By Jeff Fecke | September 10, 2008 • Pity the adverb. Once, it was a perfectly respectable part of the English language, one that did unto verbs what adjectives do unto nouns — that is to say, modify them. And such modification was considered understandable — after all, when Hamlet urged the players to “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue,” he was not speaking idly. He wanted the play to ring true, the better to catch his uncle out in his schemes and machinations. Oh, Hamlet could have used some shopworn metaphor to get the point across, but why would he do that? Will Shakespeare was too good a writer to use thirty words to do what one does splendidly.
Yet somewhere in the past decade or so, the adverb has fallen out of style. Become passé. They’re too flowery, too squishy. Real authors don’t say someone delivered a line archly, they leave it to their reader to puzzle it out from the way they wrote it, like God and Ernest Hemingway intended. If they must express the fact that someone stretched out lazily, they are better to say that someone stretched out like the morning mist on the prairie. And even that’s getting a bit much. No, good American writing is straight, to the point. Lots of short, choppy sentences. The occasional “and.” Like Papa, damn it.
Well, over at POD People, Cheryl Anne Gardner stands athwart history, yelling “Stop, quickly!”
Frankly, if I want a character to walk quickly, that’s what I want. Sure, I could change it to run, but what if they aren’t running? Get my meaning. Sometimes things happen suddenly, and sometimes they don’t, not to mention the million ways to laugh or speak.
I see so many new authors struggle with comments like these, including myself, since I am in the midst of serious rewrites at the moment. Where do they hear such horrible things, well, they hear comments such as these in writing classes, style books, and see them on the writing blogs — or they might even hear them quoted from their favourite author, who will remain unmentioned.
Spot on. Look, I’m not saying adverbs can’t be overused; everything can be overused. If every character is saying something wearily, hastily, angrily, warily…well, it can get a bit much. Then again, if I have the need for a character to deliver the line, “Well, I’m ready,” in a fashion that is morose, then it’s pretty frackin’ simple to write the sentence, “‘Well, I’m ready,’ said the erstwhile apprentice, morosely.” A lot simpler than adding dialog to show that Miia is morose, or coming up with an expressive simile to explain what the delivery of the line is, or to just leave the reader to figure it out for themselves.
As Gardner says:
I am currently reading Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Adams was one of the most brilliant writers in the sci-fi genre with over 14 million in books sales from that series of books alone. I read the book twenty plus years ago, and it is as timeless now as it was when he wrote it, not to mention just as hysterical to read. His voice is genuine and pronounced, and Adams, like many other European writers, loves his adverbs, using three or four in a row in some sentences and doing it rather effectively, I might add. But then again, those were the days when a novel was judged by its literary definition and not by word count, which means the choice of an adverb over a long drawn out boring description was actually more concise. Yes, an adverb can actually make a sentence tighter without losing its poetry. Go figure.
Look, I’ll admit that it’s all a matter of taste; writing, like any other art form, is not a perfect science. Some people feel that anything beyond a chopped-off, direct statement is too dang flowery to believe. Others, like me, find the style of American literary fiction to have become stilted and stifling, more in love with the elements of writing than conveying a story. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed genre fiction more — because, let’s face it, genre fiction is allowed to be, nay expected to be, more free-wheeling, more interested in telling a story than showing off a shiny new metaphor.
For me, writing has always, at its heart, been about telling a story. That doesn’t excuse poor craftsmanship; there is joy, too, in a well-turned phrase, and wordplay used in support of a narrative is a joyful thing to read. But if we are to value wordplay, we do ourselves no favor to declare certain words off-limits. After all, if a paragraph calls for an adverb, it calls for an adverb, and who are we to tell the paragraph otherwise?