No part of speech has had to put up with so much adversity as the adverb. The grammatical equivalent of cheap cologne or trans fat, the adverb is supposed to be used sparingly, if at all, to modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. As Stephen King succinctly put it: “The adverb is not your friend.”
Not everybody, however, looks askance at the part of speech. Indeed, there is at least one place where the adverb not only flourishes but wields power—the American legal system.
Adverbs in recent years have taken on an increasingly important—and often contentious—role in courthouses. Their influence has spread with the help of lawmakers churning out new laws packed with them.
A U.S. appellate court, for example, this past summer wrestled with the question of whether a defendant could have “knowingly” aimed a laser pointer at a helicopter if he mistakenly assumed the beam wouldn’t reach the aircraft.
Words such as “knowingly,” “intentionally” and “recklessly,” which deal with criminal intent, pop up most frequently, but plenty of other adverbs have enjoyed the spotlight. When the U.S. Supreme Court in June recognized religious protections of closely held companies, justices pondered the significance of an adverb in a 1993 federal statute that guards against laws that “substantially burden” the exercise of religion.
“Indiscriminately” was pivotal in a federal appeals court ruling in January striking down the “net neutrality” rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission. Preventing broadband providers from charging sites like Netflix more money for faster speeds would effectively treat them like common carriers, which are required by law to “serve the public indiscriminately,” the court said.
In a tax case from the summer, lawyers for the Internal Revenue Service defended their decision to freeze the bank accounts of a former Pennsylvania state senator, only to see their arguments founder on the word “quickly.” Tax law allows the government to immediately freeze the assets of a suspected tax cheat who “appears to be designing quickly” to hide his wealth. But the judge said there was nothing quick about the defendant’s cash and real-estate transactions, which spanned several years.
“Contrary to the ordinary view that adverbs are superfluous, law generally, and criminal law especially, emerges through its adverbs,” James M. Donovan, a legal anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, recently wrote in a paper on the subject.
Mr. Donovan, who runs the school’s law library, said that he was immediately drawn to the subject after encountering Mr. King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” in a faculty reading group. “His blanket dismissal of the importance of adverbs got me uncomfortable,” said Mr. Donovan, “but it took a while to articulate why.”
The number of adverb-dense disputes over how to properly construe a criminal statute has surged since the 1980s, according to a case-law search conducted by Brooklyn Law School professor Lawrence Solan, author of “The Language of Judges.” On the federal level, he said, the criminalization of white-collar and regulatory offenses in the past 30 years has been especially good for adverbs. So has a trend in courts toward painstakingly precise textual analysis, the professor said.
In point of fact, an adverb once got a hearing before the nation’s most eminent jurists.
A U.S. Supreme Court case in 2009, Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., ultimately turned on the modifying reach of the word “knowingly,” tucked into a federal statute defining the crime of aggravated identity theft.
The petitioner was a Mexican citizen arrested for giving his employer counterfeit Social Security and alien registration cards that displayed his name but other people’s identification numbers. He convincingly argued that the presence of “knowingly” in the law required the government to prove that he knew the IDs were fake.
The justices unanimously agreed with him. “As a matter of ordinary English grammar, ’knowingly’ is naturally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.
Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, is regarded by scholars as the dean of legal prose. He says legislators and adverbs need one another.
Statutes “have to be hyper-literal and generic,” he said. “A fiction writer might say he barreled down the street. There is no way a statute can say, ‘If you barrel your car.’ ”
Says Mr. Garner: “No legislative drafter ever says: Did I pull my readers in? That’s something Stephen King has to ask.”
Thursday, October 09, 2014
Lawyers heart adverbs
The WSJ has a whole article about the love affair: