Lexicon Valley

Lovingly, Stridently, Unapologetically

Super Grammar

Who will be the Lorax for the adverb, that most-maligned part of speech? Who will speak on the adverb’s behalf? For once again, it would seem, it is under attack. Christian Lorentzen’s New York magazine piece, “Could We Just Lose Adverbs (Already)” is not quite the diatribe its title (parenthetically) promises: Lorentzen is more nuanced and reflective than to call for an outright ban, and by essay’s end, he has arrived at reluctant acceptance. But even then, Lorentzen maintains “their power is best spent in small doses”; he expounds on ways to prune adverbs and other “needless” words from one’s writing. It reminded me once again that we desperately lack a full-throated defense of this runt of the grammatical litter. We need an outright celebration of adverbs, and it is that celebration that I offer—stridently, boisterously, unapologetically.

The hatred of adverbs amongst writers, and specifically teachers of creative writing, has become so commonplace, so unquestioned, and so unthinking, that it ranks only with “show don’t tell” as the most ubiquitous cliché in writing advice. One finds it everywhere. When Lorentzen comments that an “excess of adverbs in prose signals a general lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives,” he’s only parroting the same advice writers have been doling out for years. One finds it throughout William Zinsser’s oft-taught On Writing Well (first published in 1976), which advises that “the secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.* Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser here basically follows his forebears, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, whose The Elements of Style (published first by Strunk in 1918; expanded in 1959 by White) loudly proclaims: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” The word adverb doesn’t cross the page, but Lorentzen is correct that “they’re talking about adverbs without their having to say it.”

Henry James once wrote of adverbs, “I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect,” but his is most definitely a minority report. To Graham Greene, adverbs were “beastly.” Elmore Leonard thought their use constituted a “mortal sin.” Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti called for their abolition, complaining they give sentences a “tedious unity of tone” (though, to be fair, Marinetti also called for abolishing adjectives, punctuation, conjugated verbs, and syntax in general). Even Hollywood, the last refuge of all manner of clichéd and hackneyed writing, understands the adverb to be verboten: in 1995’s Outbreak, Kevin Spacey’s character, during the height of a public health crisis, takes time out to dismiss the adverb as “a lazy tool of a weak mind.”

And then there’s Stephen King. “The adverb is not your friend,” he writes in 2000’s On Writing, italicizing the sentence to show he’s very, extremely, deadly serious about adverbs. King’s advice seems to have taken root with many writing students today; of all the adverb admonishments, I find King’s to be the most likely to be bandied back and forth by my students in writing workshops, students who’ve taken these words to heart, no doubt in part because of King’s sincerity. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” he concludes, “and I will shout it to from the rooftops.” How could you ignore such a bellowed proclamation?

It should come as no surprise that the writers who most strenuously cavil against adverbs are themselves habitual users of them. Here is a lovely passage from E. B. White’s famous “Once More to the Lake”: “We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod.”*

And here is another great passage, this one from Zinsser’s American Places: A Writer’s Pilgrimage to 16 of This Country’s Most Visited and Cherished Sites, where Zinsser finally beholds Mt. Rushmore for the first time. “What I finally made out were four dirty gray faces that looked like postage stamps side by side, their features as flattened as the statues on Easter Island, hardly separable from the rest of the mountain. They didn’t even look particularly big. ‘Is that all?’ I said to myself—or, more probably, to Borglum [Gutzon Borglum, Mt. Rushmore’s sculptor].”

And here is King from his novel 11/22/63, which made the New York Times’ “The Ten Best Books of 2011” list, where the English teacher protagonist Jake Epping*, lamenting the poor writing of his students, recalls an essay by a former student: “It was certainly better than the stuff I was currently reading. The spelling in the honors essays was mostly correct, and the diction was clear (although my cautious college-bound don’t-take-a-chancers had an irritating tendency to fall back on the passive voice), but the writing was pallid. Boring.” Even in a passage ostensibly decrying terrible writing, it seems, a stray “certainly,” an erstwhile “currently,” and even a weak-willed “mostly” have all crept in.

