is full of all sorts of foibles that can be difficult to describe, let alone teach, but words tend to carry gradations of ‘weight’ and meaning.

And this is a hill I am prepared to die on – although hopefully it won’t come to that.  What I’d like to do is explore this in more depth.

In the Unbalanced Earth Cycle by Jonathon Wylie, there is a city-state, nominally a kritocracy (rule by judges/lawmakers, a form of oligarchy) but verging on autocracy, because there is a very dominant head to this group.  (Forgive me if the details are not perfectly remembered – I read these books 25 years ago, or so, and I don’t have them to hand for reference).  In this system, every ‘case’ is heard by a number of judges, with a minimum of three.  Each judge has a stone, which is the symbol of their authority.  The more senior the judge, the more their stone weighs.  At the point of judgement, their opinions are weighed, literally.  In most situations the disparity of weight is not enough to matter, but in a crucial scene, the chief judge sits on the bench, and his word carries twice as much weight as the most junior judge.  However, it’s a stitch up, for political reasons.  The chief judge wants to be seen as sympathetic to a particular cause, but there is no way that he can actually support it.  He votes for, everyone else votes against.  The fact that his word weighs more than anyone else doesn’t matter in this instance.

That’s a very literal interpretation of weighing one’s words, but when writing, we should use words with care.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least-at least I mean what I say-that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

It’s tempting to assume that when we look at a list of synonyms, all words carry the same weight, that they can be used interchangeably – surely that’s the definition of a synonym?  It depends to some extent on the boundary conditions that we set.  If we say, for example, the following is a list of the way horses move, then all these words do carry the same weight.

Walk; trot; canter; gallop.

Without going into the etymology of these words, without a particular knowledge of horses, we would probably be prepared to admit that these words do not have the same meaning: they are in order of the speed that we would expect the horse travel when moving.  If we were horse experts, or interested in the etymology, then we would know that a) it’s all a lot more complicated than even that and there are different versions of the trot and canter, for example and that b) the gait of the horse varies between these states.  That’s about as deep as I want to get though!

Perhaps the most famous thesaurus in the world is Roget’s, first published in 1852 and pretty much continuously in print since then.  (Of course, that might be an English-centric bias at play).  However, the earliest (known) thesaurus is credited to Philo of Byblos (there’s a name to conjure with), a scholar living in Lebanon in the second half of the 1st Century of the Common Era, and the first half of the 2nd.  Philo had a bit of penchant for catalogues, and is known for a ‘dictionary of synonyms’, amongst other works.  (There’s a bit of an overlap between the terms ‘dictionary’ and ‘thesaurus’.  Some dictionaries include synonyms, some thesauri include definitions).

When you’re young and naive, there’s a tendency to believe that taking a bit of writing and using a thesaurus to change everything round is the equivalent of presenting it in your own words.  So a walking horse is said to trot, perhaps, but we have changed the meaning, not just replaced the word.

The suggestion that exercised me so was that adverbs should be obliterated, and that a ‘stronger’ verb should be used instead.  The specific suggestion was that ‘walk slowly’ could be replaced with ‘creep’.  Perhaps I am being unduly vociferous on this subject; perhaps it was simply a poor example on the part of the person giving the advice.  Creep might be a good replacement for ‘walk stealthily’ – but you would have to look at the context.

Let’s look at some synonyms for ‘walk’:

stroll; saunter; amble; promenade; ramble; hike; tramp; march; constitutional; turn; airing.

With some of these words, we need to be careful, because context is key.  For example, ‘tramp’, like ‘creep’, can be used as a noun rather than a verb – the tramp tramped down the road.

My list is incomplete, but does serve the purpose.  We can split the list up a little:

  1. Ramble, hike, tramp, could all be used in the context of a walk through the countryside, but sticking with our ‘walked slowly’ issue, you wouldn’t necessarily use them as replacements if, for example, you were talking about difficulties in getting up a steep hill.  Hike suggests a certain purposeful direction, whilst a ramble is more aimless.  But that difficult hill…I’m more likely to walk up it slowly, pausing often for breath.
  2. March – very military, very purposeful.  But as with horses’ gaits, I might need to talk about a slow march or a quick march, because these are specific things.
  3. Constitutional, turn, and airing are, to my mind, verging on slang, but are inherently evocative in their way.  I suspect you’d have a few sentences around them though, setting the scene, and I’d be willing to bet that one of them would include ‘walked slowly’ possibly ’round the park’.
  4. Stroll, saunter, and amble perhaps sit on some sort of spectrum, and each indicate a particular physicality to the locomotion of the person, and perhaps even some sort of marker as to their mental state.

