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Apr
25
2016

The case for adverbs -- by Chris Welch

The case for adverbs.

I would never have believed that it would be necessary to make such a case. But there is a prejudice abroad in CC, one without validity or justification in my humble opinion, one that is applied with confident censoriousness and seemingly never questioned. It is time to make a case for the defence.

It should not be needed. Adverbs are an ancient and substantial class of words, integral to the language, that would never have survived if they did not perform a useful function.

That function is qualification: they modify the verb (or adjectives and other adverbs, not to mention clauses and entire sentences). They add precision to the meaning, allow for subtlety and nuance, and prove useful adjuncts that enable a well-balanced sentence to be constructed or to create the needed rhythm in a work. They can help define individual voices and impart necessary information. The English language without adverbs is a maimed and diminished thing. How can anyone justify dressing up nouns as much as one might wish, but claiming that verbs should be left naked and bereft?

Add the fact that all writers have used adverbs in the past. I think that that is a pretty safe assumption, though I am open to correction. Certainly great writers like Austen and Dickens have. And there is your prima facie case.

The onus must therefore be upon the naysayers to provide cogent and convincing arguments. I was directed to a website citing a certain Mr Stephen King who seems to be particularly antagonistic to ‘this malignant part of speech’. I have never actually read any works by the gentleman, but I will accept that Austen and Dickens are not in the same class as writers.

The website (https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/13/stephen-king-on-adverbs/) and entitled ‘Stephen King on Writing, Fear, and the Atrocity of Adverbs’    begins by citing Mark Twain’s admonition to ‘Employ a simple and straightforward style.’

Now, I yield to no-one in my admiration of Mark Twain. I do like his style. But it is not THE style. I don’t think anyone could accuse Shakespeare of a simple and straightforward style. Out of interest I pulled A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court from my bookshelves and opened it at random. And there immediately found adverbs. The second of which was a ‘suddenly’ but I shall leave that for another day.

Having admittedly ‘used a handful of well-placed adverbs in his excellent recent (book)’ – Mr King is clearly a trained professional who can handle these dangerous words, but please don’t try it at home, folks – he is quoted as saying:

Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

This is unwarranted pejorative writing. It is technically an ad hominem fallacy, attributing derogatory characteristics to those he disagrees with. On what basis does Mr King know, or can even reasonably assume, that writers use adverbs out of fear? This may well be Mr King’s opinion, he is clearly not a timid writer himself, but it cannot be justified. If it is the case, considering the use of adverbs by the giants of English Literature, we seem to have had an inordinate number of fearful writers in their tremulous ranks.

It goes without saying that Mr King provides not a scintilla of evidence for this breathtaking claim. Indeed, simply remove the term afraid and you have an excellent case for adverbs right there.

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

And that’s when one reaches for the adverb box. That’s what adverbs are FOR, Mr King.

By the way, how did that ‘usually’ get in there? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Mr King is a professional.

Mr King then continues with a technique I see on all such sites. To use carefully chosen examples that exemplify his case. Cherry picking we fallacy spotters call it.

Of course that is fine, per se, as long as his case is simply that adverbs can be misused, as can all parts of speech. It is the jump to the conclusion that all (or, at least, the vast majority of) adverbs ‘pave the road to hell’ that is totally invalid.

Mr King’s example:

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

1. Ask yourself what writing would be like if only words that really (sic) have to be there were permitted. Writing is not the impartation of information in as succinct a manner as possible.

2. Context. Mr King happily invents a context in which the word firmly is entailed by the preceding prose, and concludes that therefore the word is unnecessary. This is the logical fallacy of petition principii or ‘begging the question’. He is assuming what he wants to prove.

What, for example, if it is the opening sentence? Then consider

He closed the door firmly. His class sat nervously.

Does this not begin to create an atmosphere and add information where ‘He closed the door. His class sat.’ does not?

To me ‘He closed the door firmly’ reads better than ‘He closed the door.’ The latter seems flat and uninteresting, but that is a subjective view, of course.

