Every now and then, I just can’t resist a rant about hyper-devotion to “rules.” The many lists of THINGS YOU MAY NOT DO and surprising admonitions from writing-group colleagues (Eeek! A sentence that ends with a preposition!) remind me that such hyper-devotion thrives.
My topic today is adverbs. We’ve all been scolded about our adverbs, especially those frightful -ly words. I’ve been sensitized to the point that those two letters set sirens blaring in my writerly mind—even as here when the -ly word is not an adverb. The spirit of Stephen King will haunt you. Strunk and White will be over to flog you this afternoon.
Like all writing rules, this one should be applied judiciously. (Or should I say “with judicious attention?” Whatever for?) The slightest perusal of some excellent fiction reminds us that even the cursed -ly words have a place. For example, here’s a short passage from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. Theo is describing horseplay he and his close friend Boris indulge in:
I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn’t want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn’t either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take too seriously or get worked up about. And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn’t have the wrong idea. (pages 300-301)
I could say a lot about this excerpt, not just about its use of -ly adverbs but also about how blithely it runs afoul of all sorts of rules. But here I want to note one quality that the passage owes to its adverbs: how natural, how human, how conversational, it sounds. The expressions sinfully adulterated by -ly adverbs are examples of the way people actually talk.
Yes, you could take out three of the four and lose very little. But these are common expressions by which we normally, instinctively, express exactly what Theo is grappling with. The emphasis added by “absolutely” and its counterpoint, the qualification inserted by “fairly,” lace in Theo’s discomfort, his lack of confidence in his own judgment. We’re all often “fairly sure” about some things, we all often want to be “absolutely sure” about others. The nuances differentiating those attitudes, so common in our everyday handling of our emotions, are the “very little” we lose.
The value of what’s lost by a too-pious fear of adverbs comes through even more vividly in a delightful short article I recently summarized for my other blog, College Composition Weekly. In this blog, I report on scholarship about teaching college writing from major journals in the field. My latest entry was Peter Wayne Moe’s “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences” from the journal Composition Studies.
Moe, who teaches at Seattle Pacific University, urges writing teachers to look beyond the gems produced by the “greats” to value the day-to-day work that unremarkable sentences do and to recognize how even first-year college writers naturally and skillfully use the tools such everyday language supplies. The article explores how choice of subject, insertion of parenthetical asides, the use of “and” and “but” all convey how the writer “places” ideas in relation to each other. His short section on adverbs I found particularly rich.
He deals only peripherally with the -ly words, focusing instead on the kinds of adverbs that disguise themselves. Adverbs, he notes, are the stuff of context. They are the scene-setters, the clarifiers, the words that position the content in the nexus from which meaning derives. He provides a striking illustration of the work that adverbs do.
Here’s a student sentence. The student is writing about classroom activities following the 2016 election:
Often times we talk about race, gender and identity and my professor is always willing to share her opinions on these issues. After the election, she firmly expressed her political views to our class.
Setting aside views on whether this teacher should have expressed her views, firmly or otherwise, here’s what Moe does that speaks to a writer’s craft: “These sentences could be pared of their adverbs and prepositional phrases [all of these prepositions are adverbial] and would remain grammatically sound—”
We talk and my professor is willing to share her opinions. She expressed her political views.
When we strip these adverbial elements, including “firmly,” Moe writes, “everything is lost. The sentences are decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (page 88). And I would suggest that in the subtle context that the adverbial components supply, we can see a hint of how the student feels about her teacher’s actions, a hint missing from the denuded lines.
I suppose if this student were John Updike, she could have come up with a single, forceful verb that would do the work of “always willing to share,” including the delicate emphasis embedded in that “always,” and we would applaud her, call her the next Updike. But I love Moe’s attention in this article to how we all speak and write everyday and how much work that ordinary writing can do if we use all the resources it provides.