Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pity the Adverb

I've never been one to follow that rule about eliminating adverbs. Sure, they sometimes describe too much. Especially when it comes to dialogue. But am I really to believe that they shouldn't be used elsewhere. What if I want to describe how someone walked across the room?

He moved vigorously towards the bar.

He moved towards the bar with vigor.

He moved towards the bar.

Which works better? Maybe if the last sentence had been set up with something about his general haste then it would be the best one. I think, though, that there are times when the first sentence is not only accurate but when it is the right sentence.

The blog at the Oxford University Press (via Ed) writes the adverbs epitaph:

The adverb is an endangered species in Modern English. One should neither wring one’s hands nor weep on hearing this news.
During his visit to Minneapolis after the collapse of the bridge, President Bush said: “We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible.” This is not a Bushism: few people would have used quickly here despite the fact that my computer highlighted the word and suggested the form with -ly.
Individual cases are hard to explain, and valid generalizations are hardly earned, but the tendency is obvious: adverbs are on the retreat in Modern English. Do it real quick has become the norm. We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible is a borderline case (quickly seems to be more appropriate). But it is enough to listen to the people around us, to observe adjectives replacing adverbs. A boy of ten comments on the speech of a person with an accent: “You are talking funny.” As ill luck would have it, the adverb funnily is rare, so that the boy had little choice. To a conservative taste he did it real good is a bit too much, but I fully realized what odds adverbs are facing only when I read in an undergraduate paper: “She sings beautiful.” On the same day I heard: “She is fragile and walks slow.” Another century or so, and the difference between those who speak good and those who speak bad will disappear. When that day comes, what will happen to the following exchange between Lady Bracknell and her nephew? “Good-afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well. –I am feeling very well, Aunt Augusta. –That’s not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together.” It looks as though adjectives and adverbs also prefer to part company.

Maybe someone who has studied the way language changes over the centuries can appreciate that dropping the old -ly suffix is not necessarily a bad thing, but I've spent time as a tutor and misuse raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Of course, things are flexible in creative work, but I will defend the use of the adverb in writing and in speech. And I'm likely to correct you when you are wrong.


  1. I love the adverb and am a staunch defender of writers' right to them... but in the examples here, I'm thinking a stronger verb than moving would eliminate the need for one altogether.

    At any rate, this is another reason I'm glad I write for teens/kids, because the anti-adverb thing doesn't seem to be as prevalent in that field.

  2. (Gwenda, just wondering - do kids still say "Totally!"? That might imply that the adverb is still in good hands with the younger generation.)

    I agree that a more descriptive verb eliminates the need for an adverb at all. In your example, if you just want to say he moved toward the bar, then no adverb is needed. But if you want to stress that he's doing so vigorously, then a verb less vague than "moved" is necessary. Maybe "hurried" or "rushed", though maybe those imply speed more than vigor. Sometimes using an adverb can't be avoided, especially if (as here) you can't come up with a verb that imparts "to move vigorously."

    As a writer, I'm not in favor of eliminating any of the tools at my disposal, so let's keep the adverb around for a while.

  3. I'm glad to see some support for the adverb. I agree, Pete, that we should hang on to all the tools we have. I also think that all rules are flexible when it comes to creative work. So, those writing professors can spend all their time telling us to avoid adverbs, or the passive voice, or whatever, but I'm still going to use them.
    Gwenda, I'm curious how you thing writing YA affects your attention to grammar.