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.

Ordinary Days : a letter to my future self

light behind the storm clouds
Dear You,
Remember that rainy September day?
The cloud-filled sky and the freedom
from the sun’s tyranny?
No need to finish up summer today.

You gave yourself permission
to bake bread and make
a long slow simmering stew,
pore over knitting patterns
and write a poem to the future you.

You wanted to write in longhand
(not that there’s anything wrong with Pages or Word
or an online thesaurus)
but a letter deserves a pen.
There was that old found notebook and
There was your old found self in the pages.

Gardens you have planted — elsewhere.
Prayers that have been answered — somewhere.
Wisps of words you loved — written there.
Lists of books to read that now,
here in the present future,
were read in the long ago past.

And there was that quote from Chesterton
about the best book he never wrote…
You’ve written yours.
Begun in one life, finished in another.
It changed and grew with you
as you changed and grew.
Mais plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Blue sky behind gray clouds
Have you been grateful for your two lives—
three or four, really if it comes to that—
Have you been grateful for the sameness of those lives—
the sky, the stars, the seasons, the circles, the cycles?
for that sameness enables us to see
the unpredictable unexpecteds
the extraordinary exquisiteness
the glorious graces
of those ordinary days
that make unordinary lives.

Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written.
–G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

B.I.C.S. (Blog Identity Crisis Syndrome)

My blog is having an identity crisis.

Note: Not me. I’m fine. It’s my blog that’s come down with the B.I.C.S.

You see, I started this four years ago to chronicle the journey of rehabbing an old cottage. Is it finished? No. The bathroom still needs a total gut; the extra room that will be a guest bedroom/office is still unfinished; the garage, the back porch, and the roof all need attention. But life here is the real life now. It’s no longer a dream of someday we’ll move there. We’re here. And it’s day to day — you know — working, eating, praying, loving, serving, writing, reading, learning, talking, listening.

One hundred and eighty posts later I’ve been struggling with the foolish self-importance issue that seems to be an egregious habit of the human race. (Watch the debates much?) And then my blog whispered to me the other day, and…

well, that just brought things to a head.

Yes. My blog told me just three days ago that it’s feeling out-of-focus and left out.

What’s my point? it whined. I used to be about the cottage. With some DIY thrown in. And then you started with those photo/poems — I hope you don’t have any illusions about your photo skills. You just have an iPhone and you can’t compete with real photographers, you know.
I nodded.
And you’ve put up some recipes, but you’re just a half-decent slow, messy cook who sometimes doesn’t feel like cooking at all.
I nodded again.
Then sometimes you write about faith and Jesus. You know, you lose people immediately as soon as they read those first lines.
But, I said, I’m not ashamed of Jesus.
Just sayin’ the blog answered. And sometimes you write gardening posts, but you’re just a homestead wannabe. No chickens. No bees. Just some fruit trees and a small garden.
Suddenly I was feeling bullied. Hey, I said. I write you. Don’t tell me what to write about.
Maybe, I should — all that bookish stuff — get real, get into the 21st century.
I am in the 21st century, you simpleton, I said. (Yes, it’s pathetic to resort to name calling in an argument with your own blog.) I’m writing you on my Mac and sending you rocketing off into cyberspace.
Well, it said self-importantly, if there’s no point, why send me rocketing off? Why not just keep a diary of the weather for yourself? Or write on that silly novel of yours? You know there are bazillions of blogs out there — why do you think anyone wants to waste their precious time reading yours?

And then my blog went silent.

And I was left with anxious thoughts. No one really wants to have a fight with their own blog.

Maybe I could change my theme, I thought. Make things look a little different around here?

No answer.

That’s how we left it. Uncomfortable silence.

So until one of us learns some humility, I’m taking a break. Studying the clouds. Weather patterns.

It’s not a divorce — just some time apart. And I’m sending my blog to counseling so it can figure out what will be good for its soul.