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Why the Adverb Is Not Our Friend

The Part of Speech That Gets No Respect

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Why the Adverb Is Not Our Friend

"It's an adverb, Sam. It's a lazy tool of a weak mind."

Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman in "Outbreak"

"I'm glad you like adverbs," Henry James wrote in a letter to Miss Bentham Edwards. "I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect." But as it happens, James's respect for adverbs has not generally been shared by his fellow writers.

The adverb is versatile--capable of modifying verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, even complete sentences. It's flexible--likely to appear before, after, or nowhere near the word it modifies. And yet, undeniably, the adverb is both the poor stepchild and the Rodney Dangerfield of the parts of speech, enduring the scorn of writers and critics alike.

  • Mark Twain's "Frozen Indifference" to Adverbs
    Now I have certain instincts, and I wholly lack certain others. (Is that "wholly" in the right place?) For instance, I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. . . . There are subtleties which I cannot master at all--they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me--and this adverb plague is one of them.
    (Mark Twain, "The Contributors' Club." The Atlantic Monthly, June 1880)

  • The Beastly Adverb
    How well [Evelyn Waugh] faces the problem of linking passages between the scenes. There is almost a complete absence of the beastly adverb--far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.
    (Graham Greene, Ways of Escape. Simon & Schuster, 1980)

  • Adverbs on the Enemies List
    Adverbs tend to show people at their worst--posturing, embellishing, apologizing, or just being mealy-mouthed. Adverbs may be a relatively small portion of the English vocabulary, but they account for about half the words on my personal enemies list.
    (Geoffrey Nunberg, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Public Affairs, 2005)

  • "A Lazy Tool of a Weak Mind"
    Sam Daniels: Alarmingly high fatality. All localized within a three mile radius. Incubation period: short. Appears contained. Alarmingly. Casey, you didn't put "alarmingly."
    Casey Schuler: It's an adverb, Sam. It's a lazy tool of a weak mind.
    (Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey in the movie Outbreak, 1995)

  • Get Rid of Them!
    We must eliminate adverbs, the old worn-out clasp which holds words tied to each other. The adverb preserves a monotonous character in a sentence.
    (Futurist Manifesto, quoted by Zbigniew Folejewski in Futurism and Its Place in the Development of Modern Poetry. Univ. of Ottawa Press, 1980)

  • The Timid Part of Speech
    Cautious men have many adverbs, "usually," "nearly," "almost"; safe men begin, "it may be advanced"; you never know precisely what their premises are, nor what their conclusion is; they go tremulously like a timid rider; they turn hither and thither; they do not go straight across a subject, like a masterly mind.
    (Walter Bagehot, "The First Edinburgh Reviewers," 1855, in Literary Studies)

  • The Road to Hell
    The adverb is not your friend. . . .

    I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late.
    (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000)

  • Advice for Writers
    In order to write good stuff you have to hate adverbs.
    (Theodore Roethke, quoted in The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, by Allan Seager. McGraw-Hill, 1968)

Joltingly Fresh Adverbs

And yet, despite all the abuse it has endured, the adverb still has its defenders. Arthur Plotnik, for instance, is smitten with the adverb--or at least with "a new and fashionable version" of it:

The truth is that certain adverbial forms are among the hottest locutions in contemporary prose. . . .

Critic Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times has been lavish in her use of -ly adverbs, as have many of her colleagues at the newspaper. Some time ago she described a British novelist's prose as "engagingly demented." Legions of -ly locutions have followed over the years, including "casually authoritative" and "eye-crossingly voluminous." Meanwhile, her colleagues have come up with "beguilingly Boswellian" (Joseph J. Ellis), "laughably archival" (Dinitia Smith), "jesuitically contradictory" (Bruce Hrierson), and "genetically goofy" (David Carr).

Arts reviewers (and blurbists) everywhere seem enamored of the device, and little wonder; it offers an alternative to shopworn critical adjectives like brilliant, gripping, or plodding. It can also tweak such adjectives toward fresh meanings, as in yawningly brilliant.
(Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style. Random House, 2005)

In the end we turn to Roy Peter Clark for a balanced view: "At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it" (Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Little, Brown and Company, 2006).

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