I stand before you today (okay, actually I’m probably sitting as you read this, but that sounds far less dramatic) in defense of what I think is an unfairly maligned piece of our language: the adverb.
Other than the announcement that Snooki from The Jersey Shore had published a novel, I know of no other literary topic that evokes as much scorn as adverbs. Avoid them, we are taught. They are bad. They weaken your writing. They cause cavities, give you bad hair days, and are responsible for most of society’s woes. Every time you use an adverb, God kills a fluffy little bunny.
Not so, I say. And I think it’s high time that we give these poor words a break. I know this isn’t a popular stance, but I ask you to hear me out. Not because I’m particularly fond of adverbs – I’m not. But I’m no less fond of them than any other part of speech. Because that’s just it: I can’t accept that any particular part of speech is better (or stronger, or whatever) than another. Communication is complex; I think we need ALL these parts of speech to give us the widest possible expressive range.
I mean, I can’t see a painter always omitting a specific group of colors from her palette, nor a musician avoiding a specific set of musical notes or chords. Those colors and notes may not fit nicely everywhere, but there are bound to be times when they’re needed. I submit that it’s the same with adverbs (or prepositions, or any other part of speech we could single out). They’re all just words. Why avoid entire classes of those words?
Yet that is what we are taught to do, often in the form of writing “rules” handed down to us by very accomplished authors, journalists, and professors. And since those people are speaking from a position of authority, it’s hard to oppose them – after all, they must know what they’re doing, right? As a result, many of us simply accept these rules without question, and evangelize these rules to other writers.
And then an insidious thing begins to happen.
Having had the no-adverb rule hammered into our heads repeatedly, we begin to notice adverbs in other writers’ work, and draw the conclusion that these other writers must be writing badly. And we conclude this simply because we’ve been taught to look out for a certain type of word, regardless of the context in which it is used.
I don’t hate adverbs. But I do hate writing rules. I’m not talking about grammar or spelling – those are rules I can respect. I’m talking about the oversimplified “rules” every writer encounters when they first begin to study the craft of writing. You’ll find them in how-to books, blogs, college courses – pretty much anywhere writing is being discussed. I’m talking about rules like these:
Avoid all adverbs.
Don’t use the passive voice.
That second one is a killer. Many writers (I might go so far as to say most writers) don’t really understand what the passive voice is. They mistakenly assume a verb that uses a form of “to be” is automatically passive, which is NOT* necessarily the case. Armed with that lack of understanding, these writers set off on a witch-hunt, eagerly cutting out any verbs that have a “to be” construct, all the while assuming they are automatically improving their writing when the thing they’re cutting may not even BE passive.
But the no-adverb rule is equally dangerous, in that a surprising number of writers don’t have a deep grasp of what an adverb is, nor what functions it can serve. They just look for words with an “LY” on the end, and gleefully delete them, assured that by doing so, they are improving the quality of their prose. But it’s not that simple. So let’s try a little experiment…
REALITY CHECK: How many adverbs are in this sentence?
Mary was usually quite punctual, but she had been too drunk to remember to set her alarm, and arrived late, cursing vehemently as she climbed the church stairs.
Please take a shot at this, then scroll to the end of this post for the answer.
NOTE: I’ll be the first to admit the sentence above is clunky as hell. My goal is to illustrate the danger of trying to adhere to a rule without fully understanding it, and – even worse – the danger of judging the work of other writers based on that same flawed understanding.
The problem with rules
Here’s the problem with this kind of rule: it doesn’t encourage comprehension or judgment. Only rote obedience.
That oversimplified rules-based approach might be effective in a general English 101 class for college freshmen, an audience whose sole goal is to never have to take another English course. But I submit this approach has no place in the training of a serious writer.
If I saw more people making the leap to truly understand these concepts, I’d be less opposed to the notion of using high-level guidelines like these “rules.” But I’ve been active on writers’ forums for over a decade, and historically and consistently I have seen serious writers – some of them paid professionals – who preach and abide by these “rules” when it’s clear they themselves do not fully understand them.
So I’m rallying against that trend, and goading people to boost their understanding, not their obedience. And that understanding will be gained not by avoiding adverbs, but by learning what they are. Not by avoiding “to be” constructs, but by learning what makes a sentence passive. And that’s something those rules don’t teach you.
The late, great adverb
Back to adverbs – so just what the heck do they do? An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs generally answer one of four questions: how, when, where, or to what extent?
If you’ve scrolled to the bottom, you’ll know that one of the adverbs in that awful sentence I tested you on is the word late, which answers the “when” question. Folks, what the heck is wrong with that word? Imagine it placed in a less-clunky sentence like this:
Mary arrived late, which is why she wasn’t killed by the meteor.
If we obey the no-adverb rule, and simply remove the word, the meaning of the sentence is significantly changed:
Mary arrived, which is why she wasn’t killed by the meteor.
We could also try to rewrite it in a way that maintains the meaning of the original sentence, but eliminates the adverb. But what is a more succinct and precise way of saying late?
Mary wasn’t killed by the meteor because she arrived at a time that was past her expected arrival time.
Gadzooks, that’s awful. You may be able to do better, but will it really be an improvement over the word late? I doubt it.
This is why I cannot accept a blanket dismissal of all adverbs as inferior words. Instead, I maintain that sometimes an adverb is exactly the RIGHT word. Even if that means another fluffy little bunny has to bite the dust.**
So, how many adverbs did you find in my little Reality Check exercise?
Please post your response below (be honest!), along with your thoughts about this controversial part of speech. Are adverbs okay? Or are they inherently bad?
And if the latter option reflects your thinking, let me ask you this: did you really feel the word “inherently” weakened that question? Or did it actually make it more specific? Something to think about…
Thanks for reading!
* Some tenses of verbs have a “to be” construct within them, without making them passive; in particular, the past progressive tense is very frequently mistaken for passive voice.
** DISCLAIMER: No fluffy little bunnies were harmed during the creation of this post. But I’m told that Clive Cussler did experience “a minor wedgie,” which is fine with me.
Image licensed from iStockphoto.com.