Meet Tom Swift


Life is hectic as school days approach, so today I’m reposting from an old blog. Enjoy!

Tom Swift book cover

A Tom Swifty is a quip where an adverb attached to a dialogue tag carries both a literal and a “punny” meaning. They are also easier to demonstrate than explain. Here’s an example:

“The pencil needs sharpening,” Tom said bluntly.

As you may have noticed, the most common and appropriate response to a Tom Swifty is more a groan than a laugh, but I admit to an occasional chuckle.

As to the origin of the term, Tom Swift was the young adventure hero of a series of early twentieth century novels by Edward L. Stratemeyer (who published under the pseudonym Victor Appleton). Mr. Stratemeyer loved to qualify Tom’s dialogue with adverbs: “…Tom said knowingly,” “…Tom replied eagerly,” “…Tom cried desperately,” and so on. It was classic purple prose.

Thus a Tom Swifty involves a playful pun on the dialogue tag. Here’s a short sampling.

“The salad has too much vinegar,” Tom said acidly.
“Give me a haircut,” Tom said barbarously.
“The doctor removed my left ventricle,” Tom said half-heartedly.
“I’ll use a darker font,” Tom said boldly.
“I presented my case to the judge,” Tom said briefly.
“I’ve dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen.
“Congratulations on your graduation!” Tom said diplomatically.
“I am a schizophrenic,” said Tom, being frank.
“For what we are about to receive, may God make us truly grateful,” Tom said gracefully.
“I’ve gained twenty pounds,” Tom said heavily.
“I learned the somersault years ago,” Tom said flippantly.
“I work out every seven days,” Tom said weakly.
“Nay!” said Tom hoarsely.
“Waiter! My salad needs more cheese!” Tom said gratingly.


A slight variation excludes the adverb, and just makes a pun of the verb. It’s still a Tom Swifty if Tom isn’t doing the speaking, by the way:

“This must be the weight room,” Tom worked out.
“My parents are Billy and Nanny,” Tom kidded.
“She probably has her own jet,” Tom leered.
“The sun is rising,” Tom mourned.
“I told you not to ride that old horse,” Tom nagged.
“I didn’t take a single look!” Tom peeped.
“The exit is right here,” Tom pointed out.
“I teach at the university,” Tom professed.
“I couldn’t believe I had won by 3,457 votes!” Tom recounted.
“Okay, you can borrow it again,” Tom relented.
“I’m taking the ship back to the harbor,” Tom reported.

Most of these come from Can you come up with more? Please share!

About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko08-24-2011

    “You call those Chinese dumplings?” Tom said wantonly.

  2. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko08-24-2011

    ‎”I’m not quite sure these dollar bills are legal,” Tom said tenderly.

  3. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko08-24-2011

    “Pass me a flagon of that watered-down rum, me hearties,” said Tom groggily.

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