Oct 5, 2010

Adverbs' Revenge

by Valerie Ipson

I don't know if you non-writers out there realize that adverbs = bad.

I know. Your high school English teacher never told you. You probably received high marks for beautifully decorating your verbs with all those -ly wonders.

Well, it's something you pick up on the street when you hang with the creative writing crowd. Beef up your verb choice and then who needs an adverb. Ran quickly becomes raced. Cried loudly sounds better as wailed. And glitters brightly is just plain redundant. And repetitive.

It's beautiful in its simplicity: Kill the adverb.

But wait. Don't sentence it to death row just yet. (At least not till you read this blog post.) Adverbs don't only modify verbs, people. They have other reasons for living.

In Spunk & Bite-a writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & style, by Arthur Plotnik, he devotes an entire chapter to fresh adverbs. He talks about "adverbs of manner [that] reveal the way in which a thing or quality is distinguished." For example: "hugely boring or minutely entertaining."

Adverbs can become fresh when they modify adjectives. And though they are called "fresh," they have been used in this way (as Plotnik points out) long before Nixon's "perfectly clear" speech, in fact their usage dates back to as early as 1570 with phrases found in literature like "curiously dainty."

Here's a match game taken from Spunk & Bite, pgs. 40-41. See if you can match the actual adverb-adjective pairings taken from print. The subject of the sentence is shown in parenthesis. (See answers below.)

[Note: I added the second list in green to differentiate it, so choose an adverb from the list on the left and pair it with an adjective from the green list--Blogger wouldn't let me separate the two into columns. If anyone knows how to do that, let me know.]

1. dormantly a. ordinary (plot structure)

2. gloriously b. fervent (devotion)

3. scarily c. naive (conviction)

4. militantly d. Mormon (guy from Philly)

5. incongruously e. hostile (speech)

6. juicily f. unclever (writer)

7. resolutely g. ridiculous (role as pirate)

8. wittily h. intricate (dance step)

9. inflammatorily i. prosaic (men's fashions)

10. metaphysically j. uproarious (doings)

1. d (Patricia Marx, The New Yorker)
2. j (Kirkus Reviews)
3. b (Sarah Miller, The New York Times)
4. i (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker)
5. a (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)
6. g (David Denby, The New Yorker)
7. f (Bruno Maddox, The New Yorker)
8. h (Richard Eder, The New York Times)
9. e (John Updike, The New Yorker)
10. c (Lydia Davis, Granta)

Now wasn't that fun? I loved trying out all the adverbs with Mormon, just to see the different images they conjured up. Suddenly (since 1570, anyway) adverbs are crazily fun again. And surprisingly useful. And blazingly fresh... okay, I guess I don't need to overdo it. One must still choose wisely. Not all adverb-adjective pairings will be gloriously, resolutely, or wittily fresh.


  1. Delightfully refreshing! Thanks Valerie.

  2. http://shaunnagonzales.blogspot.com/October 5, 2010 at 2:10 PM

    I hate -ly adverbs--they remind me that I need a refresher course in word usage. Question--has anyone ever published a lazy adverb to active adjective type dictionary?

  3. Remember when adverbs were fun? Remember the old Tom Swift jokes? "I have to take my pet for a walk," he said doggedly. You can't dismiss words that let you toy with the language.

  4. I loved Tom Swifties! My favorite as a kid were the book titles: "Falling Off a Cliff," by Eileen Dover.

  5. In the book I'm currently (<--adverb, hee) reading, it isn't unusual for the author to use an adverb every other paragraph--and sometimes two in the same sentence! (He also overuses speech tags like nobody's business.) My head has met the nearest hard surface many times while struggling through this book.

    It's books like these that make me wonder why it seems so easy for some authors to get published, and I don't have an agent yet.

  6. What a fun exercise. Thanks for the the lesson on "fresh."


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