Getting rid of adverbs and other adjuncts

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My post at Lingua Franca this week critiqued the following extraordinarily dumb piece of writing advice from Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those "surprisingly", "interestingly", "very", "extremely", "fortunately", "on the other hand", "almost invariably". (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like "we may consider that", "it is likely that", "there is a possibility that".)

Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?

Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.

As you might expect, I concentrated on adverbs. I didn't comment on the fact that one of the "adverbs and adverbial phrases" cited is nothing of the sort.

It should be obvious to any Language Log reader that the advice quoted is phrased with copious adverbs ("Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read" has four, i.e. 25% of the wordcount). It should also be clear that the advice is insane. It would lead to crazy results in almost any text you might be foolish enough to try it on.

But on the other hand is not an adverb like surprisingly, or an adverb-headed phrase such as almost invariably. It's a preposition phrase (PP) that typically functions as a connective adjunct. (It is extremely common in popular works on grammar to find the category of adverbs being confused with the function of being an adjunct.) There are many PP connective adjuncts. Other common ones include as a result, by contrast, for example, for instance, for this reason, for what it's worth, in addition, in case + Clause, in comparison (with NP), in consequence, in other words, in that case, in the conclusion, in the first place, of course, on the one hand, etc.

Do try the experiment. Try erasing all the adverbs, adverb-headed phrases, and PP connective adjuncts from selected passages of decent prose and see if it improves. I think you'll see why I treated this piece of deeply silly advice so harshly on Lingua Franca.


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