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Birch Bay Public Market

Friday, May 10 through the end of summer, Cathy and I will be selling her hand-made soaps, lotions, and toiletries, along with my photography, note cards, calenders, books, etc.

Come see us!

Across the street from the C Shop

4825 Alderson Road, Birch Bay, Washington 98230

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I had an automated blogroll here, powered by Google Reader, but Google, in its near-infinite lack of wisdom, killed Google Reader. Prior to this murder, all I had to do to put a blog on my blogroll (or to take it off) was to place it in a Reader folder called, appropriately enough, "blogroll" (or, of course, to remove it). I use The Old Reader now for following blogs, but it seems to have no way to something similar regarding the blogroll. If you know of a way to do this, please let me know.

Really and Truly Hating the Adverb Hatred

You’ve had it said to you.

You may even have said it to others. You, in the corner, slinking away, you’ll continue to say it, because you’ve heard it from better authorities than I am, so it must be true.

“Adjectives, like adverbs, are lazy words, slowpokes, tranquilizers. Watch out for them.”

–Jack M. Bickham

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

–William Strunk and E.B. White

(And I’d just like to point out in passing that that’s not what adverbs are for.) (and this)

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

–Stephen King

But what do these things really mean? Go through the writings of any of these authors, and look for adverbs. None of them omit adverbs when they’re needed. They do not heed their own advice. And they shouldn’t. A friend of mine recently declared that she was obviously not a real writer and never would be, because she couldn’t quite stamp out all the adverbs in her work. I think (as of right now) that I have her convinced her “friends” who tell her these things are wrong, and part of what convinced her was going through one of Mr King’s books and highlighting all the adverbs. Of course, I had to disabuse her of the notion that all adverbs end in ly, and all words ending in ly are adverbs, a misapprehension that is almost as common as the belief that there are “passive verbs” in English. (Hint: there are no such things.) There’s no real doubt that Mr King is a great writer. Even those who don’t read his work, or who don’t read “horror” at all (as though that is all he’s ever written), admit that he’s one of the better writers of our time, and seeing the constant rain of adverbs in his pages opened my friend’s eyes to the difference that exists between what people say and what they do. Last I heard from her (yesterday), she’s off to re-read everything her online “support” group has written, looking for adverbs. Methinks I won’t be surprised, although she might well be.

I defy you to tell me anything about the barn on the hill without using adjectives and adverbs.

Tell me how big it is. Tell me how old it is. Tell me what color it is. Tell me what it is made out of. Remember, no adjectives and no adverbs! And remember, don’t just look for ly. Anywhere, somewhere, nowhere, everywhere, upstairs, downstairs, abroad, ever, never, always… The list goes on and on. Now, you were going tell me what about the barn?

Crickets.

Crickets chirping. Quietly.

Of course, adverbs can be overused.

Or used inappropriately. So can nouns. So can verbs. So can pronouns and conjunctions and prepositions. So what? “Don’t use adverbs inappropriately. Don’t overuse them.” That’s what all the fuss means? That’s the best you can do? Fine, I won’t. I promise, ok? Feel better now?

How about if we look at how adverbs actually get used?

Let’s take a look at how often they get used in real life – in speech, in writing, in academia, and so forth. In order to do that, we have to do a “corpus search.” A corpus search is a search of one or more collected bodies of “real life” text, taken from both written language and oral language. I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is the largest freely-available corpus of English, and the only large and balanced corpus of American English. It was created by Mark Davies of Brigham Young University in 2008, and it is now used by tens of thousands of users every month (linguists, teachers, translators, and other researchers).

–taken from COCA’s search page

I apologize for the quality of the image, but I’m trying not to let the file get too big. If you can’t read this image, go to COCA, click on “POS LIST,” select “adv.ALL,” select “CHART” display, and run the same search I did.

Here’s what I got:

COCA chart showing adverb usage.

So, really and truly, fiction doesn’t use any fewer adverbs than spoken language.

