Scrubbing Adverbs From Legal Writing

As lawyers become confident in their legal-writing abilities, they may develop a nasty little habit—overusing adverbs. Though adverbs can enhance the color of legal writing, overusing them causes trouble because they tend to weaken prose and result in comical redundancies.

Here’s how to identify unnecessary and redundant adverbs, and scrub them from your legal writing.

Writing Weakly But Flowerily

Adverbs are words that modify—usually for emphasis—verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases. As Lily Rothman writes in The Atlantic, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs because even though “there are many times when a more precise verb can narrow the gap in understanding,” there are other times when “verbs can’t be fine-tuned any further.”

But when adverbs appear repeatedly in legal writing, they greatly inhibit good diction, terribly annoy the reader, and depressingly weaken the words the writer is contrivedly modifying. Indeed, although unnecessary adverbs might be a dubious luxury of non-lawyers, they can poison otherwise good legal writing. So says the following writing authorities, a Supreme Court Justice, and a fiction writer, all quoted here for good measure:

  • Strunk & White, The Elements of Style: “Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs . . . .”
  • John Trimble, Writing With Style: “Minimize your adverbs . . . especially trite intensifiers like very, extremely, really, clearly, and terribly, which show a 90% failure rate.”
  • Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style: “[A]dverbs often weaken verbs. Think of the best single word instead of warming up a tepid one with a qualifier.”
  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well : “Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence any annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. . . . Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the winning athlete grinned widely.”
  • Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Interview with Bryan A. Garner: “I think adverbs are a cop-out. They’re a way for you to qualify, and if you don’t use them, it forces you to think through the conclusion of your sentence. And it forces you to confront the significance of your word choice, the importance of your diction.”
  • Stephen King, On Writing: “The adverb is not your friend. . . . Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. . . . I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

All legal writers—especially law clerks and young associates—should heed this advice.

It shouldn’t matter, for example, that a defendant grudgingly pleaded guilty to the charges. What matters is that he pleaded guilty. It doesn’t matter whether a lawyer strenuously objected to an evidentiary ruling. Is it not enough to say that the lawyer objected? And is it not superfluous to say that the legislators fiercely debated a bill? Readers aren’t stupid; they know that legislative debates usually aren’t calm.

Power Verbs

In The Winning Brief, Bryan Garner says to “[s]trive for distinctive nouns and verbs—minimizing adjectives and adverbs. . . . [S]trong verbs don’t need adverbs. When editing, try to bolster the nouns and verbs so that you can make their modifiers superfluous and thus delete them.” In The Elements of Legal Style and On Writing quoted above, Garner and King give some examples of strong/picturesque verbs that obviate the need to use modifying adverbs. Here are a few of them:

  • Marched, strode — briskly walked
  • Snapped — abruptly stated
  • Bawled, wailed — cried loudly
  • Ran, rushed — quickly went
  • Pored over — read carefully
  • Yelled, shouted — loudly stated
  • Swears, insists — vehemently states
  • Slammed — closed forcefully
  • Enthralled — extremely interested
  • Terrified — quite frightened

So if you’re struggling with whether to use an adverb to clarify or emphasize an action, consult a thesaurus and moot your word-choice dilemma by choosing a strong verb that accomplishes the same thing.

Adverbial Lapel-Grabbers

Adverbs can also result in comical redundancies. In On Language, William Safire calls redundant adverbs “adverbial lapel-grabbers.” Safire gives several examples of adverbial lapel-grabbers like: visually see, verbally tell, physically pull, manually placed, searched physically, see personally, and personally feel. Other redundant adverb-verb pairs include: running swiftly, finished completely, proved conclusively, tentatively suggested, connected together, shouted loudly, whispered softly, and completely consolidated.

Safire says that writers use adverbial lapel-grabbers because writing is no longer direct and clear: “Because so much of today’s discourse is vague and insubstantial, the need has arisen to break through and make an impression.” But if a writer is thinking about his reader’s needs, he shouldn’t need to use a redundant adverb to make a point. What’s more, redundant adverbs are worse than unnecessary adverbs; at least unnecessary adverbs are minimally defensible.

Scrubbing Adverbs Keeps Writing Clean

It is true, as John Trimble says in Writing With Style, that “the right adverb, fresh and adroitly placed, is one of life’s finest small pleasures.” But adverbs can be scary little pests, who, as Stephen King said, can spread like dandelions. So start scrubbing the unnecessary and redundant adverbs from your legal writing. After a thorough adverb scrub, your legal writing will be more concise and less contrived.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/emilyrides/5188889548/sizes/n/in/photostream/)

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  • Phil

    Mark Twain in a letter to D.W. Bowser, March 20, 1880: “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

  • Avocats

    Is anyone able to explain “obviate the need” and how it’s used properly? (I noticed it in the article.)

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      “Renders unnecessary.”

  • Brian

    Interesting that the Mark Twain letter has several unnecessary, flowery turns of phrase. Which is why it is good writing, right?