Monday, April 25, 2016

The Much Maligned Adverb

By Lisabet Sarai

The adverb is not your friend.”

This pronouncement, by Stephen King in his influential little volume On Writing, has inspired floods of red ink. Adverbs—especially those ending in -lyarouse the irrational ire of critics and editors. “Weak!” they exclaim. “Verbose!” “Unnecessary!” “Outdated!” Some of the more poorly educated even claim that adverbs violate the rules of grammar.

Nonsense.

I’m a writer. That means words are my tools. All words. I’m not about to countenance some pundit (or even a best-selling, highly skilled author) telling me I should jettison an entire class of words just because they’ve become unfashionable.

I understand the logic behind King’s critique. Novice authors frequently overuse this part of speech, describing the manner in which a generic action is performed rather than finding a stronger or more specific verb. Excessive use of adverbs can be a sign of laziness. Certainly, they’re not the best tool for every occasion. A rich repertoire of evocative verbs can be far more effective than a bustling stable of adverbs.

That’s no argument for banning them outright.

Editors argue that adverbs slow prose down, making it less potent and direct. That’s probably true. However, sometimes I want to slow the pace of a paragraph. My personal style differs from the spare, unadorned prose King creates. I learned to write in a less hurried era, when an author could afford to explore her scenes and her characters in a more leisurely manner.

I had the notion that I’d post a few paragraphs from my current work in progress, then strip out the adverbs to show the effects of this edit. What I discovered is that my most recent stories use far fewer adverbs than I expected. I guess the unfashionable status of this part of speech has in fact influenced my writing as well. I also realized that these days I tend to use adverbs to modify adjectives or participles rather than verbs—to qualify or limit descriptions.

In any case, I think removing these adverbs would make the prose less effective. In some cases, it would even change the meaning. Here’s a snippet to illustrate what I mean.

Would you like to see my drawing, Dr. Gardner?” Alisha offers me a sheet of paper, presumably the picture that so thoroughly captured her attention yesterday. Color explodes off the page, garnet red, cerulean blue, shockingly bright purple. In contrast with its violent hues, the lines of the drawing are delicate and precise. Meticulously rendered gardens and palaces fill the every inch of the paper—arched gates curtained with ivy, marble fountains spilling silvery cascades over velvet green lawns, onion-domed towers soaring toward feathery clouds. I'm reminded of the jewel-toned miniatures painted by the eighteenth century Ottoman masters, until I look more closely. Then it is Hieronymous Bosch that comes to mind. For in the shadowy corners formed by vine-draped walls, and on the lushly carpeted floors of the pavilions, I see tiny beings—not people, no, not with those swollen heads, sharp-taloned limbs and tooth-lined maws— engaged in the most perverse couplings imaginable. Here an enormous penis splits a dripping orifice. There, a long, tri-forked tongue penetrates multiple bodies simultaneously. A fat-assed creature squats and strains above a gaping mouth. A head literally disappears between splayed female thighs while smaller beings perch on the woman's abdomen to gnaw on her pendulous breasts.

My stomach turns. My cunt melts. Both reactions are completely inappropriate in a therapist. I swallow the disgust rising in my throat, ignore the desire smoldering in my sex, and hand the sheet back to Alisha.

~ From “Countertransference” by Lisabet Sarai, unpublished work in progress

Let’s strip out the adverbs:

Would you like to see my drawing, Dr. Gardner?” Alisha offers me a sheet of paper, presumably the picture that captured her attention yesterday. Color explodes off the page, garnet red, cerulean blue, bright purple. In contrast with its violent hues, the lines of the drawing are delicate and precise. Rendered gardens and palaces fill the every inch of the paper—arched gates curtained with ivy, marble fountains spilling silvery cascades over velvet green lawns, onion-domed towers soaring toward feathery clouds. I'm reminded of the jewel-toned miniatures painted by the eighteenth century Ottoman masters, until I look more. Then it is Hieronymous Bosch that comes to mind. For in the shadowy corners formed by vine-draped walls, and on the carpeted floors of the pavilions, I see tiny beings—not people, no, not with those swollen heads, sharp-taloned limbs and tooth-lined maws— engaged in the most perverse couplings imaginable. Here an enormous penis splits a dripping orifice. There, a long, tri-forked tongue penetrates multiple bodies. A fat-assed creature squats and strains above a gaping mouth. A head disappears between splayed female thighs while smaller beings perch on the woman's abdomen to gnaw on her pendulous breasts.