In other words, fiction doesn’t use any fewer adverbs than we use in real life. Because we need them. Because without them, we can’t say much at all.

Oh, look! Newspapers and academic writing use considerably fewer adverbs. If you want your novel to read like a newspaper or an academic treatise, by all means, stomp out all those adverbs. Otherwise, use the words you need, don’t use the words you don’t need, and tell those who can’t do to stop teaching.


Jillian's Gold -- a novel by Levi Montgomery

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14 comments to Really and Truly Hating the Adverb Hatred

  • Thank you for defending adverbs, Levi. They need assistance badly. I wrote about the hatred of adverbs a few months ago: http://wp.me/pij0l-jA No, they shouldn’t be used as literary crutches, but we could say that about many aspects of writing, and we don’t pigeonhole it into uselessness.
    Everett´s last blog post: A Writer’s Mission

  • Well said!

    A similar argument is the “only lazy speakers and writers swear.” Sigh. Or writers who are telling stories about people whose vernacular includes swearing. If I was writing an English manor house mystery, profanity may be out of place. (Note, I said MAY.) If I’m writing a story about a meth addict attacking his dealer with a pipe wrench, I can assure you the dealer won’t be crying out, “Oh my! Unhand me, foul brute!”

  • ananomous

    defanition of adverb=word that ends with “LY”,,,you dont have to like it,,,you just have to live with it,,,jelousy is ugly my friend,,,think about it,,,steven king is alot better than youll ever be,,,just a thought

  • Stephen King is a very successful writer, it’s true. And readable. He’s also an excellent speller, which “ananomous” is not. I also think “ananomous” has missed the point of this post. These are both reasons why I wouldn’t give a fig what “ananomous” thinks.
    Everett´s last blog post: A Writer’s Mission

    • I actually thought that requiring an email address was preventing this all these years. I guess maybe I’ve just been lucky.

      Seriously “ananomous”:

      1) Buy a dictionary. A real one.
      2) Look up every word in your comment.
      3) When you’re done with that, look up “adverb.”

      No, I won’t post your second comment. You are why I have moderation turned on. Four letters, and you still can’t get it right.

      Bye-bye, now! Have a frabjous day!

  • I dunno, Bill – now you’re stereotyping drug dealers.
    Ananomous – kudos for creativity in avoiding the usual spelling of your chosen screen name.
    Please note:

    adverb [ˈædˌvɜːb]
    n
    (Linguistics / Grammar)
    a. a word or group of words that serves to modify a whole sentence, a verb, another adverb, or an adjective; for example, probably, easily, very, and happily respectively in the sentence They could probably easily envy the very happily married couple
    b. (as modifier) an adverb marker Abbreviation adv
    [C15-C16: from Latin adverbium adverb, literally: added word, a translation of Greek epirrhēma a word spoken afterwards]

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

    Look here for a whole long list of adverb examples, many of which do not end in ly: http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-adverbs.html

    • There. See, ananomous? That’s how you do that. Thank Kerry for having more patience with you than I did.

      Although I’m pretty sure he/she/it has long since slunk off home.

      I hope.

  • Might I just point out here that “ananomous” used the word “ugly” in their comment, which does end in LY but which is not itself an adverb.

    English is such a wonderful language. “Such,” meanwhile, is an adverb.
    Everett´s last blog post: A Writer’s Mission

    • All I’m seeing for “such” is that it’s an adjective, but we have a million words that are multiple things.

      But you’re right. “Ugly,” while it can be used to describe missing apostrophes, comlipses, and anonymous commenting, is not an adverb.

  • My bad; I was thinking of the phrase “as such.”

    • I’m perfectly willing to believe that the word can be used as an adverb, and I only checked one source, but then, *we* aren’t the ones who have to worry about whether it is or isn’t. Poor “ananomous” always has to figure out what a word IS, before he/she/it can worry about what it SAYS.

      Poor, confused “ananomous.” :)