Number of -ly adverbs per 10,000 words

by on May 17, 2017 at 2:10 am in Books, Data Source | Permalink

Hemingway: 80

Twain: 81

Melville: 126

Austen: 128

J.K. Rowling: 140

E L James: 155

That is from the new and interesting Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt.  The Hemingway book with the highest usage rate for -ly adverbs, True at First Light, was released only after his death and is considered one of his worst works.  The same pattern is true for Faulkner and Steinbeck, namely that the most highly praised works have relatively low rates of -ly adverb usage.  Among other notable authors surveyed, D.H. Lawrence seems to be the most obvious exception to this regularity.

In the novel The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien used the word “she” only once.  In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, she relative to he is used 79% of the time, the highest ratio of the classics surveyed.  Female authors are very strongly represented on that side of the curve, let me tell you.  And male authors do the “he” far more, in relative terms, than female authors do the “she.”

You also will learn from this book that David Brooks starts more sentences with “The” than any other word, whereas for Paul Krugman that place of honor goes to “But.”  And, for better or worse, Krugman uses far less anaphora.

D.H. Lawrence leads for the number of animal similes.

1 So Much For Subtlety May 17, 2017 at 5:10 am

The problem is one of national culture. Since Hemmingway and more importantly Dashiell Hammett, American authors have tried to produce a pared down, minimalist language that does not waste words on anything unnecessary. British authors have never really had that tradition although some people do try to copy it. You would not expect Rowling to write that way. Her characters are not hard boiled. Wish that they were.

There is also a problem of timing. Jane Austen wrote at a period when people did waste a lot of words. They needed good editors. And perhaps the training of sending their prose over the telegraph where they had to pay for every word.

Although admittedly so did Twain but he seems somewhat terse. Twain and E L James seem to be the two outliers. Twain should have used more. James, please God, should use a lot less.

2 chuck martel May 17, 2017 at 6:25 am

“Jane Austen wrote at a period when people did waste a lot of words.”

The extent of vocabulary is evidence of erudition. As the American general vocabulary becomes smaller perhaps oral communication will devolve to resemble that of baboons and other lesser primates until thoughts, such as they may be, are conveyed through grunts, gestures and emojis. The trend seems obvious.

3 So Much For Subtlety May 17, 2017 at 6:35 am

I accept what you mean but I am not sure I agree with 100% of it. A lack of unnecessary words is not the same as a lack of words. You can have a full and rich vocabulary and still produce a stripped down, sparse, prose. Hammett, for instance, it is not dumb and he does not write like a stupid person with a limited vocabulary.

On the other hand it is probably possible to have a very limited vocabulary due to a poor family background and education, and yet still not be dumb. A lot of rappers are, obviously, borderline retarded, but not all of them. Public Enemy’s language is not complex but are they stupid? That would be hard to tell for Flavor Flav these days – he seems to be living proof that Nancy Reagon’s “This is your brain on drugs” adverts were underselling the problem. Someone in NWA was clearly not stupid but it would be hard to tell who it was.

4 Thelonious_Nick May 17, 2017 at 11:20 am

” A lot of rappers are, obviously, borderline retarded”

Not the successful ones, for the most part. Many, many rappers could have been poets or writers in different circumstances.

Flavor Flav’s role in Public Enemy was to provide vocal emphasis, though mainly he was a childhood buddy of Chuck D.’s. Chuck D. was clearly the brains.

“Someone in NWA was clearly not stupid but it would be hard to tell who it was.”

It was Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Ice Cube was never a great rapper but he was smart.

5 James May 17, 2017 at 2:52 pm

“Many, many rappers could have been poets or writers in different circumstances.”

They ARE poets. We may not like their poetry in terms of format, chosen metaphors, or precise word usage, but lyrics in music are poetry whether we like the poem or not. I have a sibling who teaches literature in a university who uses that exact point to demonstrate that understanding poetry isn’t some arcane skill only a few develop; it’s something we ALL do, every time the radio is on.

6 Thomas May 17, 2017 at 7:01 pm

I have it on good authority from the credentialists that on cannot be a poet without a MFA at the least.