My stomach turns. My cunt melts. Both reactions are inappropriate in a therapist. I swallow the disgust rising in my throat, ignore the desire smoldering in my sex, and hand the sheet back to Alisha.

In my opinion, this snippet is less dynamic than the original. It feels flat. I use adverbs for emphasis here, and to convey nuances of excess.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Each of us uses our verbal tools in different ways. You may strive for the lean, muscular prose of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard and personally eschew adverbs as unnecessary ornamentation.

Do not presume, however, to banish them outright. I want them in my tool box, along with all the other delightful and varied structures in the English language. If that makes me a curmudgeon, so be it.

Don’t get me started on the subject of the universally condemned passive voice!


20 comments:

  1. Hear, hear! Also "amen," "exactly!" and "what she said." (:v>

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeremy. Though I'm not surprised that you concur.

      Delete
  2. I use adverbs. Even the 'ly' type.They certainly have their place--as you say-- do all words. But I think they can be overused, (especially by beginners) resulting in a repetitive 'ly' sound and cadence. Excessive use of modifiers of all types can also trigger a negative response in my reading.

    I have a list of words I've assembled as flasher editor for ERWA. I call them my 'suspect words' for lack of a better term. These are words I have found that are most frequently overused and can often be eliminated. ly adverbs are listed, as are verbs 'to be', but the thrust of the list is overuse, not to eliminate those words entirely. Although most people have found the list valuable when I've posted it, I've probably written a thousand times those words in defense of the list itself. Some will invariably say: "There are no bad words." Although that's right, they just don't get the purpose.

    I'll be happy to send that list to anybody who wants a copy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that anything can be overused. -Ly adverbs are frequently abused (and not in a fun way...!) However, people these days seem drawn to absolute rules. I guess that makes things simpler, but it can strip writing of its richness.

      Delete
  3. Lisabet, your passage is a great illustration of your argument. I agree that taking out all the adverbs makes it weaker, not stronger.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. But then I would, wouldn't I? ;^)

      Delete
  4. But then, you are probably preaching to the choir here at the Grip. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. A scene like the one you share, Lisabet, is perfect for adverbs. The tone and visual imagery need those, as well as all the adjectives. Some other kinds of writing are better without any, or at least very few. Some characters would speak without using adverbs, some would use them lavishly. As with so much of life, it depends. As an editor of erotica, I do tend to cringe at overuse, but I'd never ban them altogether.

    Daddy X, I'd love to see your list. I know my list of personal faults begins with "but." (Oh good, I only used it once in my first paragraph.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was surprised to see how few adverbs I'd used in the more action-oriented parts of this story, Sacchi.

      Certainly fewer than in my early novels (which I just re-edited for re-release, a rather painful process!)

      Delete
  6. Hi Lisabet!

    Okay, don't beat me with a thesaurus for saying this, not unless you handcuff me and whisper in my ear first, but I kind of like the second version. The feeling tone of the first paragraph is distinctly feminine and appropriate for erotic romantic writing. The second paragraph has a more masculine and literary tone. What I suspect is that there is a male sound and a feminine sound and some writers (and English professors) may be a bit snobbish about the spare masculine sound.

    On the other hand, two of my literary heroes, Ray Bradbury and Angela Carter were given to hugely elaborate prose styles. Angela Carter especially wrote sentences like big gooey mouthfuls of dark chocolate. And I loved it.

    Garce



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Garce,

      I'd never beat you. I know that's not your thing!

      Interesting reaction. I agree with you about the masculine/feminine feel. This character is a woman, though.

