Killing Adverbs in Appeal Briefs

What do Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and horror-novelist Stephen King have in common? Both disdain adverbs. Lawyers who write appeal briefs may consider joining them.

Justice Anthony Kennedy
Justice Anthony Kennedy

“Adverbs are a cop-out[,]” Justice Kennedy told an interviewer. “They’re a way for you to qualify, and if you don’t use them, it forces you to think through the conclusion of your sentence. And it forces you to confront the significance of your word choice, the importance of your diction.” 13 Scribes Journal of Legal Writing 92-93 (2010).

Stephen King goes further. In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, King exclaimed that he would “shout from the rooftops” that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” He likens them to dandelions in that one is pretty but the lawn is soon filled with them. And then you see them for the weeds they are.

Why the hard feelings? Let me suggest three reasons. Adverbs may:

  • be superfluous
  • substitute for stronger verbs
  • editorialize

I have read, and have unfortunately authored, briefs on appeal that use adverbs as intensifiers when they really do not intensify. Oops – I just did it again. The adverb “really” adds nothing to the statement. An intensifier that does not intensify is as bad as one that really does not. It is the armed gunman.

A stronger objection is Justice Kennedy’s concern about word choice. A more precise verb is better than an adverb. Why tell a Supreme Court that the defendant drove his vehicle into your client forcefully when you can say he crashed into her? Why say a witness testified “tearfully” when you can say he sobbed or wailed?

A last objection, and the strongest one for me, is that adverbs editorialize and may exaggerate.  Adverbs describe. And descriptions are subjective. I, for example, often see in appeal briefs the infamous adverbs “clearly,” “obviously,” and the like. When my opposing counsel begins a sentence “Clearly x, y, and x, I search the record or law for something showing the opposite. And I normally find it. And point it out to the Court.

If something is obvious or clear, prove it without saying that it is obvious or clear. Show, don’t tell.

Are you an adverb lover, hater, or agnostic? Please leave me a reply or reach me here. In the meantime, please enjoy this video –









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