7 chuck martel May 17, 2017 at 7:24 pm

Dumb or stupid isn’t the point. The great English novelist Thomas Hardy made use of a large vocabulary that wasn’t particularly esoteric for the Englishmen of that time. Most contemporary English and Americans would need a good dictionary to understand his work. Perhaps the point is that many more words drop out of common usage than are adopted.

8 Thiago Ribeiro May 17, 2017 at 7:17 am

A people’s fate is its language’s fate. As with Rome, as America becomes weaker, its language wekens until it becomes a hateful pidgin. As our forefathers used to say, “Portuguese is not our language, it is our Fatherland”.

9 JWatts May 17, 2017 at 10:44 am

I can no longer tell the difference between the “real” TR and the trolls who post using his name.

10 Thiago Ribeiro May 17, 2017 at 11:36 am

The real is the reasonable, sane one: me.

11 Thiago Ribeiro May 17, 2017 at 1:19 pm

Obviously these are the posts of an imposyer. It is sad how proud Brazilians, whose nation is larger than the Roman Empire at its peak, are treated by soulless Americans posters here.

12 Larry Siegel May 17, 2017 at 10:28 pm

While “Thiago Ribeiro” kind of sounds like a generic male Brazilian name, it is the name of one of Brazil’s finest soccer players. We are indeed honored to have such a great athlete commenting on economic issues here.

13 T May 17, 2017 at 9:45 am

Words dont has ta sound lik dat. All uppity and prim and white and proper. Ain’t ya’ll read nothin like dis?

“I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.”

14 James May 17, 2017 at 9:49 am

“The extent of vocabulary is evidence of erudition.”

This is hardly a given. An extensive vocabulary can be a sign of erudition, but it can also be a sign of obfuscation. One of the hardest tasks of a scientist is to pare down their work, to pack as much information into as small a space as possible. Granted much of this is achieved through unique jargon; however, a great deal of it is also accomplished through sheer mastery of the language in question.

There’s also the fact that what is considered erudition in the English language is often nothing more than an attempt to convert a Germanic language into a Romance language. The rules against splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, to provide two examples, arise from nothing more than one man’s attempt to make English emulate Latin. Much of what was considered erudition in Austin’s time stems from that attempt. And I believe that this is an error. It’s an attempt to evaluate a language based on inapplicable criteria. One may as well evaluate caviar based on how well it binds to gravel.

There are also classist, racist, and sexist issues inherent in the English language of Austen’s time. It’s not just individual terms, either–communication was governed by arcane and, frankly, nonsensical rules based on outdated and disproven assumptions about the human species and sex/gender. Removing such nonsense hardly constitutes a decline in a language!

As for grunts and gestures, I can assure you that such communication is already prevalent in certain sectors of American society. In college I had complete conversations that involved nothing but grunts, gestures, and the occasional slap upside the head. Don’t under-estimate the amount of information transmittable via non-verbal communication.

What we’re getting into is an old, old debate in linguistics. I’m a descriptivist. You appear to be a prescriptivist.

15 Thomas May 17, 2017 at 10:03 am

“An extensive vocabulary can be a sign of erudition, but it can also be a sign of obfuscation.”

” Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.”

Pure erudition. 100%

16 So Much For Subtlety May 17, 2017 at 7:47 pm

James May 17, 2017 at 9:49 am
There’s also the fact that what is considered erudition in the English language is often nothing more than an attempt to convert a Germanic language into a Romance language.

You make that sound like a bad thing. What is more to the point, you are not making a point about language, you are attempting to define deviance down. By all means, it was probably a bad idea to force English into this straitjacket. But here we are. The world is largely divided into two sorts – those with some brains and education who can follow the rules and those that lack one or the other. Maybe both. You are trying to pretend that there are large numbers of poor downtrodden geniuses out there who would be doing great if only we let them split the odd infinitive. This is not true. Everyone capable of understanding an education gets an education and hence speaks grammatically. Those that can’t don’t and won’t.

