Defending the Much-Maligned Adverb

I feel like a wee ant going up against a colossus, but today’s post is about something which bugs me. So, here goes. Fashion goes in cycles – one year something is in, the following year, it’s out. Education also promotes various initiatives which find favor for a while, before being discarded. Literary style is no different. If you take a writing course or read any of the numerous books on writing fiction, one piece of advice you'll come across is remove your adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(Page 1, paragraph 1, sentence 1.)
The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.
(Winner of the Man Booker prize 2013. P.S. She also used ‘bodily’ in the second sentence.)

If you challenge this current wisdom, you’ll hear that adverbs tell, and don’t show, that they bog down and over-complicate whatever it is you are trying to say. Adverbs are the tools of the weak and the lazy.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
(Page 1 paragraph 3)
Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday....
 (This book heads Wikipedia’s list of the bestselling books of all time – with over 100 million copies sold. P.S. The same paragraph has another two adverbs – supernaturally and lately.)

When studying English grammar, first nouns and adjectives, then verbs and adverbs are the normal order in which we teach these parts of speech to young children. We wouldn’t dream of saying, adverbs describe verbs, but you must never use them in writing, though you can when you’re talking to each other. So why are writers informed that this particular part of speech is not welcome at the literary dining table?

Harvest by Jim Crace
(Page 1, paragraph 1.)
It rises in a column that hardly bends or thins until it clears the canopies.
(Booker prize short list 2013)

I understand the modern penchant for concise prose ala Hemingway and that long descriptive passages are no longer in vogue, and if the advice given was to use adverbs sparingly, I’d agree without reservation – but to eliminate? Isn’t this a tad drastic?

We are told to make our verbs work harder. An image springs to mind: a brawny overseer, with a flashing 'Word Police' sign emblazoned on his uniform, wielding a razor tipped whip over a group of cowering verbs. These abject sinners, marked with that telltale ‘ly’, are lined up against the wall and, without a second thought, executed.

Will adjectives will be the next in line? Maybe the new wisdom will be don’t use more than one at any given time? For the moment adjectives have a reprieve. Although I do wonder how the sentence snot-nose, tousled-haired, raggedy Ann dressed orphan would be received by the anti-adverb posse?

The Old Man of the Sea by Earnest Hemingway
(Page 1 paragraph 1)
...the old man was now definitely and finally...

In their defense, adverbs are versatile. They modify adjectives and verbs, and function as transitional conjunctive adverbs between two independent clauses in a sentence (however, nonetheless, etc., etc.). I have noticed that most articles deriding their use are sprinkled with them. Henry James loved adverbs, and although Stephen King dislikes them, he still uses them.

Joyland by Stephen King
(Page 1 paragraph 1)
The only thing, actually.
(Joyland was published in 2013.)

You know by now where I’m headed with this post. I’ve done my best to show that past and present writers, whose works literary critics and the public hold up as examples in terms of style, content and popularity made use of the humble, much-maligned adverb. And just to emphasize my point, I’ve added this last example.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
(Page 1 Paragraph 2)
Everyone knew that he preferred his women demure and wholesome, Bavarian preferably.
(Booker prize short list 2013. P.S. There are three in paragraph 3 – softly, manly, currently, and two in paragraph 4 – slowly, eventually.)

In conclusion, adverbs are part of our language, therefore how can we write stories which reflect life without using them? Instead of banning, shouldn’t we employ them judiciously? If we treat them like precious gems rather than pariahs, they will serve to enhance our writing.

Writing Update

I'm 10,000 words into the first draft of Book Three of my paranormal urban fantasy, Samsara. I've been following James Paterson's advice about planning, which is, if you put more work put into the outline, the writing becomes easier. So far, I'm happily achieving my daily goal of 1,500 words a day for six days of the week (I occasionally have to stop to clear a path to the door, and the day off is flexible, allowing me a little space if anything untoward crops up.) Getting on with the writing, as opposed to editing and outlining makes me feel as if I'm making some solid progress.

Today’s Haiku
raucous dawn chorus
pine trees stand to attention
pale gold sun rises

Useful Links
An article defending the adverb:
And an article in defense of difficult books:

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To all story lovers out there, good reading, and to those of you who write, good writing. 

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