Monday, April 07, 2008

The Evil Adverb

Yesterday, the Quote of the Day on my homepage was from Stephen King. No source was cited, but I suspect the sentence came from On Writing. Here's what SK says: "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." So what I'd like to know is, when did adverbs become evil?

I grew up reading a lot of 19th century writers: Poe, James, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickens. These guys used adverbs. Poe use a lot of adverbs. Some sentences in stories like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" have four or five per sentence. James used them by the bundle. Were adverbs more benign in the 19th century? Or were they even then working their insidious evil and destroying the prose of the so-called "masters"?

I'm not questioning King. I'm just wondering. I thought maybe Hemingway was an adverb-free guy, but even stories like "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "The End of Something" use adverbs. So where and when did it begin? Who declared that adverbs were the spawn of Satan. Anybody know?

10 comments:

  1. My writing group gets into this regularly. Sometimes you gotta use an adverb. "He ran clumsily." Is there a word you can substitute for ran that would explain clumsy running without being so obscure as to draw more attention to itself. Stumbled isn't the same thing.

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  2. Gerard11:40 AM

    What's an adverb?

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  3. I believe adverbs (and adjectives) spun out of control when English teachers actually started writing rather than just criticizing. he... he... he... Just kidding Bill. :-)

    I've always heard that one should watch ones adverbs and adjectives but I've never heard that they were "evil." Lin Yutang observed that you have to sell sin in order to sell salvation. Maybe there are adverb exorcists out there that needed employment.

    I think 19th and early 20th century writers had the benefit that there weren't a lot of "experts" giving advice, esp through self-help books and seminars.

    I remember Time magazine doing a cover story back in the mid-80s about the deplorable state of editing in the publishing industry.

    I volunteered my wife's editing services to a friend for his short story. Apparently someone advised him to forego punctuation and let an editor do it for him. She had a fun time. She did a little rewriting for him as well (he liked to tell what happens rather than show it happening). I suggested he look into a writing class at the community college and set him straight that when someone wields a shotgun they use shells not bullets. He was very open to criticism and grateful.

    http://blogcritics.org/archives/2006/12/27/143311.php

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  4. What's an adverb?

    An ad agency for verbs. :-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverb

    An English teacher at the local community college when I started college asked what an allegory was?

    Being a radical (I wasn't aware of this until another English teacher at the CC told me I was) and a smart-ass when I was younger, I piped up that it was a reptilian critter that live in swamps, lakes, ponds, and rivers. It did elicit laughter at the time. Oh well, another entry for my "You Had To Be There" book.

    Then there was the time that the English teacher who labeled me a radical asked the class, "What's a Grecian Urn?..."

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  5. I have to admit that the adverbs were pretty thick in the next-to-last Harry Potter book. I even wrote about it in my comments on the book, and J. K. must have been listening, as the adverbs had been pruned back in the final book.

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  6. It's Elmore Leonard's fault. One of his ten rules of writing is never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said.' He goes on, "To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin." An entire generation of writers has taken Dutch's advice to heart.

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  7. I'm with him on this point, and always have been. But Big Steve implies that ALL adverbs are evil.

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  8. All I know is that when I taught sophomores in high school, all they knew about adverbs was that you could go down to the Lolly's and buy a few.

    Maybe too many have been visiting "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here . . ."

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8kD1A7wtDo

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  9. Thanks for the link, benjie.

    I loved School House Rocks. I have a bobblehead of Bill to go with my American history stuff.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkO87mkgcNo

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEJL2Uuv-oQ

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  10. Patti, maybe it would be "He ran in a way that it almost seemed like he was stumbling." See? No adverbs.

    It's been a while since I've read King, but hasn't he been some sort of an overwriter? How does he pad things up if not with adverbs?

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