There are also classist, racist, and sexist issues inherent in the English language of Austen’s time. It’s not just individual terms, either–communication was governed by arcane and, frankly, nonsensical rules based on outdated and disproven assumptions about the human species and sex/gender. Removing such nonsense hardly constitutes a decline in a language!

This is nonsense on stilts. But fashionable nonsense. There are no arcane or nonsensical rules in Austen’s time. Unlike today where we have to deny science and the evidence before our eyes. There are no disproven assumptions about sex or the human species. And ignoring those rules is a decline in the language. Not just ignoring those rules, of course. Ignoring all of them. And pretending the rules do not matter. All signs of a civilization in decline.

17 Larry Siegel May 17, 2017 at 10:30 pm

I am an educated English speaker with a long list of credentials and writing awards and I still find it advantageous to occasionally split an infinitive. (Yes, I realize that “occasionally” could have been placed earlier in the sentence, but did you really have any trouble figuring out what I meant?)

18 JonFraz May 19, 2017 at 1:53 pm

In Austen’s era the norm (ever since Goethe’s “Die Leiden Jungen Werthers”) was what I can only call Screaming-Drama-Queen style: novels and plays were one long overwrought shriek of emotion. Much of the literature of the period is simply unreadable today (The wildly popular– at the time– “Corinne” by Austen’s French contemporary Mme de Stael comes across like revenge porn written by a coked up A-list high school girl who has just caught her boyfriend in bed with her best friend). Austen somehow bucked that style entirely, and produced works that are reasonably detached and even vaguely ironic, as if she had a time machine in her withdrawing room and occasionally vacationed in the 1990s. Is any other author of the period still read for pleasure today?

19 Axa May 17, 2017 at 5:35 am

Some context for those numbers: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2016/06/02/abolish_the_adverb_you_seriously_must_be_joking.html

It’s remarkable the usage of a fraction of ten thousand, why not percentage? Because 0.8% looks bad?

20 Edm May 17, 2017 at 9:41 am

Good link.

21 Lurker May 17, 2017 at 7:24 am

Dear Prof Cowen,

We have moved on from David Brooks and Paul Krugman (and Thom Friedman por favor!). Therefore you will no longer need to reference these shills going forward.

Thanks,

L

22 prior_test2 May 17, 2017 at 10:26 am

Shh – shill is not an appreciated word here. It seems to touch a nerve.

23 JWatts May 17, 2017 at 10:47 am

I just assume anyone talking obsessively about a second party being a shill is quite possibly a shill for a third party.

24 Thiago Ribeiro May 17, 2017 at 11:14 am

And people saying about the first part is quitae possibly a shill for a fourth party.

25 rayward May 17, 2017 at 7:48 am
26 dearieme May 17, 2017 at 11:28 am

Bigly. Majorly.

27 The Cuckmeister-General May 17, 2017 at 5:38 pm

Cuckly

28 B. Reynolds May 17, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Anaphora…. So that’s what Judge Andrew Napolitano is doing.

29 Dees May 17, 2017 at 1:21 pm

Gabriel Garcia Marquez didn’t use adverbs ending in -mente and thus instructed his English language translator (Edith Grossman) to not use adverbs ending in -ly.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/21/gabriel-garcia-marquez-remembered-edith-grossman-translator

30 mwilson May 17, 2017 at 4:04 pm

In Stephen King’s book _On Writing_, he goes on at length about how bad -ly adverbs are.

31 Thiago Spittler May 17, 2017 at 7:36 pm

Ry>ly

23+12=35+12=47
What’s special about 12? 4×3=12, 19 3+4=Hitler becomes Fuhrer sans omelletes

The triumph of the gallantry of the aging machine. The gallantry of worn-through rods that refuse to break. the cylinder head that does not blow though it has every right to, and the rest of it.
Hemingway, 1929 (5 years prior to 1935) 9-2=7, anyway you look at it.

32 thfmr May 17, 2017 at 8:04 pm

Orwell, Twain, and Bukowski agree that florid prose is shit. Who am I to disagree?

33 Roy LC May 18, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Clearly they lacked the courage to test the works of Georgette Heyer, one of the last centuries greats.

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