Harry Potter and the Grammar Police
Posted by Neal on June 18, 2007
I finished reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to Doug and Adam tonight. As I’ve read it for the past few nights, I’ve been paying special attention, seeing if it’s really true that, as Jan Freeman writes, “Even Harry Potter’s most loyal fans would concede that his creator, J.K. Rowling, has a weakness for adverbs.” I’ve heard this said before, but it’s never been something I really picked up on. Of course, it’s hard to know how seriously to take the criticism when, as Freeman demonstrates, some of the complainers don’t seem to know what an adverb is. In her column, Freeman quotes one ignorant reader who seems to think that adverb means “word that ends in -ly,” and who criticizes Rowling for having an adverb — deathly — right in the title of the final Harry Potter book.
This next reader not only thinks that all words ending in -ly are adverbs, but also that all adverbs end in -ly:
Dear Ms Rowling: Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to read your sixth book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It is always nice to get a chance to read a young writer’s work. I am returning the unnecessary parts of the book to your care. Enclosed below are all the adverbs you used in Chapter 1. … If you see me repeat a word, it is because you used that very adverb more than once.
barely, unfortunately, perfectly, mournfully, peculiarly, slowly, sincerely, inquiringly, kindly, immediately, honestly, generally, distinctly, briefly, stiffly, wearily, morosely, precisely, fatherly, gently, hopelessly, highly, defensively, nervously, rapidly, furiously, heatedly, miserably, momentarily, furiously, exactly, cautiously, warily, honestly, momentarily, clearly, immediately, suddenly, distractedly, politely, briefly, lamely, weakly, anxiously, merely, personally, hopelessly
Fatherly, like deathly, is an adjective. And while I’ll concede that sincerely is an adverb, it was used (as you might have guessed) in the closing of a letter written by one of the characters. Doesn’t that kind of set expression get a pass? And even if it doesn’t, are all characters as well as the narrator required to follow the same stylistic rules? Meanwhile, here are some adverbs not ending in -ly from the first few pages of Chapter 1 that this writer missed:
far [in far distant], very, not, more [in more clearly], only, somehow, now, instead
He also missed a few that ended in -ly: cleanly, firmly, remotely. And he failed to write barely twice, even though it appears at least that many times. (If you just want to give examples, fine; just don’t go saying you’ve listed all the adverbs.)
The people who complain about adverbs don’t seem to have a problem with prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, or certain temporal nouns used adverbially. Or at least, they don’t yet. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone with a better idea of what adverbial phrases are takes the zero-tolerance adverb rule to heart and generalizes it in this way. But for now, I haven’t seen complaints about phrases such as at once, without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind, as though it were yesterday, and tomorrow night, also from Chapter 1 of HP and the HBP.
I’m not saying Rowling doesn’t use a lot of adverbs; maybe she does. But I haven’t found that it bogs down the story. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been brought up short by an author’s klunky or overblown phrasing, or by a sloppy shift in point of view, but Rowling’s supposedly excessive adverbs fly right under my radar. However, as I read HP and the COS, I did notice sentences like these:
“Off you go, move along there,” Lockhart called to the crowd, and he set off back to the castle with Harry…. (98)
“Almost,” said the ghost sadly, and he drifted away. (133)
“This way,” he shouted, and he began to run, up the stairs, into the entrance hall. (138)
There’s nothing wrong with these sentences, but as I got nearer to the end of the book I noticed more and more that in sentences similar to those above, Rowling never chose to leave out the pronominal subject of the second VP. In my opinion, all the above sentences would have sounded just as good or better without the he that I put in boldface. The only time I’ve seen her omit a subject when coordinating VPs is in cases like this one:
Judging by Professor Sprout’s scowl, she did mind, but Lockhart said, “That’s the ticket,” and closed the greenhouse door in her face. (90)
Here, the quoted material follows said, so the two VPs said, “That’s the ticket and closed the greenhouse door in her face can be coordinated in a syntactically parallel fashion, without the common subject getting encapsulated in the first VP.
So although J. K. Rowling evidently does not allow herself to be bound by an arbitrary rule about adverbs, the grammar police can be pleased that she (or her editor) does seem to have given credence to the stricture against coordinating verb phrases when the first one contains quotative inversion.