February 9, 2024

When I first learned that fans of Taylor Swift called themselves Swifties, I smiled.

I knew the word Swiftie in a completely different context.

The source of my knowledge is not a glamorous global celebrity.

I grew up reading about a fictional character named Tom Swift. For more than a century, Tom Swift was the name of a popular boy adventure hero. In the spirit of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, Tom Swift solved mysteries and battled villains. He did this in a world of futuristic science and engineering.

The first book I purchased in the series with my own money was “Tom Swift and the Caves of Nuclear Fire.” These books were the work of multiple authors, published under the generic pseudonym of Victor Appleton.

The authors followed certain distinctive language traits. One of the most peculiar was a reluctance to be satisfied with the word “said.” Characters could rarely just say something. Instead, they had to joke, or explain, or exclaim. As it turns out, they exclaimed a lot. Exclamation points popped up like weeds.

If those active verbs failed, the authors would turn to that oft-maligned part of speech: the adverb!

On almost every page, characters said things “excitedly,” or “enthusiastically,” or “spiritedly.”

Those adverbs metastasized to the point of self-satire. This led, early in the 1960s, to the creation of a witty type of pun known as the Tom Swiftie.

There are many clever ones. The modifying adverb makes some off-beat reference to the quote that comes before, as the one I’ve created for this occasion: “Let’s speed up the tempo,” said Taylor swiftly.

Here are two simple ones:

“‘I hate this pizza,” he said crustily.

“I am an artist,” she said easily.

(If you don’t get those, ask your neighbor.)

The wordplay gets more sophisticated, and the groans from the audience get louder:

“Take the prisoner downstairs,” said the judge condescendingly.

Or for you art lovers:

“I am Venus de Milo,” she said … (wait for it) … disarmingly.

Here, perhaps, is my all-time favorite, using a final adjective instead of adverb:

“Oh, dear, I’ve dropped my toothpaste,” she said, crestfallen.

I use the Tom Swiftie as a creative example in some writing lessons.

As with many jokes, the Swiftie makes you laugh at the end — the punchline, or, in this case, the punch word. That is an example of emphatic word order, the way the best writers save the most important words in a sentence or paragraph for the end.

Writing teachers run the risk of turning their preferences into rules. They will write unhelpful things such as “avoid the passive voice,” or “cut all the adjectives and adverbs.”

Cut the weak ones, of course. “She smiled happily” offers a redundant modifier. “She smiled sadly,” does the trick.

Writing Tom Swifties can be fun to write at parties for nerds. My entries:

“I can sing better than that Groban guy,” Taylor joshed.

“My Sunday school teacher was an absolute prune,” he said with aplomb.

“I am the king of all writing coaches,” said Clark royally.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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