The road to hell is paved with adverbs, so says Stephen King. And, who am I to argue with Mr. King.
In Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, forbids his students to use the word very (the most heinously bland and meaningless modifier of them all), “… because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.”
The case against adverbs is a strong one, with revered authors from every era and genre giving impassioned testimony against this eternal enemy of good writing:
- “Adverbs are another indication of writing failure. Exactly the right verb can eliminate the need for the adverb.” William Sloane
- “Omit needless words. Watch for adverbs that merely repeat the meaning of the verb.” Strunk and White
- “Most adverbs are unnecessary. . . . Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.” William Zinsser
It’s enough to make you think that perhaps (along with religion, politics, and the Oxford comma), adverbs should be included on the list of things not appropriate for polite conversation.
But, in his book Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner says, “Adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox.” Could it be that someone is willing to mount a defense for the modifier?
One of my personal favorites, E.B. White joins Gardner on the stand with his own message of moderation, “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power.”
Could it be, perhaps, that modifiers are not one-hundred percent evil? Might they after all have some redeeming qualities and a purpose to serve?
The answer, of course, is “yes.”
The trick is in learning how to use them wisely.
I am not yet a master of modifiers, but I did have something of an epiphany during the Fiction I Grub Street class that I attended this past fall. Actually, my discovery was less an epiphany and more a gift, served to me on a silver platter by our instructor, KL Pereira.
During our last, “wrap-up” class, we touched on a number of random topics including The Modifier. Pereira asked us to define the purpose of modifiers, and I enthusiastically raised my hand and proved myself a complete ass by saying confidently, “To clarify and/or emphasize the noun or verb it modifies.”
Though she was much too kind (and tactful) to do so, Pereira would have been well within her rights to smack an imaginary game show buzzer to indicate a tragically wrong answer.
What I learned that day was that the modifier’s job is to create friction.
Adjectives and adverbs do not exist to simply corroborate or even augment. In expert hands, they are used to alter the meaning of the word they modify, to create new meaning by giving the reader something unexpected.
Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?
- In support of his claim that adverbs can, in fact, be worthy tools in the hands of an adept writer, Gardner shares this example, “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously – a startling word that makes the scene spring to life.” Do you see how the word conscientiously adds depth and meaning to the verb rocks?
- In the Grub Street class, Pereira shared a short piece by Angela Carter called The Kiss. Though only a couple of pages in length, this story bursts with decadent and tantalizing descriptions. Carter’s veritable army of modifiers marches through the reader’s senses without ever once sounding tired or repetitive. She writes about the “throbbing blue” of ceramic tiles and the “whirling plaits” of the peasant women. The marketplace in her story has a “sharp, green smell.” There is no question that each of Carter’s modifiers is pulling its weight.
- In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White use a bit of a poem by William Allingham to illustrate the proper use of modifiers:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men …
The modifiers “airy” and “rushy” are unexpected and unique. They create friction that helps the writer paint a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
- In On Writing Well, William Zinsser writes about the dangers of “adjective-by-habit” in a fabulous little rant that bears repeating:
“Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer until they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. … The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”
After bemoaning improper, redundant adjective use such as “yellow daffodils” and “brownish dirt,” Mr. Zinsser offers an example of appropriate adjective use, “If you want to make a value judgment about daffodils, choose and adjective like ‘garish.’”
Point taken, Mr. Zinsser. Point taken.
Training myself to exercise creativity and wisdom in my use of modifiers will be, I expect, a never-ending effort. Old habits die hard, as they say. I feel, however, better armed against the threat now that I have this new bit of knowledge tucked away in my writer’s toolbox. I hope you do, too!
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.