*Not your average publishing company

Adverbs as a way of life

Mr. Callum Sharp, who publishes his thoughts about writing under the banner Callum Sharp Writes and who has 1.6 thousand followers on the platform Medium, says the following: “Adverbs are the death of good writing…. They’re ugly, superfluous, and unenjoyable to look at on the page.” (As opposed to parts of speech that are ugly but still enjoyable to look at, I suppose.)

Ms. Caitlin Berve, who started the editing business Ignited Ink Writing, LLC, “to fill the world with the impactful stories I want to read,” in a short article and 10:13 video allows the following: “You don’t need to eradicate adverbs from your writing,” but “most of the time, you should avoid adverbs to Ignite Your Ink.” (Ms. Berve’s writing is strong on brand reinforcement.)

Mr. Stephen King, who has written and published 31,271 pages constituting 59 bestselling novels, five nonfiction books (including the esteemed On Writing), and more than 200 short stories, proclaims the following: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” (Apparently Mr. King’s verbal prohibitions do not include use of two cliches in one sentence.)

Once at a party I met a forensic linguist, who, between sips of wine from a red plastic cup, responded to my question by saying she had never in her 30-year career linked use of adverbs to a crime, at least not the white-collar type in which she specialized. When it comes to evidence, that may border on anecdotal, and who knows how many of those large cups of wine she had drunk, but the linguist’s comment gives me sufficient basis to ask, “What the heck? What crimes have adverbs committed that make them deserve all this opprobrium?”

I get it. I’m mad too. I’m mad that Jim Croce died so young. I’m mad that just when workers are gaining the leverage to toil from home instead of in offices, companies are installing software to track their every cursor movement and keyboard click. I’m mad that since Trump was elected president, people feel empowered to drive like maniacs.

But I’m not mad about adverbs. Quite the contrary. In a world largely devoid of hope, in a contemporary narrative literature largely devoid of fun, in a vocation in which the vocationers strive for emotional richness, adverbs offer a path to all three just waiting for our ingress.

To take this path, we must start by examining the oddly ill-informed and joy-averse foundation of the anti-adverb theoretical construct.

The objection to adverbs coalesces around the bromide that in writing it is better to show than to tell. You’ve heard it before: “Nervously” is telling, but “shifting weight from one foot to the other” is showing.

But what is the subject of this showing? In the case of my example, I am showing the emotional state of the character. (Or perhaps I am showing that the character has to pee.)

This approach to narrative writing puts character and scene at the center of the universe. Consequently, it assigns to whomever is narrating the transcendent responsibility of showcasing character and scene as effectively as possible. Mr. King calls this “getting the point or the picture across.” The narrator is the servant of character and scene, and like a good servant, is largely invisible. According to this logic, adverbs, in highlighting the presence of the narrator, bring the actions of the servant into view, which takes our attention away from the “point” or “picture” the servant is presenting to us.

The problem with this hierarchy of rhetorical priorities is clear if you read, oh, say, any narrative ever written.

Take this early sentence in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved.”

Yes, we could remove “hotly, brilliantly” from that sentence. Yes, the phrase “on waves of divine vitality” communicates the picture reasonably well without the adverbs. Yes, the adverbs “hotly, brilliantly” are excessive. Yet, what we are really showing here, what is at the core of the novel’s expression of humanity, its purpose for existence, is the seething, all-but-unhinged emotional investment in things, people, sensations of Clarissa Dalloway. And that quality is expressed not just in a “point” or a “picture,” but in Clarissa’s voice. Although that voice is not first-person, it is the voice of a deeply subjective limited-omniscient narrator that is only far enough removed from Clarissa’s own voice to do the lightest management of the novel’s progress. The adverbs in this novel—they run two, three to a page—are excessive because Clarissa’s emotional life is excessive. The adverbs in Mrs. Dalloway aren’t here to tell, they are here to show, to show through the narrative voice Clarissa’s undulating existence in the world.

Or take Jane Austen’s habit of inserting adverbs into what Mr. King calls “dialogue attribution,” a practice with which he holds no truck. (“I insist,” Mr. King writes, “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.”) However, in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia says “stoutly,” Mrs. Bennet cries “impatiently,” Mr. Darcy says “coldly,” and Mr. Bennett observes “coolly.” Here, too, we can trace these words to a narrative voice that is crucial to our sense of the novel. In this case, the narrator is more discrete than in Mrs. Dalloway, stays decorously in the background, hovering near some of the characters’ individual consciousness, but also darting up and spreading out from time to time to provide us with a perspective of a distantly arch and amused commentator that resembles an older version of the main character, Elizabeth Bennett: “It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (How inconvenient that the adverb “universally” is the crux of one of the most enjoyable sentences in literature.) The adverbs in Ms. Austen’s dialogue attributions give subtle but pervasive voice to the narrator’s commentary, specifically, the tendency of the culture to classify people’s behaviors with tidy labels, the tearing off of which is the entire emotional propulsion of the novel. Although we have with Ms. Austen a rather traditional authorial narrator, that narrator has a voice, that voice is central to the novel’s affect and effect, and adverbs are an important part of that voice.

And finally there is this gloriously silly adverbial construction from Rex Stout, which I like so much I will put it on a separate line:

“‘You said it,’ Gus acquiesced feelingly.”

In this one sentence, Mr. Stout captures 1) the reveling in flamboyant language of all types that is a central pleasure of his books and their characters, 2) a specific and discerning, if goofy, description of a moment, and 3) an object lesson in how much fun an unafraid writer can have.

On the discussion board Writing Stack Exchange, a user posed this one-thousand-times-viewed question: “How do you use adverbs properly in fiction writing?” I find the word “properly” in this context to be chilling. (And not because it’s an adverb in a question about using adverbs.) Speaking as a reader, propriety is not a quality that will draw me to a book. Speaking as a writer, if propriety is my goal then I’d just as soon do something else with my precious free time. If we ignore our narrative voices, or worse, choke them off, we are losing not only the core aspect of rhetoric in narrative, but the possibility of joy.

In a world with no shortage of things that incite deserving outrage, adverbs are not the worst of our problems, but the best of our hopes.

Robert Fromberg is author of the memoir How to Walk with Steve (Latah Books, 2021) and the essay collection Friends and Fiends, Pulp Stars and Pop Stars (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). He contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Review of Books. More info at robertfrombergwriter.com.

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