3. The fact that the preceding might be written in such a manner as to make the adverb redundant does not require it to be written like that. The use of the adverb may add to the preceding passage. Writing is about opening up different possible ways of expressing something, not shutting them down.

Now,’ he said, ‘remain here in your seats until I return.’ He left, closing the door firmly behind him.

4. Although Mr King does not mention this, I am told that adverbs can, and should, be replaced by an alternative figure of speech.

For example ‘He said delightedly’ can be replaced by ‘He said with delight’. This, to me, encapsulates the nonsense of adverbophobia. I accept there may be the odd and marginal occasion where one may be stylistically preferred to the other, but in what possible way can the adverb be regarded as noticeably inferior to an adverbial phrase?

The even more amazing claim that the use of an adverb means that the author has not chosen the correct verb is so manifestly absurd as to deserve being passed over in pitying silence.

Mr King ‘insist(s) that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it.

If this isn’t dogmatic and grandiose assertion I’ve never heard it. 

He gives three examples. I shall content myself with one.

‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.

Compared to

‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

According to Mr King the latter is 'weaker' than the former, 'and most readers will see why immediately.'

Well, I don’t see why, and I’m not afraid of saying so. I note, in passing, that Mr King does not see fit to inform us poor, ignorant souls what IS wrong with it. The implication appears to be that anyone who disagrees is obviously someone who lacks the taste, discrimination or aesthetic appreciation to see it.

Nor am I impressed by the argumentum ad populum (the argument to common belief), even if it is true. Yet another logical fallacy.

I am quite prepared to say that I personally prefer the balance of the second sentence and the useful information about the tone.

By way of an amusing aside, well, I found it amusing, after writing this I stumbled across a Stephen King book in a second-hand bookshop. The Waste Lands. I opened it at random (page 304) and found myself reading '‘How reassuring,’ Eddie said sourly.' Tut tut.

I have my suspicions that ‘most’ readers would simply not agree with Mr King. Has he carried out any objective survey before making his unqualified assertion? I have. Totally unscientific, I admit, and with an extremely small sample size of 25 people, but at least I made some attempt to check the assertion.

I was not surprised, though Mr King ought to be, that 72% opted for the sentence with the adverb as ‘better’ while 20% expressed no preference. A mere 8% agreed with Mr King’s assessment.

I would doubt that any of these dogmatic assertions about style have ever been ‘tested’ in even the most rudimentary ways. They all seem to rely on an appeal to authority (yet another fallacy). Some celebrity authors take their own stylistic preferences as gospel and it becomes the unthinking norm.

On another aside, I assumed, as most readers would, that the sentence actually came from Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It doesn’t, so I wonder why Mr King invented it?  The book actually contains plenty of genuine cases of adverbs in dialogue tags - good-naturedly, hoarsely, peevishly, complainingly, sharply, sulkily, coolly, musingly, gloomily, doggedly etc.

I will accept that many honestly find that adverbs do stand out for them and feel wrong. Now, this is just a hypothesis and founded on nothing but the results of simple surveys such as the one above, but I suspect that this is probably due, in many cases, to the well-known psychological traits of sensitisation, peer pressure and confirmation bias. Heuristics of the mind that we are all heir to, so that is not intended to be pejorative in any sense.

I am NOT saying that adverbial use should not be criticised, where it is inappropriate, redundant, clumsy or excessive. That is down to the usual subjective qualifications. But when adverbs are criticised for simply being adverbs it is time to take a stand. 

I shall finish this little rant with a final passage from Mr King - a wonderful example of hyperbole that commits the slippery slope fallacy- use one adverb and you will soon be overrun by them. OK, I know he is being comedic, but he really would benefit from a tutorial on rational argumentation. 

‘Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.’

Well, I wouldn’t say you are tiresome and anally-retentive, Mr King. But I say that ironically.

I hastily retire to my blast bunker and nervously await developments.

Regards to all,

Harp.

Donations to the ‘Save Our Adverbs’ Appeal may be sent to Harpalycus on Critique Circle. Anything that makes a ticking noise will be returned to the sender.

Posted by Chris Welch 25 Apr 2016 at 02:44
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