Why do these writers—hidden friends to adverbs that they are—decry the modifier so brazenly? What are they trying so fiercely to deny within themselves? For one, haranguing against the adverb is a cheap, easy piece of advice, one that offers a mechanical solution to the abstract question of good writing. Adverb hatred attacks a symptom, rather than a cause. Creative writing teachers tell beginning writers to avoid adverbs because, on some level, bad imitations of Hemingway are easier to slog through than bad imitations of Proust.

A few years ago, Adam Haslett lamented that bans on parts of speech lead inevitably not to better writing, but to a uniformity in bad writing. “Too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull,” he notes; “minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.” Writers who militate against adverbs have given up on the pleasures of writing; they have been beaten down by a few examples of bad writing, and, wary of dealing with more, they advocate that all of us adopt the same remedy: writing denuded of anything unusual, stripped down to its barest elements so as to be the least likely to offend.

But there’s something lurking deeper beneath this adverb hatred, something more primal that goes beyond simply a desire to write better. “Again and again in careless writing,” Zinsser tells us, “strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.” And it goes without saying that one’s writing must be “strong,” must never be “weak.” Good writing is, per Strunk and White, “vigorous,” which is to say it’s manly, aggressive, assertive. It’s no wonder that Hemingway, Mailer, and Carver are often cited for their courageous, hard denial of adverbing, since they are our go-to men for strong, virile prose.

Adverbs, it seems, dilute the potency of one’s seminal thoughts. “Adverbs,” King writes, “like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.” He likens adverb users to  “little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels.” Adverbs, the last refuge of squeaky-voiced children, are what stands between the writer and adulthood. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child,” these men all say, “but when I became a man, I put away childish adverbs.”

In addition to being childish and vaguely feminine, adverbs waste the reader’s time, and good writing is never wasteful. Good writing gets to the point; it does not use two words when one will suffice. It is not, in Zinsser’s words, “cluttered” (adverbs, like cats and National Geographic back issues, are the province of hoarders). Good writing is efficient in the sense that a computer or a downsized corporation is efficient, and in advice like this it’s easy to detect the extent to which a capitalist business ethos has infiltrated writing advice. As Mark Dery explains in an article for the Daily Beast: the golden rule, “omit needless words,” “complements the ‘less is more’ ethos of the Bauhaus school of design, another expression of Machine Age Modernism. Optimized for peak efficiency, Strunk’s is a prose for an age of standardized widgets and standardized workers, when the efficiency gospel of F.W. Taylor, father of ‘scientific management,’ was percolating out of the workplace, into the culture at large.” Adverbs, weak and prepubescent, are execrable precisely because they’re an affront to the very masculine underpinnings of capitalism. They should be avoided, Zinsser argues repeatedly, unless “they do necessary work.” Adverbs: the welfare queens of the sentence.

I, for one, am for sloppy writing, writing which uses two words when one will do. I’m for writing that isn’t always vigorous, for writing that sometimes is fey and effeminate. I’m for writing which is wasteful both of time and of ink.

Reader, I want to waste your time. Needlessly, deliriously, unrepentantly.

* * *

Anne Carson writes of adjectives that they “are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity.” Adverbs, then, curtail and refine—but in doing so they can pick out the unexpected resonances, the hidden valences in the words they modify. An adverb, at its best, offers a sudden shift in direction or tone, all the more unexpected considering the adverb’s seemingly slavish subservience to the word it modifies.

Adverb detractors tend to focus on the straw man example of a weak verb modified by an adverb: don’t write “he said indistinctly,” write “he mumbled” instead. It’s true that this is not great writing, and in many cases the replacement verb is indeed better. But where adverbs get interesting is when they modify an already strong verb. The adverb in such a situation allows for far more complexity: it can contradict the verb, alter it subtly or dramatically, change the meaning of the sentence in some irrevocable manner, or provide a puzzle of sorts for the reader, giving her pause. If “he walked slowly” is bad, and “he ambled” is good, then “he ambled purposefully” is great—a kind of precision that emerges only when words are at cross purposes with one another.

