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.

Porch Work

I started this blog six years ago to keep track of the renovation work we were doing on the new old house we’d just acquired. It was a house and acres filled with history on both sides of our families and I wanted to document it. You can read that story here.

We’ve become complacent lately, and though the place is far from finished, the work we did this past winter is far from noteworthy. (What bathroom?)

Except for the last few weeks.

I finally found time and money (they don’t usually go together) to get window box planters for the front windows.

I also found time to paint the other front door that’s been white forever. Let me tell you — painting  those muntins around each pane of glass was a definite pain. (A small DIY tip: If you ever have to paint a door with many glass panes, don’t bother taping it off. I laboriously taped every one, and it just didn’t work. The best thing to do is just paint on the glass, and then scrape off the paint when it is dry). I also spray painted the metal chair and put it next to the door. And lest it sound as if I did all the work, the door trim had to be put up, primed, and painted too. The carpenter did that.

So now that the front is finished — it only took six years —  we can concentrate on the back.

The Back Porch. I’ve written about it before — here and here. I always say I have a love-hate relationship with it. And now? Now the hate parts are mostly gone:

  • The ugly sliding glass doors that were so cloudy it always looked like a foggy day? GONE!
  • The ugliest screen door ever? GONE!
  • Thirty-three year old indoor-outdoor carpet? GONE!
  • The closet that once held the largest hornet’s nest ever documented? GONE! (The door was opened cautiously every single time.)
  • The cedar shakes that were un-sweepable, un-scrubbable, and un-cleanable? GONE!

What’s left? Well, at this point, it’s still ugly.

Once the cedar shakes were taken off, the old clapboard siding was in remarkably good shape. If you were under the delusion that cedar is an insect-repellent wood, you are Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Under each one of those cedar shingles lived at least two stink bugs, an unknown cocoon, and/or a wasp nest. Taking off those shingles was one of the more disgusting jobs I’ve had. I got really good at killing stink bugs with one blow from the hammer. After awhile I didn’t even notice the smell, and although I got buzzed by more than one wasp/hornet/carpenter bee, I didn’t get stung.

This cupboard is now gone. The siding on the inside of the closet was painted porch red and will have to be painted white, but the porch looks much larger without it.

Here is Mr. H. C. Getting rid of the ugliest screen door ever made. He put it out by the road with a “free” sign next to it. True confession: I told him not to bother–no one would take it. It was gone within an hour. I think the guy took it for the aluminum.

It was a Memorial-Day-Work-In and while we were taking down the closet we discovered this writing on a 2×4:  it dated the closet from another Memorial-Day- Work-In in 1985.

It seemed appropriate that Mr. H.C.’s parents were putting the closet up on a Memorial Day weekend, and we were taking it down on a Memorial Day weekend thirty-three years later.

The Circle of Life, indeed.

Of bird nests and rainbows

Spring walking on a Sunday evening

Over the new mown trails

Through the raspberry canes.

The lightning and thunder have paused and

The evening sun glows through the rain spattered sky

Spring green leaves glisten and shake rain drops.

A brown bird flies up and startles us

just as our thunder feet startled her.

The hidden nest holds four speckled blue and purple eggs. Or maybe five.

Mama didn’t limp or try to distract us; she just waited until we tiptoed away.

I’m calling her a field sparrow…

On the other side of the yard bluebirds are nesting

in the rusty corn planter that decorates the tool shed.

She perches and guards five eggs.

The shed was half painted when the new renters began to investigate.

The paintbrushes have been put away now

until the eggs hatch and the birds have flown.

Drops of rain send us to the house for cover

But the sun shines behind the rain

And there in the eastern sky the rainbow glows

peace…