Do Not Go Gently Into That Adverb Denial
Adverbs are about as popular as flatulence on your honeymoon. As aspiring writers, we are told to “avoid adverbs” or “avoid –ly words”. Oh dear. At least 30 –ly words are adjectives, not adverbs: likely, ghastly, sprightly, unsightly; and many adverbs don’t end in –ly: almost, somewhat, often.
Why are adverbs so out of favour? Part of the answer lies in the advice given by Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing:
The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
Few would disagree with this, but King is certainly not talking about all adverbs. His paragraph refers only to an adverb modifying a verb. This is the most important use of adverbs, but it is just one of many. Let’s remind ourselves of a few more:
Uses of Adverbs
(1) + verb: She sings sweetly.
(2) + adjective: He’s extremely cautious.
(3) + adverb: She drives fairly skilfully.
(4) + number: She’s nearly 50.
(5) + noun phrase: hardly the right tone
(6) Adverbs as reactions: “I’ve just had my second vasectomy.” – “Really? What went wrong with the first?”
(7) Adverbs as intensifiers: I really am grateful. (cf. I am really grateful, (2).)
(8) Adverbs as disjuncts*: Sadly, Tom was unable to outrun the bull.
*A disjunct is an adverb which refers not simply to a verb but to the whole idea expressed in the rest of the sentence. It usually shows the attitude of the narrator.
How many adverbs in these categories are redundant and deletable? How many add something of value? Is Stephen King right? Is the adverb not our friend? To find out, I examined how – and how often – eight well-respected writers use adverbs, analysing 100 adverbs for each author. The books studied were:
Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks), Master George (Beryl Bainbridge), Cider With Rosie (Laurie Lee), Part of the Furniture (Mary Wesley), In Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin), Life of Pi (Yann Martel), The Ballad of the Sad Café (Carson McCullers), and Staring at the Sun (Julian Barnes).
The list below shows how many adverbs each writer used per 1000 words:
Julian Barnes 15
Carson McCullers 10
Laurie Lee 7.7
Yann Martell 7
Mary Wesley 6
Beryl Bainbridge 5.6
Sebastian Faulks 4.5
Bruce Chatwin 3.75
In Julian Barnes, I found 100 adverbs after reading just 6650 words. In Bruce Chatwin, I had to wade through 26,500 words – one third of the book – to find 100 adverbs. Both Staring at the Sun and In Patagonia are brilliant, evocative books, but they achieve their evocativeness in different ways. Chatwin relies on offbeat events to fire our imagination. His sparse use of adverbs produces a matter-of-fact, journalese tone that is well suited to his style of travel writing. The same is true for Faulks’s clinical examination of the horrors of the Somme. By contrast, Barnes uses adverbs in much the same way as he uses adjectives: to enhance and enrich at every turn.
Taking the eight writers overall, we can break down their use of adverbs into three categories:
+ verbs: 68%, + adjectives: 20%, all other categories: 12%.
Here are the figures for each writer. Remember: in each case we’re talking about their use of 100 adverbs.
Barnes: + verb 77%; + adjective 14%; other 9%
McCullers: + verb 50%; + adjective 30%; other 20%
Lee: + verb 73%; + adjective 19%; other 8%
Martell: + verb 62%; + adjective 26%; other 12%
Wesley: + verb 70%; + adjective 22%; other 8%
Bainbridge: + verb 72%; + adjective 16%; other 12%
Faulks: + verb 74%; + adjective 11%; other 15%
Chatwin: + verb 62%; + adjective 26%; other 12%
Let’s look at the No. 1 category: how they use adverbs with verbs:
With no idea of where he was, the boy repeatedly and imploringly called out some private word that might have been a pet name for his father or mother. (Faulks)
…he scraped his stool roughly along the concrete floor. (Wesley)
Some of our other animals were considered too common, the lions and baboons, for example. Father judiciously traded these for an extra orang-utan from the Mysore Zoo. (Martell)
My baptism was a slightly awkward affair. Mother played along nicely, Father looked on stonily… (Martell)
Father was persuaded that the saving on soap and water when Jean washed her hair would significantly help the war effort. (Barnes)
His socks smelt distantly of the barnyard. (Barnes)
His breath deliciously quivered against the rim of my ear. (Bainbridge)
… the river wound sluggishly through cattle pastures. (Chatwin)
Offshore there were… sooty albatrosses, wheeling effortlessly, like knives flying. (Chatwin)
When down in the store, she prowled around peacefully. (McCullers)
Her eyes were fastened lonesomely on the hunchback. (McCullers)
The girls round the table chewed moonishly, wrapped in their morning stupor. (Lee)
(I was) idling voluptuously through the milky days with a new young teacher to feed on. (Lee)
In the rain-washed face that stared crookedly down at him, the hangman saw his son. (Lee)
All was silent except Tony’s voice, softly muttering his cotton reel story. (Lee)
How many of these uses, if any, is redundant? I would argue none. They all add something that the reader could not reasonably be expected to deduce.
