Thursday, April 12, 2007

I love Tom Swifties, said Jason quickly.

Tom SwiftlyAs someone who obsesses about grammar, I am thoroughly enjoying “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” by Ben Yagoda. Although, I now know that a good writer would not have used a cheap adverb like “thoroughly” when a more descriptive verb like “relish” would do. Be patient, it’s taking a while for all of this to sink in.

I’m not yet through the book, but I am compelled to blog about a grammatical pun previously unknown to me – the Tom Swiftly. Yagoda contends that most Tom Swifties are unfunny, but I found myself cracking up at many of them.

The Tom Swiftly hearkens back to a turn-of-the-century series of novels by Edward Stratemeyer where the boy inventor hero, Tom Swift, was unable to simply “say” anything. Nearly every utterance was meticulously modified by an adverb, such as “I am unable to say anything plainly,” said Tom simply. (Yes, these are adverb jokes.)

Wikipedia does a much more thorough (“thorough” here is an adjective, so it’s okay) job of explaining the origins and providing examples, so I’ll just list a couple here that had me in stitches. The last example I tried to tell my wife several times but couldn’t deliver the adverb punch line without cracking up first.

“I only have diamonds, clubs and spades,” said Tom heartlessly.

"They had to amputate them both at the ankles," Tom said defeatedly.

“I manufacture countertops for shops,” said Tom counterproductively.

"Elvis is dead," said Tom expressly.

“I’m not sure I’m a homosexual,” said Tom, half in Ernest.


keeline said...

You would be hard pressed to find the Tom Swifty sentence structure (quote "said Tom" adverb) in any of the Tom Swift books.

Instead, the verb "said" was replaced by other synonyms such as "cried," "murmured," "replied," etc.

I don't deny that Tom Swifties are fun but they aren't part of the true history and heritage of Tom Swift.

James Keeline

Jason said...

Thanks for the comment James. I admit that I'm not personally acquainted with the Tom Swift books (I was more into Hardy Boys as a youth; however, the excerpt in the Wikipedia article does demonstrate the use of adverbs.

That being said, you do appear to be right about "said" being seldom used. Nonetheless, the descriptive verbs used in its stead are often coupled with an adverb.

Anonymous said...

For the life of me, I can't remember how I stumbled upon your blog, but that last Tom Swifty also had me cracking up.