Re-examining the Adverb - by Chip Scanlan

Reused with kind permission from the Poynter Institute.

For years, I've known without a doubt what to do if I found an adverb in my copy: exterminate the sucker.

Before I hit the send button, I'd call up my word-processing software's "Find" command, load the chamber with the "-ly" suffix that is the form's signal feature, and head out on a search-and-destroy mission.

On these adverb hunts, my faithful guides were writers, editors, and teachers who had painted unmistakable bull's-eyes on the target:

Adverbs are crashers in the syntax house party. More often than not, they should be deleted when they sneak in the back door.
-- Constance Hale in "Sin and Syntax:How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose" (Broadway Books, 1999)

Cut virtually every one you write.
-- Renni Browne and Dave King, "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" (HarperCollins, 1993)

Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after "he said," "she replied," and the like: "he said consolingly"; "she replied grumblingly." Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker's manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying.
-- Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style"

Adverbs have gotten such a bad name that even Hollywood scriptwriters have no use for them.

Consider this moment fromthe plague thriller "Outbreak" when a scientist played by Kevin Spacey offers a withering line editof a memo penned byDustin Hoffman's scientist character: "It's an adverb, Sam.It's a lazy tool of a weak mind."

Lately, however, I've begun rethinking my adverbial antipathy.

This re-examination was inspired by Frank O'Connor, the Irish short story master.

"My Oedipus Complex" and "The Drunkard" provide a quick and delightful introduction to O'Connor's gifts. Enamored of his prose, I snatched up a long-playing record of the author reading those two stories at an antiquarian book fair several years ago, even though I didn't own a record player.

The album sat on the shelf until Jeff Saffan, one of Poynter's tech wizards, helpfully transferred the contents of the LP onto a cassette.I've listened to those two stories probably scores of times on the way to and from work, O'Connor's lilt and lyrical inflections never failing to captivate.

But it was only last fall, as my wife, Kathy Fair, and I were writing a serial newspaper novel, that I detected something in O'Connor's stories I hadn't noticed before. The guy loved adverbs, which leaped out of my cassette deck in O'Connor's whisky-and-cigarette brogue.

"Half past two to the Curragh," Father said meditatively, putting down the paper.

"I'll look after Larry," Father said graciously.

"Do be quiet, Larry!" she said impatiently. "Don't you hear me talking to Daddy?"

Hmmm. If adverbs were good enough for the much-anthologizedFrank O'Connor, a literary critic as well as practitioner, a man described as "perhaps Ireland's most complete man of letters," who were we to sneer at them?

Our serial novel, "The Holly Wreath Man" -- 25 installments each no longer than 750 words — demanded concision. Every word had to count. For the first time, I found myself bucking the company line by arguing in favor of modifiers in passages of dialogue.

We didn't modify every verb, of course. In most cases, "he said" did the job just fine.

And we did our best to avoid what Brown and King in "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" call "Tom Swifties" — one-liners built around "–ly" adverbs that are named for the archetypal example:"'Hurry up,' Tom said swiftly." Our favorite is,"'Don't worry, the radiation level isn't very high,' Tom said glowingly."

But for moments when we wanted to convey manner, emotion, or mood, we jettisoned our adverbial prejudice in favor of brevity. In narrative, showing generally trumps telling, but when space is at a premium, a single adverb seemed a potent tool.

"Ta-da" he said dramatically, and whipped off the cover, unveiling a long rectangular sign, emblazoned with "Swiggett's Superette" in red, white and blue letters.

"Sounds dangerous," Turner said sarcastically.

"Face it, we're dirt poor, and always will be," he said bitterly, running from the room.

Arguments about such syntactical choices are legion."Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" notes that Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez is always on the lookout for –mente, the Spanish equivalent of "–ly," which he targets fordestruction.

So it was heartening to see in the Februaryissue of The Writerthat I wasn't the only one making clemency appeals for adverbs.

"The new and improved adverb" by Arthur Plotnik, argued that "a well-placed '-ly' can add life to your prose."

Plotnik, author of "The Elements of Editing," cites the familiar warnings that give "adverbs all the lure of ill-fitting prosthetics."

He writes, "Don't prop up every verb with adverbs. (Not 'ran speedily,'but raced or dashed.) Avoid adverbs in dialogue tags. (Not 'cried loudly,' but howled or wailed.) Delete redundant adverbs, as in "glitters brightly.'"

In narrative, showing generally trumps telling, but when space is at a premium, a single adverb seemed a potent tool.

But, relying on recent examples from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times, Plotnik saysa counterargument can be madethat "certain adverbial forms are among the hottest elocutions in contemporary prose."

The most popular seem to be adverbs used as adjectives. For instance, Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize-winningTimesbook critic,threw adverbial caution to the winds when she described a British novelist as "engagingly demented."

To produce such adverbiallly-assisted constructions, including "jesuitically contradictary," "dormantly Mormon," and "inflammatorily hostile," writers employ a simple formula, Plotnik says. "Take a forceful adjective (say 'withering') add '-ly' to make it an adverb, combine it with the target word (say 'cute,' and voila —'witheringly cute,' a burst of wry writ, a mini-statement."

Strong verbs rarely need adverbs to shore them up. "The detective paced the hallway" does the job better and faster than "The detective walked nervously up and down the hallway."

And I'd agree that most dialogue tags need nothing more than "said," and not even that when the identity of the speaker is clear.

But studying, and emulating,the way that Frank O'Connor routinely violates the adverbial prohibition has made me see the value of judiciously-chosen adverbs. They can be as vivid and resonant as the verbs, adjectives, and even other adverbs they modify.

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