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.

Mourning the semicolon; it turned into a wink and was gone…

I’m of an age when I can fondly remember articles, objects, bits and pieces, things that just don’t exist anymore…

Card Catalogs — Yes, I was a librarian who learned how to catalog and classify a book and type a perfect catalog card (in triplicate) with accurate punctuation, including semicolons; but we’ll get to that later…. (Old librarians never die, they just get reshelved.)

Electric typewriters  — especially the Selectric, which greatly aided in typing the aformentioned catalog cards in triplicate with semicolons.

LPs — Ah, the sound of the needle hitting the vinyl; wondering how many we could stack at a time; sprawling on the floor next to the speaker reading liner notes and the words to Leonard Cohen songs; filing the records alphabetically in orange crates; arguing if Old and In the Way should be filed under Garcia, Grateful, or Old… (Old guitarists never die, they just come unstrung.)

Words — Perfectly good words have been hijacked. Like hoe, cloud, text, troll, dirt, tablet. Being a country girl at heart, I was startled a few years ago when a colleague told me she would never read or tell a story that had the word hoe in it. “Really?” I asked. “I guess you wouldn’t read Peter Rabbit out loud?” Can I just say that in my garden, one of my favorite tools is a hoe? Although while using it, usually I’m staring at the clouds or watching for trolls in the dirt. (Old Gardeners never die, they just spade away.)

And now semicolons. Just in case this surprises you as much as it did me, use of a semi-colon now dates you; modern writing methods reject semicolon usage. So all of us who perfected the use of putting together two similar sentences and joining them with that lovely little winking punctuation mark? We are marked as over the hill; just like that, our skill is no longer needed. (Old semicolons never die; they just wink over the hill…)

I’m not sure how this has come about, but I can certainly posit theories with the best of old grammarians. (Old Grammarians never die, they just lose their verbs.)

Theory 1: The Internet has shortened everyone’s attention span, so that long sentences are simply an annoyance. Short sentences please. Or no sentences. Just a verb maybe? If a sentence is too long, shorten it. Have two thoughts joined together? A period in between will do just fine. Hey, the shorter the better. And no long words either. (Old programmers never die, they just cache in their chips.)

Theory 2: No one has time (or wants to take the time) to sit down and luxuriously read long novels with elegant prose and graceful sentences. We want that first chapter, no, the first paragraph to pull us in with action; if it doesn’t deliver, well there’s another book on the Kindle that will. I used to give a book sixty pages before I gave up on it; the other day a reader bragged that she never gave any book longer than the first paragraph… (Old writers never die, they just start a new chapter.)

Theory 3: Texting and emails and emoticons have ruined punctuation and spelling.  Nthng els 2 b sed ;-) The Carnegie Mellon professor, Scott E. Fahlman,  is credited with inventing the emoticon in 1982 when he used :-) and :-( on a bulletin board. (Old professors never die, they just lose their class.)

Graph from Grammarly.com

Theory 4: Simplicity in writing is now a virtue.  People who hate semicolons (Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, probably Hemingway) are terse, get to the point, and put-down-that-period writers. I don’t hold that against them, certainly, but it is their style, which goes hand in hand with Theories 1 and 2. (Old theorists never die, they just keep making assumptions.)

Theory 5: Readers want the sentence to be over before it’s over; a semicolon means there’s more to the story. There is beauty in a semicolon allowing the writer to build on a thought; a semicolon also allows the writer to believe that the reader can follow a semi-complicated sentence. It’s about trust between the writer and the reader; yet, a semicolon is also about tone and nuance in a sentence that commas and periods just can’t get across. (Old readers never die, they just turn the page.)

In researching semicolons (to find out if reports of their death were greatly exaggerated) I found this brilliant quote by Lewis Thomas, scientist, essayist, and lover of semicolons:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. . . . It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

As an old librarian (who has not checked out quite yet) I suggest that we enjoy that pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is always more to the story….

147. On Writing 50,000 Words in November

NaNoWriMo

 

It was an up and down affair. Have you ever heard the folktale/joke routine That’s good, That’s bad? Mostly it’s the joke that goes, “Oh, that’s good. No, that’s bad because… Oh, that’s bad. No, that’s good because…

Yes. That’s the way my November went.

  • It was good when my characters did things that were totally surprising that I hadn’t planned. It’s true. It happens.
  • It was bad when that character led me to a wall and I had no idea where to go next.
  • It was good to leap over that wall and jump into unknown territory.
  • It was bad when a character just flowed from the keyboard to the screen, and I had no idea who he was. It’s true. It happens.
  • It was good when suddenly I had an aha moment, and that character joined the rest of the crew just like it had always been planned.
  • It was bad when I got to the middle and seemed to be slogging around and around in the Slough of Despond.
  • It was good when that terrible ‘stuck-in-the-middle’ disappeared and the words began to flow across the screen as fast as I could type them.
  • It was bad when I wrote a phrase that made me cringe in despair.
  • It was good when I wrote something that made me laugh out loud.
  • It was bad when I re-read the beginning and wondered what I was trying to get across…
  • It was good when I took that  crappy narrative beginning and tried to turn it into poetry —  And. It. Worked.
  • It was bad when I felt as if I was totally wasting my time — What am I doing writing this stupid novel that’s lousy, too detailed, and no one’s going to read it, and I’ve spent all my spare time — and time that wasn’t spare — on the dumb thing.
  • It was good when I reread one of my chapters and thought “ooh, I like that.”
  • It was bad when Mr. H.C. would say, “Don’t worry, I don’t need to eat tonight.” :-)
  • It was good when Mr. H.C. said, “If this is something that you need to do, then do it.”

I started with 7 chapters written, which I did not use in my word count. The few days before Nov. 1, instead of writing another chapter, I wrote an outline. This was genius, if I do say so myself. I also did a vague timeline, which was less helpful, but I still did refer to it and adapt it as I wrote.

So, I won’t bore you with more words. I’ve got to get back to my novel, because IT STILL ISN’T FINISHED.

I don’t know how or when or if I’ll finish, but I do know this: I’m 52,962 words ahead of where I was on November 1.

And it feels good.

Oh, that’s good.

No, that’s  bad, because I’m still not done.

Oh, that’s bad.

No it’s good, because — I did it!

Oh, that’s good.

Yes, it is…

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have laundry to do…