Tom Swifty (Word Play)

woman winking and pointing
Tim Robberts/Taxi/Getty Images

A type of word play in which there is a punning relationship between an adverb and the statement it refers to.

The Tom Swifty is named after the title character in a series of children's adventure books published from 1910 onwards. The author (the pseudonymous "Victor Appleton" et al.) made a habit of attaching various adverbs to the phrase "Tom said." For example, "'I wouldn't call a constable,' said Tom, quietly." (See additional examples below.)

A variant of the Tom Swifty, the croaker (see below), relies on a verb instead of an adverb to convey a pun.

See also:

Examples and Observations

  • "I'm no good at playing darts," Tom said aimlessly.
  • "I'm a softball pitcher," Tom said underhandedly.
  • "I like hockey," Tom said puckishly.
  • "That's a lot of hay," Tom said balefully.
  • "Let's get married," Tom said engagingly.
  • "I forgot what I was supposed to buy," Tom said listlessly.
  • "Mush!" said Tom huskily.
  • "I'll have a bowl of Chinese soup," Tom said wantonly.
  • "I can't find the bananas," Tom said fruitlessly.
  • "I'll have the lamb," Tom said sheepishly.
  • "This milk isn't fresh," Tom said sourly.
  • "I don't like hot dogs," Tom said frankly.
  • "I'll have the shellfish," Tom said crabbily.
  • "You're only average," Tom said meanly.
  • "I never did trust that buzz saw," Tom said offhandedly.
  • "Where are my crutches?" Tom asked lamely.
  • "Let's visit the tombs," Tom said cryptically.
  • "How do I get to the cemetery?" Tom asked gravely.
  • "In February 1963, a lighthearted time, an anonymous writer at Playboy magazine invented a new type of pun: a fabricated Tom Swift-like line of dialogue in which the adverb modifying said humorously refers to or plays on the subject of the quote. Examples would include: 'I can no longer hear anything,' Tom said deftly. 'I need a pencil sharpener,' Tom said bluntly. 'I only have diamonds, clubs, and spades,' Tom said heartlessly. Since then the Tom Swifty has trudged on, not exactly swiftly but with an impressive staying power. You can find Web sites that list as many as 900 of them."
    (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Random House, 2007)
  • "Often beginning writers are warned against telling the reader by means of adverbs how a person said something. When I was a kid, these writerly dialogue adverb tags were called Tom Swifties, in honor of those Tom Swift young-adult books for boys. A Tom Swifty is an adverb tag that stupidly points up what is obviously there already. '"I won't do it!" said Tom, stubbornly.'

    "But most of the time we are saying what we are saying in a manner that isn't obvious. And we are accompanying these statements with a large inventory of pauses, facial gestures, body movements that can intensify or contradict the apparent meaning of what we're saying."
    (Charles Baxter, "'You're Really Something': Inflection and the Breath of Life." Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life, ed. by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. Univ. of Muchigan, 2001)
  • Croakers
    "Mr. and Mrs. Roy Bongartz developed Croakers, a variant of Tom Swifties in which a verb rather than an adverb provides the pun:
    'I spent the day sewing and gardening,' she hemmed and hawed.
    'The fire is going out,' he bellowed.
    'You can't really train a beagle,' he dogmatized.
    'I've got a new game.' mumbled Peg.
    'I used to be a pilot,' he explained."
    (Willard R. Espy, The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary. Harper & Row, 1983)

    "The croaker, says Willard Espy in Almanac of Words at Play, was invented by the writer Roy Bongartz in the pages of the Saturday Review. It is so-called because of Bongartz's signature invention: '"I'm dying," he croaked.' Here are a few of the author's croakers that suggest you'd better be careful about what you allow to rattle around in your mind:
    'It should be whom not who,' the grammarian objected.
    'I have to sweep up now,' the custodian maintained.
    'This paper deserves a C, not a B,' the professor remarked.
    'I think Puerto Rico should be No. 51,' the politician stated. . . .
    'You owe more tax,' the IRS agent recollected.
    'I'll try that number again,' the operator recalled."
    (Jim Bernhard, Words Gone Wild. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010)
  • "I hope I can still play guitar," Tom fretted.
  • "I'm not afraid of horses," Tom bridled.
  • "I plan to renew my membership," Tom rejoined.