These are all great words, but context is key.

I might saunter down to the shops, if I was in a jolly mood, or even an indifferent one, tasked with something I wasn’t particularly interested in, but couldn’t be bothered to avoid.  I might even creep, snail-like, in remembrance of Shakespeare’s whining school-boy.  Equally, I might walk slowly, being mindful of the birdsong and the sussuration of the breeze in the new leaves on the roadside plantings.

I might stroll down the path to the church, but if more pensive, I might walk slowly, brooding on the gravestones, some new and some so old that all meaning has been etched away by time and the elements.  I certainly wouldn’t creep though, unless up to no good, setting the scene for a Christie-esque corpse among the tombs.

I had thought that I would include a ranking here, of the relative speeds suggested by the synonyms available, but of course it is impossible.  Any of these words verbs could be modified as necessary.  After all, Crowly didn’t Fall, he sauntered vaguely downwards.  Yes, use adverbs sparingly – it is possible to over-write something, make it too rich – but don’t limit yourself by some notion that they are rationed, that there is a quota that you mustn’t exceed.

English is a fluid language.  Words become taboo or change their meaning through usage, and in some respects that is as it should be.  But we do risk losing words as a result, words that have a specific meaning.  That meaning carries a particular weight; we can modify this weight by using other words in conjunction, but we shouldn’t assume that all synonyms carry the same weight.

©David Jesson, 2020


#secondthoughts: an argument for adverbs

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of writing recently, about the advice given by writers, to writers, and ultimately editing.  Writing and, primarily but not exclusively, the editing phase, is a lot like sculpture: it’s about starting with a block of an idea, of some collection of words, and removing all the extraneous words until you can’t remove anything else without fundamentally moving away from what you want to say.  This isn’t an original description, but is one that I have used with my day-job students, because this works with factual writing as well as fiction.

One of the things that I tend to focus on when editing my students’ work – scientific issues/intellectual agenda aside – is that of ensuring that we don’t repeat ourselves.  That can be quite tricky to deal with sometimes, because you need to link back to things that you said earlier, but in a way that doesn’t just repeat what you said the first time.

Different people have a different focus.  One piece of advice that a lot of people seem to like is to strip out all the adverbs – Hemmingway App (which I like a lot, but disagree with everytime I use it) allows you a ration of so many adverbs per chunk of text.

Adverb:  a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When it comes to editing, adverbs are an easy target: ‘using an adverb to modify a verb just means that you didn’t use a strong enough verb in the first place’.  Whilst that is sometimes true, this is something that does need some thought when it is applied – removing all the adverbs can limit your palette significantly.  Who am I to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King on this subject?  I’m certainly not suggesting that they don’t know their craft.  Recently though, I’ve seen a few descriptions of editing out adverbs which have given me pause.  The English language is full of all sorts of foibles that can be difficult to describe, let alone teach, but words tend to carry gradations of ‘weight’ and meaning.

One example I’ve seen suggests that “walked slowly” is bad and could/should(!) be replaced by “crept” or “tip-toed”. I don’t know about you, but I rarely tip-toe, even – perhaps especially – when I’m walking slowly.  The nice thing about walking slowly is that it can be used in a range of contexts, whereas crept, for me, should be reserved for spies and school boys on their way to class.

So next time you’re editing, do ask yourself whether you should really be using that adverb or not, but don’t automatically reach for the delete key either:  English is a varied language, and all the more beautiful for it.


If you are interested, Hemmingway App, pegged this as Grade 12, and thought that I should have only used 3 adverbs.  I used 14.  To be fair, it is tricky to write a piece about adverbs and not use any.  It also thought I should change ‘exclusively’ to ‘only’ and ‘modify’ to ‘change’.  You can see why writers get cross with editors, from time to time.

© 2018, David Jesson