In defense of the much maligned adverb

Disclaimer: All adverbs used in this post are used purposefully, joyfully, and ironically.

Adverbs have always been a perfectly acceptable, completely legitimate member of the parts of speech family. Think back to 4th grade grammar: Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs…

I’m not sure when the rules concerning adverbs took a turn for the worse. We could blame Hemingway and his no frills school of writing; Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard all famously decried adverbial usage. (King said the road to hell was paved with them…)

It’s fine with me if they don’t want to use adverbs (or semicolons); every writer finds their own voice, their own style. But don’t go writing off an entire part of speech for everyone else. To suggest that writing be simplified into nouns, verbs, and just a few adjectives is to take away nuances, phrases, complexity, and experimentation in writing.

Those who hate adverbs say churlishly that it makes for lazy writing. Instead we must find interesting verbs. And, of course, that is true. Sometimes. But it is always appropriate to vary sentence structure — to write a long, lovely sentence filled with adverbs and adjectives after a short informational sentence. This helps to build tension. Long sentences help to draw out time in a scene. No one (except beginning readers) wants to read short sentences exclusively.

Adverbs encourage lazy writing? Any overused word or word form is bad writing. All words should be chosen carefully and meaningfully, not just adverbs. Adverbs tend to get the blame because overuse is particularly annoying and spotted easily. Is it fair to lay the blame for poor writing squarely at the feet of adverbs?

Adverb haters also warn against using an adverb with dialogue tags, such as “he said lovingly.” This has actually become a form of punning called Tom Swifties. (“I’ll race you across the pool,” he said swimmingly, or “I love modern art,” he said abstractly). But there could be a time and a place and a character who uses this type of wordplay. Well maybe not, but they are fun…

Just to do some research, I pulled a few books from my bookshelves by authors I respect: Annie Dillard (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek); Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water (Goudge was a British writer who lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century); Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle (who won the Newbery Award for A Wrinkle in Time); and Persuasion by Jane Austen, about whom nothing more needs to be said. Then I noticed that all these authors were women, and the authors above who hate adverbs are all men. Hmmm. So I added a book of essays by Wendell Berry (What Are People For?) —  and The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

I turned to a random page-in-the-middle of all the books and counted the adverbs on the page. There are many other common adverbs (that don’t end in -ly) that tell how, when, or where; common adverbs such as more, less, far, near, very, most, never, over, again. Yes. Words we can’t do without. But I only counted the -ly adverbs, because really, I think those are the words that offend the sensibilities of adverb haters.

Four novels and two books of essays by distinguished writers. Here’s the tally:

Madeleine L’Engle — 2  (certainly, northerly)

Annie Dillard — 3 (barely, slightly, apparently)

Elizabeth Goudge — 4 ( tolerably, calmly, only, unexpectedly)

Wendell Berry — 6 (he used fully twice–in the same paragraph repeatedly), cheaply, locally, directly, particularly)

Jose Saramago — 8 (hopefully, only, discreetly, finally, scarcely, barely, stoically, immediately) Obviously, he had not heard about the adverb’s adversities. Of course, Saramago also said “…but how much has also been gained by saying more than was strictly necessary.” Flouting the writerly rule of omit needless words with this one phrase, Saramago reminds us that rules are meant to be broken. Just do it skillfully, and the Nobel Prize for Literature could be yours.

…and finally, Jane. Her characters all wait anxiously, speak sensibly, wish earnestly, appear gentlemanly, observe frequently, admire exceedingly, declare warmly, act politely, look instinctively, and certainly call the carriage immediately.

I’ll take Jane Austen over Stephen King….unapologetically.

7 thoughts on “In defense of the much maligned adverb

  1. I remember Stephen King’s comments about adverbs! His examples were very convincing. However, like most things, moderation is key! Nice piece. :)

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