My Pal the Adverb

There’s been a lot of loose talk going on about adverbs these days. First I received an email from the writerly ozone which reprinted much of Stephen King’s essay on the subject, “The Adverb Is Not Your Friend.” The emailer underlines this point by helpfully prefacing his introduction to Mr. King with the remark that the adverb is “a malignant part of speech.” This post was quickly followed by another email from another would-be instructor who counsels that the use of adverbs is considered “lazy writing”  because it means we don’t have to show what’s happening as a good writer should. Then she goes on to equate adverbs with cliches, pairing them in sentence after sentence for the rest of the article. (Hmm – can “Show, don’t tell” be considered a cliche all by itself?) She does go so far as to reckon that the adverb can be useful in dialogue, but that’s about it. More about this last point later.

So I plunged ahead to re-read Mr. King’s essay. I like Stephen King just fine. He seems like a swell guy, a regular fella, and a few of his books rank right up there with the best of dark fantasy. However, in this essay I’m afraid Mr. King does not play fair. He takes the worst possible use of the adverb and displays it as his example of how adverbs make for bad writing, to whit:

‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

Well, of course these are bad sentences. They verge on being Tom Swifties. But Mr. King seems to think this is a typical use of adverbs. He accuses adverbs of being words of fear, words that timid, passive writers use. Especially in dialogue.

Wait a minute … These two writing counselors both hate adverbs — but apparently for very different reasons. Maybe they despise adverbs simply because they know they’re supposed to. Ever since Hemingway we have been advised to keep it crisp, keep it short, keep it unadorned with fancy-schmancy stuff. Like adverbs.

Confused now about adverbs and how they’ve come to be held in such low regard, I turned off the computer and decided to pick a book to read after I finish the one I have going now. I leafed through Sinclair Lewis’s Ann Vickers and made a random stop at a random page. The first sentence I read was, “They danced morally.” What a great sentence! How much it tells you with just three words, one of them an adverb. These dancers were dancing the requisite number of inches from each other, they were not passionate, I imagine them to be rather stiff in fact. All that resonance with three carefully chosen words.

And isn’t that the real message we should be getting? No part of speech is bad or wicked or malignant. It’s all in how we use our language, it’s all in how we choose our words.


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