Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Harry Potter and the Attributive Adverbs

Posted by Neal on July 27, 2009

“I’m mad, Dad,” Doug said. He has been wanting to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, preferably with some of his friends, but I’ve been dragging my feet about putting any kind of outing like that together. Unlike when the other HP movies came out, this time Adam is old enough to appreciate it, and I’d like him to be along to see it, too. He hasn’t wanted to see the other ones until recently, but now that he’s been watching them on video with us, I don’t want to leave him out of a family outing to see this one in the theatre. And I don’t want to go as a family when one or two of us has already seen it, either. I’m not going to boycott what sounds like a great movie if some of Doug’s friends invite him to see it with them first, but I’m not going to make a special effort to make that happen.

In that case, why haven’t we gone ahead and seen HP6 as a family? Well, before we do that, to maximize Adam’s enjoyment of it, I want him to have read — or more accurately, heard read aloud — at least the first five Harry Potter books. We listened to Goblet of Fire last summer, but did we then go right on to Order of the Phoenix? No, we did not. I put it off and put it off, and now we find ourselves listening to it in the car, the longest of the seven books in the series, while Doug waits for his chance to see Half-Blood Prince in the theatres. Oh, well. There are plenty of kids who will have to wait for the video, or won’t even be able to see it at all, so I don’t feel too bad about making Doug wait.

Jim DaleAnyway, as I listen to Jim Dale read the book aloud, I stand in awe of his talent. I’ve read articles here and there (usually when a new Harry Potter book was published) about all the voices he’s created for the hundreds of characters, and hearing them for myself, I am amazed at the job he’s done. I don’t think he’s created hundreds of distinct voices, but it’s certainly in the dozens, and even the voices that sound similar he uses consistently. When I read to Doug and Adam, I use my regular voice for the protagonist; then I bring out my Bert voice, my Marvin the Martian voice, my Howard Sprague voice, my gravelly creaky voice, my Cruel Shoes voice, my Simpsons teenager-with-acne voice, very occasionally my Grover/Yoda voice or Mr. Creosote voice, and a few other voices I don’t have names for, by choosing them on the spot when we meet a new character. But if the character disappears for a few chapters and reappears later, I rarely remember what voice I used for them. From now on, I’m going to take my reading aloud up a notch by recording a sample sentence on my iPod for each character to reference later, a technique I read about in one of those articles on Jim Dale.

However, hearing Jim Dale read 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 Jim Dale read the book — sometimes. It sticks out most when she uses them with verbs of attribution, as she does here:

“Keep muttering and I will be a murderer!” said Sirius irritably, and he slammed the door shut on the elf. (p. 110)

I didn’t find it awkward when I read the book myself, but I do now. Is it because I’m now familiar with the complaint about Rowling and her adverbs? Maybe, but here’s what I think is really going on. When I read the book to myself, an adverb like irritably after said is informative. Sure, fiction writers may say, if an author does their job well enough, then it should be obvious how a character says something, and the adverb will be superfluous. But sometimes, a single adverb does the job more quickly than a sentence or two of “show, don’t tell”. However, when Rowling says someone says something sarcastically or loudly or doubtfully, Jim Dale actually says it that way, and you can hear it, and the adverb really is superfluous. By contrast, when he reads that someone performed some non-speech action distractedly or slowly or however else, it still sounds just fine to my ears.

I’ve noticed a couple of other interesting things while listening to the audiobook. Still on the subject of adverbs, Rowling uses a couple of them often enough for me to have noted Jim Dale’s unusual pronunciation of them: dully and shrilly. These adverbs, of course, are formed by suffixing the adjectives dull and shrill with the suffix –ly. Because of a rule of English orthography, we don’t write dullly or shrillly, with three L’s in a row, but that’s how I think of them, and I pronounce them (I think) with an /l/ at the end of the first syllable and an /l/ in the onset of the second one. In phonetic terms, I have a geminate /l/. Dale, however, degeminates the double /l/, pronouncing dully to rhyme with Tully, Sully, and hully gully; and shrilly to rhyme with frilly, silly, and Milli Vanilli. You can see the difference on a spectrogram as well as hear it. I recorded myself and used Praat to find out that my dull-ly and shrill-ly took about 0.6 seconds to pronounce, while dully and shrilly took 2/3 to 3/4 of that time.

Now that I think about it, though, why shouldn’t we get degemination here? It happened with fully and really long ago. Another adverb that Rowling used often enough for me to notice Dale’s pronunciation is coolly, and that one Dale seems to pronounce sometimes with a geminate /l/, and sometimes without. (I wonder how he’d pronounce Pooland.)

As for the other interesting thing I noticed, look at these other sentences with quotations:

“Department of Mysteries,” said the cool female voice, and left it at that. (p. 135)

“I’m going to get started on some homework,” said Ron angrily, and stomped off to the staircase to the boys’ dormitories and vanished from sight. (p. 294)

Did you catch that? No, not the angrily; I’m talking about the unusual (for J. K. Rowling) construction she used in these passages. Follow the last link and this one to see what I’m talking about.

UPDATE, 11 Aug. 2009:

“Now!” said Mrs. Weasley, and withdrew. (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 95)

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7 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Attributive Adverbs”

  1. So, what do you think? Were those two lines really written by Nancy Stouffer or Adrian Jacobs?

  2. sweets said

    oh mad dad.. you are very funny mad dad..

  3. […] not vastly more than other writers. Most of the time, in fact, readers don’t notice them. One blogger noted that it was only when listening to Jim Dale’s amazing reading of the story that the […]

  4. Pottermore said

    Pottermore Guide…

    […]Harry Potter and the Attributive Adverbs « Literal-Minded[…]…

  5. […] of adverbs. She has been castigated for it by Stephen King (who otherwise praises her writing) and other critics. In fact, some people complain, she even put an adverb in the title of her last […]

  6. […] though, everyone on earth has had a lesson on the horror of adverbs in articles like this one, and this one, and this one.  The thing is that, as I read these books late at night, I don’t really notice […]

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