If You Believe Adverbs are Bad, You’ll Believe Anything

Thank the muses for Colin Dickey’s recent Slate essay defending adverbs. My only objection is that his argument is too subtle.

… we desperately lack a full-throated defense of this runt of the grammatical litter. We need an outright celebration of adverbs, and it is that celebration that I offer—stridently, boisterously, unapologetically.

Dickey digs into the details of various anti-adverb manifestos. He meditates on historical sources of adverb aversion. He gives examples of adverbs he finds artful. Like this one: “He pawed at his groin and farted sweetly.”

Nice try, pal.

Fortunately, Dickey’s effort is unnecessary. To defend adverbs, you only have to note the obvious. Every writer, good or bad, uses them all the time.

There’s no need to futz around with vague aesthetic criteria. Pick a writer you admire, any writer. Examine his or her prose. Do you see adverbs?

Yes, you do.

This is true of great writers, like Nabokov and Henry James. It’s true of genre writers, like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. It’s true of shameless hacks–and no, I won’t name names.

It’s true of Shakespeare. It’s true of Orwell. It’s true of journalists and true of novelists. It’s true of everyone.

Dickey cites famous authors who have proscribed the use of adverbs, like E.B. White and William Zinsser. He quotes passages from both. Lo and behold: adverbs.

Then there’s Stephen King, to whom Dickey gives special attention. King’s proud denunciation of adverbs draws strength from his popularity. So Dickey checks King’s writing. What do you know? Adverbs abound.

(The only surprise is that Dickey cites one of King’s lesser titles. He could have looked at the very first page of The Shining. He would have found the adverbs he seeks.)

Cherry-picking? Dickey names a handful of writers known for eschewing adverbs: Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway. They all had the discipline to avoid adverbs, right?

I did Google searches for these authors. For each, I checked the first page of the first work I found. Here’s Mailer:

Smoking cigarettes insulates one from one’s life, one does not feel as much, often happily so, and politics quarantines one from history; most of the people who nourish themselves in the political life are in the game not to make history but to be diverted from the history which is being made.

Carver:

The baker listened thoughtfully when the mother told him Scotty would be eight years old.

With Leonard it was different. I got to the second page:

He felt the need to stand up to this man, saying finally, “My dad was a marine on the battleship Maine when she was blown up in Havana Harbor, February fifteenth, 1898.”

Surely Hemingway, of all people, managed to avoid adverbs. If not Papa, who?

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.

Very! Not only an adverb, but the ur-adverb, the alpha and ultima, the most grievous instance of a grievous sin! The adverb even your third-grade teacher warned you against! Most maligned of all intensifiers, most superfluous of superfluities! Very! Right there in the first three words of the most famous adverb avoider’s best known story.

Try it yourself. Check any piece of writing. Or don’t. I’ll do it for you.

Here’s the first article currently posted on the New York Times web site. Four adverbs in the second paragraph.

Here’s the lead article currently posted on the New Yorker‘s web site. Two adverbs in the first paragraph.

The lead article on Slate? Two adverbs in the first paragraph, three in the second.

I pulled ten books off my desk at random, academic titles all. Nine of those ten had at least one adverb on the first page, often in the first paragraph, sometimes in the first sentence. The only exception had an adverb on the second page.

I opened to a random page in the novel I’m reading. The fifth word in the first line on that page is an adverb.

So effective writers avoid adverbs, do they? What are we to make of a thesis that is–pay attention to the adverbs here–literally never true? A statement that’s disproved as often as checked? A rule pertaining to the proper use of English, the only exception to which is the entire corpus of English literature?

Of course, we know what enemies of adverbs will say: that you should avoid using adverbs except for any case in which you have a good reason for doing so.

Do you think that’s good advice? If so, I have some more good advice for you.

The way to play basketball is to handle the ball with one hand, except for every case in which it’s better to handle it with two hands.

The secret to good driving is to avoid checking your mirrors, except when you find it advisable to check your mirrors.

The key to good nutrition is to avoid eating salt, except for the non-negligible amount of salt you need to eat to stay alive.

I could go on. Let me content myself instead with an observation. Guidelines such as “never use adverbs” are not rules but superstitions. Like all superstitions, they thrive on selective attention. No matter how many times adverbs are used with grace, with wit, with clarity, with precision, an adverb hater will always remember the few adverbs that bugged him.

In the same way, someone who fears black cats will remember the single time he saw one–and then broke his toe. Superstition being what it is, you’ll never convince him his phobia is unfounded.

This applies to all literary peeves. In a recent Slate podcast dedicated to adverb defamation, writer and critic Stephen Metcalf broadened the ban to include three other offenses: em dashes, semicolons, and adjectives–all longstanding bugaboos of literary nabobs. Metcalf cited Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language as an example of writing he admired.

If he had checked the essay in question, he would have found that it deploys all the grammatical devices he deplores–three of them in the first paragraph.

In my brief career as a writer, I’ve been warned to avoid not only adverbs, adjectives, em dashes, and semicolons, but gerunds, participles, metaphors, the verb “to be,” the word “then,” long paragraphs, long words, idiomatic speech, use of words other than “said” for dialogue attribution, first person point of view, parentheses, and description.

To read is to see this advice invalidated, sentence by sentence and writer by writer. So what good is it?

Orwell, as Metcalf notes, was obliged to follow up his own five literary admonitions with a sixth: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

That may be key to the puzzle. Advice on writing is so inconsistent, so easily falsifiable, so hypocritical, so obviously stupid, that only weak-minded people would ever follow it. The effect is to hobble the fainthearted with useless habits–while the spirited and talented dare to invent their own.

If the secret to compelling writing is to be a compelling person, what better service could our snobs and scolds render us than to handicap boring people with absurd precautions?

In light of which, I’ll offer my own advice. To all aspiring writers who fear criticism: avoid words. Seriously, try it. You’ll never go wrong.

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