In Praise of the Adverb

The prevailing opinion, among those who undertake to tell writers how to write, is that the adverb is strictly to be avoided. (I’m sure you noticed what I did there.) I find this odd. The adverb is a perfectly serviceable, inoffensive part of speech, and yet pundits, including Stephen King, seem all too eager to excoriate it.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage has no entry for adverb. Strunk & White, in The Elements of Style, offer the conventional wisdom but do not belabor it: “Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after ‘he said’…. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying.” (Cluttery? In a book called The Elements of Style? What are we to think of that?)

The examples King uses in his dire warning about adverbs are, I think, cherry-picked. They do indeed illustrate the poor use of adverbs. One could as easily write an essay deploring the use of verbs by deploying examples of verbs badly used, but nobody is likely to do that. They don’t do it because every sentence needs a verb. Adverbs are never needed for grammatical purposes, and are, it’s true, sometimes slotted into sentences that would be better off without them. But adverbs will not give you hives! They will not cause your teeth to fall out!

I don’t know where the quotes below, ostensibly from Stephen King, originated. I found them attributed to him on a website. But whether or not they’re genuine, they articulate the prevailing attitude:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.… With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.”

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

“I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it.”

There you have it. “The road to hell,” but he’s going to be “a good sport.” On top of which, he’s advising writers to avoid adverbs in dialog tags even when they’re needed.

Also, note the use of the word “clearly” in the first quote. Could that sentence be recast without the adverb? If so, how? What more muscular verb ought King to have used in place of “expressing” in order to express clearly “expressing … clearly” without the “clearly”?

In an article on the Writer’s Digest website, William Noble gives us several good examples of bad adverbs: “he whispered to her lovingly”, “he stuttered haltingly”, and “the fire truck bell clanged loudly.” Well, of course! That’s awful writing. If you want to write badly, there are hundreds of ways to do it, probably thousands. You can indulge in bad writing for years on end without touching an adverb.

I’m sure it’s true that bad writers use adverbs in ways that grate. But that fact tells us nothing about the serviceability of the adverb.

As I start line-editing my new novel, I’m noticing adverbs. Because I’m aware not only that they can be used badly, but that agents and editors may all too easily have an unreasoning prejudice against them, I’m querying each adverb to make sure it can justify itself.

Just for kicks, I did a global search for “ly” in the word processor. In a novel of 155,000 words, I have 1,909 “ly” words. They’re not all adverbs, of course. The word “family” crops up here and there, for instance. That’s about one adverb every 82 words, on average — three or four on an average page. The real question, however, is not how many there are, but whether they contribute meaningfully (oops) to the paragraph. So let’s look at a couple of my usages and ask ourselves, “Is this a word that could profitably be omitted? Would the sentence be better off rephrased in some other way?”

Here’s one: “It must have seemed impossible that an innocent woman could sit so sedately, seeming to take no notice.” I’m not too happy about the repetition of “seem,” but that’s a separate topic. I don’t really think replacing the second one with “appearing” would help the sentence. For one thing, it would spoil the alliteration. (I like alliteration. It gives some people hives. But that’s a topic for another time.)

In dialog (not a dialog tag): “‘I can’t explain it properly.'”

Here, Licinia is saying the same thing she just said a moment before, to a slave who wasn’t paying attention, but she is not impatient: “Licinia said again, not unkindly, ‘What is it, Nitsa? Speak.'” And then: “Had Nitsa heard the comment? It hardly mattered.”

And now Licinia is looking at her reflection in a hand mirror. (Yes, I got a freebie here: My viewpoint character can be described from her own point of view because she’s sitting at her dressing-table getting ready for a banquet.) Her hair “was held in place by tortoiseshell combs so that it piled fashionably above a pale oval face.”

And that’s all in the first two pages of the book — sedately, properly, unkindly, hardly, and fashionably. Later in the first chapter (and it’s a long chapter — more than 10,000 words) I have merely, stiffly, proudly, surely, clearly, miraculously, freshly, steadfastly, solemnly, deliberately, silently, obstinately, jovially, actually, lopsidedly, rapidly, firmly, resolutely, truly, formally, shrewdly, meticulously, probably, carelessly, smartly, loudly, closely, impassively, gorgeously, eerily, solicitously, archly, urbanely, fairly, gently, languidly, raptly, surprisingly, grandly, uncertainly, negligently, comfortably, quickly, directly, especially, solidly, absently, suddenly, unceremoniously, delicately, meaningfully, entirely, abruptly, lavishly, haltingly, scarcely, naturally, dutifully, vaguely, nimbly, heavily, violently, wildly, busily, faintly, horribly, badly, seemingly, finally, and grotesquely.

And exactly one of those (“not unkindly”) is hanging off the side of a dialog tag.

I’m pretty sure none of the sentences in which those adverbs are used would be improved by smashing the sentence apart and trying to reassemble it adverblessly. And how many hours would I waste biting on the adverbs one by one, as if I were testing gold coins for counterfeits? Does good writing consist entirely in avoiding the displeasure of Mrs. Grundy?

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1 Response to In Praise of the Adverb

  1. Every time someone disparages the adverb I just point them towards JK Rowling. That’s why I love writing. For every ‘rule’ there is out there, there’s also an author who’d flipped a finger at it while receiving critical acclaim while they’re at it.

    Thanks for sharing!

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