One great use of an adverb comes from Ben Ehrenreich’s novel Ether, wherein the author describes the actions of a half-asleep homeless man dozing under a bridge: “He pawed at his groin and farted sweetly.” It is the sweetness of the “sweetly,” the incongruous note in a world of grime, that captures the imagination. Or take Djuna Barnes, who in Nightwood says of the protagonist Robin’s lover that her “head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm,” and that she is “one of the most unimportantly wicked women of her time.” Just as the sentence gets steamrolling toward its end, it’s often the adverb that gums the works, monkeywrenching the meaning and steering us toward some otherwise missed valence.

A good adverb stages a slight rebellion, flipping the script of the verb. Michiko Kakutani, Arthur Plotnik noted, favors such adverbs, describing books with such phrases as “eye-crossingly voluminous,” “casually authoritative,” and “engagingly demented.” Adverbs can also turn against themselves, canceling one another out, as in Eileen Myles’ Inferno: “The poet’s life is just so much crenellated waste, nights and days, whipping swiftly or laboriously past the cinematic window.”

Deployed skillfully, the adverb backstabs lovingly, subverts daintily, insurrects gallantly.

Unsurprisingly, Henry James is a master of adverb use, and even writers who eschew his languorous, labyrinthine style have something to learn from his adverbs. Describing Daisy Miller through the eyes of Winterbourne, James calls her neither “pretty” nor “beautiful,” but “strikingly, admirably pretty”—offering a precision unavailable in standard descriptors of beauty. When he describes Strether in the opening of The Ambassadors as keeping to himself, “independently, unsociably, alone, without encounter or relapse and by mere quiet evasion,” each adverb comes at that “alone” from a different perspective, as though the narrator is turning over in his mind each possible meaning of loneliness. To demand of writing like this that it lose its “clutter” is to completely miss the richness offered in such a careful layering of meaning.

The other underappreciated use of adverbs is as a rhythmic pause or a break in the flow of a thought. A pause, a gathering of a moment—an adverb sometimes achieves these, working as the held note. When James runs together a series of seemingly unnecessary adverbs as he does in The Portrait of a Lady (“At present, obviously, nevertheless, he was not likely to displace himself; his journeys were over and he was taking the rest that precedes the great rest.”), he does so not to convey information, but rather to mimic that rest preceding great rest, reminding us that even prose is music.

An adverb is a great way to hold one’s breath, to build tension, to hang on a thought—the adverb is like the backing band vamping while the singer struts onto the stage. E.B. White writes of “staring silently” not because he believes it’s possible to “stare noisily,” but rather to hold, for a beat, the reader’s mind on the act of staring. When he writes of tentatively and pensively dislodging that dragonfly, those adverbs are important not really because of what they mean, but because they work primarily to draw out the time of that moment, to render it delicate, to hold onto the sweetness of the gesture that would get loss with only the bare verb “dislodge.”

Loving adverbs in this way, in other words, is less about the meaning of the words and more about the space in time they hold, the moment of breath they offer the reader, the space they carve out against the din and the noise of everything else.

In both cases, what’s striking about adverbs is the way in which they resist a treatment of language that sees it as a bare conveyance of information. We’re in a data-driven age, and that data drives us to force language into its most easily assimilated form. New apps arrive seemingly every week with the promise of increasing one’s reading rate and comprehension. Sites like Medium render articles in terms of the minutes it will take to consume them and are calculated on a formula that treats every word as having the same temporal value. The presumption here, of course, is that no sentence need be re-read, no allusion need be looked up, no thought need be untangled.

The goal, it would seem, is to render language so transparent that its meaning can be absorbed directly and instantaneously. We want our language the way techies want their Soylent: bland packets of protein and nutrients, without taste or individuality.

We must continually seek out and praise writing that resists this tendency, that asserts itself as more than just information to be read and consumed as quickly as possible. To encourage young writers to avoid certain parts of speech is to discourage them from experimentation, from testing the limits of expression. It is to dull them inside before they’ve had a chance to begin. Writers like Hemingway and Carver made a choice to write without adverbs—good for them. Now go out and make your own choices.

*Correction, June 3, 2016: This post originally misstated the title of William Zinsser’s writing manual, On Writing Well, and of E.B. White’s short story, “Once More to the Lake.” It also misidentified the protagonist of a Stephen King novel, who is Epping, not Eppling.