Thursday, October 7, 2010

Adverb's Revenge

I don't know if you non-writers out there realize that adverbs = bad.

I know. Your high school English teacher never told you. You probably received high marks for beautifully decorating your verbs with all those -ly wonders.

Well, it's something you pick up on the street when you hang with the creative writing crowd. Beef up your verb choice and then who needs an adverb. Ran quickly becomes raced. Cried loudly sounds better as wailed. And glitters brightly is just plain redundant. And repetitive.

It's beautiful in its simplicity: Kill the adverb.

But wait. Don't sentence it to death row just yet. (At least not till you read this blog post.) Adverbs don't only modify verbs, people. They have other reasons for living.

In Spunk & Bite-a writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & style, by Arthur Plotnik, he devotes an entire chapter to fresh adverbs. He talks about "adverbs of manner [that] reveal the way in which a thing or quality is distinguished." For example:
"hugely boring or minutely entertaining." (Those don't even remotely describe (most) blog posts found here at Of Writerly Things...right? Right? :/)

Adverbs can become fresh when they modify adjectives. And though they are called "fresh," they have been used in this way (as Plotnik points out) long before Nixon's "perfectly clear" speech, in fact their usage dates back to as early as 1570 with phrases found in literature like "curiously dainty."

Here's a match game taken from Spunk & Bite, pgs. 40-41. See if you can match the actual adverb-adjective pairings taken from print. The subject of the sentence is shown in parenthesis. (See answers below.)

[Note: I added the second list in green to differentiate it, so choose an adverb from the list on the left and pair it with an adjective from the green list--Blogger wouldn't let me separate the two into columns. If anyone knows how to do that, let me know.]

1. dormantly a. ordinary (plot structure)

2. gloriously b. fervent (devotion)

3. scarily c. naive (conviction)

4. militantly d. Mormon (guy from Philly)

5. incongruously e. hostile (speech)

6. juicily f. unclever (writer)

7. resolutely g. ridiculous (role as pirate)

8. wittily h. intricate (dance step)

9. inflammatorily i. prosaic (men's fashions)

10. metaphysically j. uproarious (doings)

1. d (Patricia Marx, The New Yorker)
2. j (Kirkus Reviews)
3. b (Sarah Miller, The New York Times)
4. i (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker)
5. a (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)
6. g (David Denby, The New Yorker)
7. f (Bruno Maddox, The New Yorker)
8. h (Richard Eder, The New York Times)
9. e (John Updike, The New Yorker)
10. c (Lydia Davis, Granta)

Now wasn't that fun? I loved trying out all the adverbs with Mormon, just to see the different images they conjured up. Suddenly (since 1570, anyway) adverbs are crazily fun again. And surprisingly useful. And blazingly fresh... okay, I guess I don't need to overdo it. One must still choose wisely. Not all adverb-adjective pairings will be gloriously, resolutely, or wittily fresh.

[This post is a rerun of my Tuesday post at]


Shannon O'Donnell said...

I LOVE this post! Love, love, love... I am an adverbaholic and have always believed they COULD be used in interesting and clever ways. You made my day with this brilliant post! :-)

Jennifer Griffith said...

Thanks for giving me permission to not chop all adverbs. It has bugged me since this trend came to my attention. I mean, what are we thinking by making outcasts of an entire classification of words? They mean something! They add clarity and richness to our language. They set English apart from the click languages (maybe?) and from cave men. We NEED adverbs. Well, I do. I like them! And I will defiantly continue to use them (but I'll at least try to use them in CONJUNCTION with pithy verbs.) Is that a good enough rant?

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I feel liberated!!! Thanks for the good news about adjective adverbs. YES!!! =]

Misha said...

It's completely amazing that people forget about this little use for the adverb.

Good post :-)

Jolene Perry said...

cute post. I'm not much of an adverb user. I don't know if that's a strength or if I've already given up on a whole host of fun words I could be using...

N. R. Williams said...

I am currently looking for the 'ly' and 'ing' words. And I even used two in the previous sentence.

My editor said that the adverb is like a strong spice. That being said, I search, analyze the sentence and sometimes I keep it. So, I am not doing away with the adverb entirely. There I go again...entirely.

N. R. Williams, fantasy author


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