The death of the adverb

I’ve heard from a few people recently—in the last few months, for sure—that they’re “against” adverbs. As if adverbs occupy a political position which one could oppose.

The point that each of them made was that adverbs get used way too often by lazy writers. Take the following example that I composed off the top of my head for illustrative purposes:

“Stop it,” said Lucinda angrily. “You know I hate popsicles.”

Do we really need the “angrily” here? No. We can tell Lucinda is angry. Or rather, we ought to be able to tell Lucinda is angry.

In yesterday’s Friday Flash fiction that I posted, I think I wrote “He was livid.” No adverbs present. It was a tell, for sure, but I had other reasons for putting it in the story. Letting an adverb expound on the action in the sentence, however, can take away from the rest of the line. Or, title, as in (already noted by Stephen King) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“Rowling  has never met [an adverb] she didn’t like.” Harry, he noted, “speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often—given his current case of raving adolescence—ANGRILY.”

So Stephen King is not behind adverbial use, either. As a long-time King reader, I have to say I’m not surprised to learn this, given his writing style. That’s like saying Ernest Hemingway didn’t much care for compound sentences or long predicates.

Of course adverbs can be used poorly, but so too, do other parts of speech make themselves rather unbecoming. Superlative, excessive, overburdening adjectives can destroy the simple peacefulness of a noun. Nouns themselves become pretentious when authors reach for “practicable” over “practical,” or “sublime” instead of the more accessible “awe-inspiring.” There may be reasons for their usage, certainly, or they could just be a writer pushing too hard or too dedicated to her thesaurus.

Conjunctions and articles, to their credit, are too utilitarian as to be go-to tools for the lazy writer. And verbs, well, verbs can get writers into trouble in one of two ways—the eternal passive voice problem, or its evil twin, the over-active verb. Again, let’s go to fake dialogue to emphasize the point:

“Katrina,” he screamed, “Why did you rub mud all over the sofa?”

“Because you love the sofa more than you love me,” she hissed menacingly.

I couldn’t resist the adverb there, sorry. There is no reason in the world, the whole entire, land mass and oceanic experience of Planet Earth, why we can’t just use “said.” Said is not pretty, not lyrical, not powerful, but whatever. It’s a great worker for what it does—letting the reader cognate that there is speech happening, and by whom, and then getting them to move on to the next bit. What’s important are the words around the verb. Sometimes the verb is important, sure. I would never tell writers to go for the most banal verb possible—”said” being a special exception, in a class of its own—but writers don’t need to hit every verb out of the park. Readers get stopped by highfalutin verbs. Yet, if the verb is right for the sentence, there’s little need for lots of adverbs to shore it up.

For me, as a writer, I don’t want to single out any part of speech and write its death certificate. Language isn’t about trends, and writers who attempt to write only for fashion are writers who will always be behind the times. Adverbs are great, all on their own. There’s no way to answer the question, “How are you” without an adverb. To focus just on adverbs is to frame the subject of poor writing incorrectly. Poor writing leaves a lot of hot mess in its wake beyond just adverbs. There are usually, in my experience, a whole host of similes and other metaphors floating in the water of bad writing. Nay, the cesspool.

Good writing lets us know it’s good writing because we don’t remember most of the pieces, save the exquisite sentences that we mull over long after we’ve closed the book. It’s not the adverb which is the problem.

It’s the author.

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5 Comments on “The death of the adverb”

  1. August 14, 2010 at 5:58 am #

    Yes yes! Well said. I generally think adverbs in dialogue passages should be use very, very judiciously, and like you said, the word “said” is fine. Our brain actually starts to tune it out, which is better, and then we’re hearing the voice of the characters automatically in the words on the page, because the writing has established that voice along the way without excessive adverbing.

    I do disagree on one point though, I think “sublime” and “awe-inspiring” are two different feelings and contexts, and the haughtiness of the former is part of the definition, in addition to its use, which becomes self-reflexive in a way, then — the haughty word has a haughty reputation!

    • evmaroon
      August 14, 2010 at 7:24 am #

      Well, that is a good point about “sublime,” so I should refine that. I selected it because I think it’s overused generally, especially by more careless writers. Perhaps periwinkle versus violet? Nah, that doesn’t work, either.

  2. August 26, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    I like this post. Especially the ending: “Good writing lets us know it’s good writing because we don’t remember most of the pieces” I think that’s such an important point. If the author starts to annoy you with overuse of adverbs or fancy words or cliches or whatever, the fact that you notice indicates that the author doesn’t know what they’re doing. But a skilled author can use whatever they want, cuz they’ll know how to use it.

    • evmaroon
      August 26, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

      Thanks, Nicki. Yes, I think it’s one of those “more than the sum of the parts” moments. Once we’re paying attention to word choice, we’re out of the story, and that is one of the worst things I could do as an writer.

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