Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

12 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Grammar Police”

  1. Neal Goldfarb said

    I’m not sure this is an issue of prescriptivism. I’ve never heard of the prescriptive rule you mention, but to my ear each of the three sentences works much better with the pronoun included.

    And it seems to me that there are significant differences between the two constructions. With the pronoun included, each of the conjoined elements is a sentence (which means, by the way, that Rowling is violating the prescriptive rule against run-on sentences). But without the pronoun, the most natural parse for the sentence is to read it as a conjunction of two VPs. And that reading seems awkward to me because of a nonparallelism other than the one you mention: the first VP is transitive while the second isn’t.

    To be sure, that’s not a problem when the quote isn’t fronted, as you note (and cf. “He hit the ball and ran to first base”). But in that case, the closure of the first VP is much more explicit than when the quote comes first, because the the direct object position is filled explicitly rather than just implicitly. That means that when you get to the second verb, you’re pretty much forced to read it as part of a separate sentence, the subject of which has been elided. But that reading isn’t as obvious in the no-pronoun version, because there’s nothing on the surface to tell you that the first VP has closed. As a result there’s a slight garden-path effect.

  2. Eric said

    I just happened to spot another interesting instance of the -ly trap. In the latest installment of his review of recent writings on atheism and religion (on TimesSelect, unfortunately; sorry if the link doesn’t work), Stanley Fish writes (emphasis added):

    This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride […].

    In this case the culprit is no doubt related to the fact that “lot” is not (thought to be) a noun. The reasoning might go: use an adjective to modify a noun and an adverb otherwise; “lot” is not a noun; therefore, “awful” –> “awfully”.

  3. Uly said

    JKR really *does* abuse her adverbs (if I read that Hermione did something “waspishly” just *one more time*, I may just scream!), but sometimes, an adverb is necessary. I certainly wouldn’t make a list and say they’re all wrong. Geez.

    (Besides, her adverbmania is just an extension of her general preference for telling instead of showing. Can’t fix that without an editor. It’s no use complaining to the author when she’s virtually unedited, poor dear.)

    • “her adverbmania is just an extension of her general preference for telling instead of showing. Can’t fix that without an editor.”

      What arrant nonsense, Uly. A writer can’t get her head around the difference between showing and telling, but an editor can? Since when does an editor have superior writing skills to an author?

  4. Neal said

    The rule I was talking about is an instantiation of the rule requiring parallel structure of coordinated items. I wrote more about it here. However, your comment made me think: Although “Yes,” he said, and turned away may sound fine to me, it might sound strange to other people, as it does to you. So J. K. Rowling may write something like, “Yes,” he said, and he turned away not because she’s adhering to a rule on parallelism, but because it really does sound more natural to her.

    As to your second point: With an overt subject for each verb, we do have coordinated sentences, but they wouldn’t be run-on sentences unless she left out the conjunction and didn’t replace it with appropriate punctuation, as in “Yes,” he said he turned away. Without the pronoun, I don’t think the coordinated VPs are non-parallel because of the transitive/intransitive point you mention: In the first sentence, for example, both call and set off are intransitive.

    I agree that there could be a garden-path effect in some of these sentences, specifically, those in which the subject still precedes the verb, as in, “Yes,” Lockhart said, and nodded. But when the subject has been placed after the verb, as in “Yes,” he said, and nodded, it clearly shows the first VP is finished.

    In sentences such as He hit the ball and ran to first base, it’s simpler to just say the coordinated VPs make a complex VP with a single subject, rather than posit two sentences and elision of the second subject. Under that analysis, Everyone cheered or clapped would mean “Everyone cheered, or everyone clapped,” and not allow for some doing one and some doing the other.

    Eric: Nice catch. I’m guessing Fish never says things like awful good.

    I did see a lot of adverbs as I reviewed Rowling’s writing, but I didn’t know if it was truly excessive, or if I was just noticing them more than with other authors because I was thinking about them at the time. But as for her telling instead of showing, I agree with you there. I think it’s gotten better, but in book one, I had a problem with this sentence in the middle of a narrative told from Harry’s point of view (I don’t have the book here, so I’ll have to do it from memory): “There are some things you just can’t do with someone else without ending up being friends, and fighting a troll is one of them.” That was clearly Rowling speaking, not Harry thinking.

  5. Russell said

    A bit late on this one, but I’ll mention something nonetheless. It’s about quotative inversion. I noticed that in the Holmes tale “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Doyle almost never strays from using inversion, even in cases where the only thing after the speech verb is a pronoun.

    “blah blah blah Watson you’re a great guy blah blah,” said he.

    It’s really quite jarring. It seems to be Doyle’s regular style, but I don’t know about conventions at the time.

  6. […] won’t get any spoilers from me, unless you wanted to find out for yourself that J.K. Rowling still makes all her interactions of coordination with quotative inversion strictly parallel (not that […]

  7. Mason said

    It’s funny watching you all picking holes (well, trying to) in JK Rowling’s work. Truth is, there are no ‘rules’ on which you can base your criticisms. It’s all art. Rowling has written the greatest series of children’s books in history, therefore, it would make you feel very important indeed to find fault. But the matter remains, Rowling’s work (however it was written) is great, popular, easy to read, etc, etc… and this speaks for itself. Rowling wasn’t selling this to English scholors, she was selling it to children.

    • ludovicah said

      I couldn’t agree more. Rowling’s style is unpretentious and conversational. Most of the adverbs inform the verbal picture in a helpful (and vocabulary enriching) way for children. I do take issue with the number of times she uses the word “hurtle” and “hurtled” but Rowling’s “voice” is absolutely right for someone of her age and cultural background. I do however take issue with the number of “long moments” there are in the series as I would say that anything momentary cannot be long. On the whole I think the imperfections are more endearing than detrimental and an easy read for people of all ages.

  8. […] the books aloud has raised my awareness of a complaint I’ve heard about J. K. Rowling: that she uses too many adverbs. I wrote before that I’d never noticed this, but I am finding it disconcerting as I listen to […]

  9. Sasanka said

    I never noticed anything about the adverbs, but as I listened to both American and Original( English) versions of Harry Potter, In both I noticed that J.K Rowling Or the Editors. In almost every Place, Instead Of “were” as in ” They were running ” She put “Was”.
    So it sounded strange when I heard ” Harry, Ron, and Hermione was running down to Hagrid’s hut.”( Just an Example).

    • Hannah said

      Pretty sure she got her grammar spot on in every book.Do you possibly think that you could become a global phenomenon like she* has?
      Thought so.

      *’She’ being J.K Rowling of course.

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