Friday, June 06, 2008

Fun With Adverbs: Tom Swifties

As writers, we’re admonished to avoid adverbs. But if you’re tired of going through your work-in-progress and killing off these helpers, here’s an exercise that lets you use them while producing a few laughs and an occasional groan. It’s time to play “Tom Swifties.”

Tom Swifties are adverbial puns. The quip takes its name from Tom Swift, a boy's adventure hero created by the prolific American writer, Edward L. Stratemeyer. Under the pseudonym Victor Appleton, he published a series of books featuring the young hero, Tom Swift. Tom Swift rarely said anything without a qualifying adverb. For example, "Tom added eagerly" or "Tom said jokingly". This gave rise to adverbial puns that became known as Tom Swifties. A classic example is, “I’ll run right over,” Tom said swiftly. Some of these are true groaners, like this one: “The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,” said Tom, half-heartedly.

Below are a few examples. If you really want to read more, you can do a Google search and find—of all things—a Tom Swiftie dictionary, as well as other extensive collections of these puns. But remember, after you’ve stopped playing and have gone back to your writing, you have to put away the adverbs for a while. After all, that’s one of the rules—and you know how much I love writing rules.

"We have no bananas," Tom said fruitlessly.

"Have a ride in my new ambulance," Tom said hospitably.

"I haven't developed my photographs yet," Tom said negatively.

"I've removed all the feathers from this chicken," Tom said pluckily.

"I'm just an ordinary soldier," Tom said privately.

"How do you get this horse to stop?" Tom asked woefully.


keeline said...

Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) did not have a middle name or initial.

He did not write the Tom Swift or most of the Syndicate books. He came up with ideas, convinced a publisher to order them, and devised outlines which were given to ghostwriters. The ghosts were paid a flat fee for their work on the story.

The Tom Swifty pun format is:

"{Some quote}," said Tom {adverb}

This structure is actually very rare in the Tom Swift (1910-1941) or Tom Swift Jr. (1954-1971) books. Instead you are more likely to see:

"{Some quote}," {verb} Tom.

The {verb} is a substitute for "said" such as "cried," "replied," "asked," "murmured," and others. The list is quite long and diverse.

I've seen the text of this blog elsewhere, particularly the "half-heartedly" example.

Have fun with Tom Swiftys but don't attribute their origin incorrectly, please.

James D. Keeline

Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Thanks for the information. It's obvious from your blogger profile, as well as the comment you left, that you're extremely interested and well-versed in Tom Swift lore.
My information was taken from Wikipedia (and I repent in sackcloth and ashes for accepting it as true--I should know better), and the examples were culled from half a dozen web sites.
My intent was to give writers a respite from avoiding adverbs, something we're taught to do from early days. But thanks for the lesson.

Unknown said...

Hi - I came over because I read your 100 word (or less) story at cba-ramblings. I just wanted to say I really liked it and it made me interested and wanting to know "more." I am a newbie writer and am trying to soak up lots-o-knowledge. So just to say hi and checking out your sight.

Okay, how's this one...
"Make him stop!" she called out haltingly.

Linda Harris said...

This is what I like about this post: It really shows up where adverbs are misused the most--in dialogue.

As a nonfiction writer, I've been told to excise all adverbs, but sometimes you just gotta have one! Adverbs are like salt; a little goes a long way. But you wouldn't want to do without completely.

Deb said...

If Tom Swifties don't have their antecedents in Tom Swift books...well, they should've had. I just celebrate the fact these jokes started somewhere!

Dad and I used to try to top each other at Swifties. His best effort: "I've just lost at Russian roulette," said Tom absent-mindedly.

My best effort? "I love camping!" said Tom intently.

Now, before anyone jumps on me for these--it's possible Dad & I didn't originate them, but remembered them from somewhere else. But we thought we did and had fun with those and other inventions we came up with on long summer road trips.

Traveling in England, we would make up foolish names for cities, trying to one-up some of the more amazing town names. We saw (real) villages named Burnt Yates, Chipping Sodbury, Thornton-le-Beans, and many others. So of course we had to come up with worse ones, such as Muchbit Scratchingley and Upping Flushbox.

We liked road trips.