In the first example, scraping the chair roughly indicates the angry mood of the person seated.
In the barnyard sentence, Barnes could have written, there was a faint smell, but smelt distantly is far more elegant.
Stared crookedly is a masterstroke: the hanged boy’s head is lolling to one side on the gallows.
In significantly help the war effort, half of the humour lies in the adverb.
And how about softly muttering? We’d expect murmur or whisper softly, but muttering usually implies anger. The juxtaposition of softly and muttering is clever, original, and poetic.
And don’t you just love chewed moonishly, deliciously quivered, prowled peacefully, and idling voluptuously?
Writers mould their style with their choice of adverbs just as much as with other words. In many cases, an adverb is no more redundant than an adjective or a noun. On the contrary, it becomes a vehicle for flair and creativity.
A writer’s originality arguably shines through even more when we look at adverb + adjective combinations. Here are just a few from the 160 I came across:
armchairs gapingly stuffed; she was tall… and dreamily gentle; indivisibly male; curiously cross; fatly wrapped in my scarves; the Fates severely ticked off; properly distrustful of arms. (Lee)
exceptionally light-fingered (Chatwin)
Her hair lay sullenly flat (Barnes)
clouds… reluctantly tethered. (Barnes)
uncommonly light in the head (Bainbridge)
The windows of the mill were blinding gold in the sun. (McCullers) (cf. blindingly obvious)
The syrup from her vats was dark golden and delicately flavoured. (McCullers)
inquiries which were downright intimate. (McCullers)
I hope you find some of these combinations as dazzling and inspirational as I do.
Especially, particularly, positively, absolutely, utterly, completely, totally, really, etc.
Intensifiers can usually be left out without drastic change in meaning. Despite that, all writers use them. Have you been told to delete really, just as you have been told to delete very? Have another look at the Stephen King passage quoted at the beginning:
Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there.
See how King slots in the intensifier really? He could have left it out, but it serves a purpose: to emphasise a point. Delete intensifiers and much of the oomph in your writing will be lost.
I suggest the only reason why adverbs are viewed with distaste is that they are too often used redundantly. Nothing infuriates a competition judge more than to read, “Shut that damned door,” he shouted angrily. And Stephen King is right to point out that many adverbs are redundant when mood can be predicted from context. But to dismiss adverbs, or even to warn solemnly against their use, is to throw several babies plus granny and the hamster out with the bathwater. Asking a writer to leave out adverbs is like asking a chef to leave out seasoning: you can do it, but the result will be bland. To see how adverbs can enrich your writing, study Laurie Lee’s trilogy, Red Sky At Sunrise.
(1) Do not use redundant adverbs.
(2) Use adverbs that enhance an effect or a mood.
(3) Don’t be afraid to use combinations you’ve never read. (Think of chewed moonishly.)
(4) Don’t be afraid to use disjuncts (Sadly, Regrettably, etc.) to indicate the mood of (a) the narrator, or (b) a character.
(4) Use intensifiers sparingly for emphasis.
(5) Avoid repetition of the same adverb(s).
(6) Explore humorous possibilities. (How did they kiss – acrobatically, juicily, creepily, dribblingly?)
In short: use adverbs astutely – but use them!