      Delete
    2. I'd lay down money that Lovecraft was a huge adverb user... Maybe by masculinity, you're thinking of Hemingway...

      Delete
    3. Oh, definitely. (Oops, there's one...!)

      Delete
  7. Lisabet, I love that you wrote this. Like others, I agree wholeheartedly.

    I think a lot of people don't know enough grammar to know what they're objecting to. I've had editors replace my adverbs with adverbial phrases, which is a hilarious change that just avoids the -ly without actually addressing any of the supposed problems with the adverb.

    People who freak out about passive voice often don't know the difference between the passive voice and the past progressive (i.e.: "The bomb was set off by someone" vs "She was running when she heard the explosion.")

    My favorite example in defense of the adverb is from an Entertainment Weekly article from many years ago. It described an actor as "primly smoldering," and I've rarely loved a turn of phrase so much. It's such a vivid description, and I don't think you can do it without primly. To me, that phrase illustrates how powerful the adverb can be when used well.

    I've also noticed that I'm drawn to people who use adverbs conversationally. The habit is often indicative of a type of wit that attracts me a great deal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As I mentioned somewhere recently (maybe on the Writers list), anyone can call himself or herself an editor these days. I've had editors make so-called corrections in my work that I found downright embarrassing (on their part, not mine).

      "Primly smouldering" is a perfect story prompt. I can see her already...

      Delete
    2. As I mentioned somewhere recently (maybe on the Writers list), anyone can call himself or herself an editor these days.

      Yep. [[Shudder]]

      I've had editors make so-called corrections in my work that I found downright embarrassing (on their part, not mine).

      Except when it goes to press without the author getting a chance to fix it... and the embarrassment appears, of course, under the author's and not the editor's name. Ugh.

      Delete
  8. I think a lot of people don't know enough grammar to know what they're objecting to.

    I think you're right.

    I've also noticed that I'm drawn to people who use adverbs conversationally. The habit is often indicative of a type of wit that attracts me a great deal.

    What a fascinating observation! I'm going to try to start tuning in to that when I listen to people. One must be discreet, of course...

    FRIEND: What? Why are you looking at me that way?
    JEREMY: No, no, please continue. Sorry! I was just counting your adverbs.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You just never know what's going to be discussed here, do you? I tutor kids in grammar after school, and in doing so, I've learned the official names for a lot of things that I picked up along the way, constantly reading, and getting my degree in English. But with honors classes, we never had to learn how to, say, diagram a sentence (a totally boring and useless waste of time that destroys any interest a student might have had in the way words can be used.) Lately I've been teaching them about present and past participle tenses, as well as others that I've never even heard of, but find that once I read the examples, I understand intuitively. Luckily I don't have to take the tests to identify them by name!

    But I had an editor who used to take out every example of present and past participle verbs, insisting they made the prose weaker. Yet when I read the sentences without them, they made no sense! I agreed, just to get my books published. But now the company was sold, and there's a new team in place that is re-publishing all of our books, and asking us to send in corrections. I'm going through and re-adding all of my original verb forms.

    I don't think there can be any hard and fast rules about writing. Things are so totally situational and personal, based on the story, and on the writer.

    As for the excerpt you had here, Lisabet, I also liked the one with the adverbs better...but on reading Garce's comment, he's right. The second one does sound more masculine. Which I blame on that hack Hemingway, who wrote like an elementary school-aged kid. Simple words and phrases. Three word sentences. As if masculinity made one unable to understand longer, more complex thoughts. Maybe he was too alcohol-addled to write any differently. "Tip of the iceberg," indeed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Stephen King does wonders with simple sentences, I must admit. I resisted reading anything by him for a long time because I was annoyed by his pronouncement, but clearly (adverb alert!) it works for him.

      I have never been much of a Hemingway fan, though I do give him points for his love of felines.

      Delete
    2. But I had an editor who used to take out every example of present and past participle verbs, insisting they made the prose weaker. Yet when I read the sentences without them, they made no sense!

      Holy cow! Nightmare.

      Delete