"I like adverbs," she said adamantly.

I really do. Like adverbs, I mean. While I understand how overusing them can make for sloppy writing, I just don’t get the iron-clad rule against them. What really pisses me off is how I automatically purge them from my writing at this point. I want to go back to the time before I heard this rule and absorbed it – to a time when I used adverbs freely and unselfconsciously, if not wantonly.

To me, the ban against adverbs is more representative of literary fashion than literary sense. One of my favorite games is to imagine what people would make of some of the “classics” if they were submitted today. (Remember Chuck Ross’s Steps experiment, wherein he disguised and sent off Jerzy Kosinski’s National Book Award-winning story, only to have it rejected by every publisher and agent he sent it to? Even better is his more recent Casablanca experiment, in which a number of agents said some variation of “too much dialogue”. Really?) Aside from the fact that language changes, so do writing styles, which makes a certain sort of sense if literature is to continue reflecting society. (And sometimes that’s a good thing. Nowadays, anyone trying to write eye dialect as thick as Mark Twain’s would be run out of the literary establishment on a rail, and so it should be for crimes against readability alone.)

But why the current animosity towards adverbs? I, for one, like them, and always have. Which is why the flap over J.K.’s adverb-laden writing struck me as a bit silly. Sure, the plentiful adverbial dialogue tags did distract me sometimes, but I think that’s partly because the writing-no-no police have done their job so well and taught me to look for and despise them. At the same time, though, I felt a certain fondness for the adverb-happy writing in Harry Potter; it hearkened back to many of my childhood favorites, like A Little Princess or Anne of Green Gables, before any anti-adverb sentiment demanded everyone write like Elmore Leonard. In these beloved stories, people “peer timidly” (that couldn’t be anybody but Becky, now, could it?), “drive placidly” (who else but dear, sweet Matthew?), or “say briskly” (gotta be Marilla), not only providing a sort of shorthand for the characters, but also enriching the reading child’s vocabulary at the same time. As a wee one, I read these stories over and over for the thrill of the tale, but all the while, wasn’t I was absorbing the rich vagaries of the English language, not to mention the many, many ways there are to express yourself? So why shouldn’t a writer tell me someone is saying “I hate you” fondly? Or “I love you” coldly? Why can’t a character dance madly, sing softly, or drive erratically if that’s indeed what they’re doing? At least that’s what yours truly says, and please note: she’s saying it vehemently.

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7 thoughts on “"I like adverbs," she said adamantly.

  1. I greatly appreciate your carefully written essay about a generally overlooked subject. Seriously, it's good stuff!

  2. Hear, hear! A very well written book should be allowed to use whatever adverbs are necessary for the story. They help the reader peruse the text more easily, with finer understanding of the nuances of the work.

  3. Awesome post. I was just thinking about this last night while rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It was published 11 years ago. It was a mega-success. And in chapter 1, JKR uses at least 18 adverbs ending in -ly, most coming after the word “said”. Those hard-and-fast rules we try so hard to abide by clearly don't tell the whole story!

  4. Couldn't agree more!

    My biggest problem is coming across a situation in which an adverb isn't an awful choice. I'll tuck it in, nice and tight. Hurray, wonderful job, Alex. Now can you purge the ten that came after that one?

    This might sound strange, but it seems like using one begins a trend in my writing. And so I don't use them at all ;_;

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