Suzanne Brown, a veteran editor in the Features Department, talked to me a few minutes last week about why she dislikes most sentence adverbs. A sentence adverb acts to qualify a whole sentence, not just one word in the sentence. Sentence adverbs are those slippery transition words such as “thankfully” and “fortunately” that writer use, Suzanne says, as a way of stopping the reader for a second to ponder the point. She doesn’t edit out all such words, but she does look for alternatives. As we chatted, both of us mentioned two of these words that we find most problematic for different reasons: hopefully and ironically. Let’s get them out of the way.
I am uncomfortable with “hopefully” because so many others are. I know that if I let “hopefully,” in the sense of “it is to be hoped,” slip into the paper, some readers and some editors will take us to task, even though that sense of the word has been in use for years. Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” criticized “hopefully,” and “Elements” is equivalent to the tablets from Mount Sinai to some writers and editors. “Ironically” gets the editing ax because it’s just not the right word most of the time. What a writer is labeling “ironic” is usually just an interesting, an unexpected or an odd development.
What about the other sentence adverbs, the ones such as “regrettably,” “interestingly” or “mercifully” that don’t carry the stench of being banned in William Strunk’s classroom? I agree with Suzanne that they can be a crutch, a way to call attention to a writer’s conclusion. They introduce the writer’s opinion into the writing, which can intrude on what should be an honest, straightforward report. In speech, hearing someone preface every other sentence with such a word is annoying. Just say what you’re going to say, we’re screaming inside our heads.
But sentence adverbs are useful and widely used, and nothing is grammatically wrong with using a sentence adverb. Despite what we learned in elementary school, adverbs don’t just modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. As with any adverb, a sentence adverb, which can be a single word or an adverbial phrase, should be in its proper place.
Sentence adverbs convey thoughts well. When Rhett Butler says, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” we in the audience just love his adverbial dismissal of that spoiled, self-centered Scarlett. Sometimes, we writers want to inject our relief, our wonder, our anger or our bewilderment into the piece. That can be conversational. In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the editors write, “The chief virtue of the sentence adverb is its compactness: It permits the writer or speaker to express in a single word or short phrase what would otherwise take a much longer form.” “Luckily,” for example, is shorter than “it is lucky for me that …”
No editor can address sentence adverbs, though, without noting two other problems. First, writers are prone to inserting weasel words such as the vogue word of the past decade or so, “arguably.” We can’t prove something is true, so we put in “arguably” to tell the reader, “Hey, don’t blame me. I said it was an arguable point.” Second, we wear some words out. “Basically” is on my trash heap now because I am just plain tired of it.
The best advice to writers and editors is to question the impulse to use a sentence adverb. Strunk’s admonition to “omit needless words” applies here.
As Bryan Garner points out, “clearly” and its cousins “obviously,” “undeniably” and “undoubtedly” can weaken a writer’s point, rather than strengthen it. Such weasel words suck the life out of writing. This is a matter not of grammar or usage but of style.
I must mention, too, Ben Yagoda’s book “If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.” Yagoda, an English professor, says that “actually” is “the single most abused and annoying sentence adverb.” He makes his point entertainingly.
This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.