When my son started to speak, he did many of the normal, sweet things toddlers do. He mispronounced words, used improper sentence structure, and—most horrifying of all—he ad-adverbed. Yeah, you read that right. He doubled adverbs. His favourite was ‘alsoly.’
Are you kidding me?
I had only been writing in earnest for about two years, and his crimes against words made me think I’d birthed a monster.
You may be a new writer; you may have experience galore. But by now you’ve probably noticed that the most effective way to start a riot at a writer’s party is to stand up, clink your glass for attention, and declare, “Adverbs are wonderful!”
What is it about adverbs that causes a room full of book-nerds to lose their collective minds? After all, the adverb is only one of many parts of speech. Its job is to modify a verb, to change the meaning of the action in a subtle, or not so-subtle way. A brief rundown of some common adverbs are:
also / only / very / just / and pretty much every word ending in -ly when it acts on a verb.
The common adverb has become a battleground in a war being fought on multiple fronts, which include the no-man’s land of Passive vs. Active Voice and the great divide of Show, Don’t Tell. So, who are these combatants and what are their positions?
Our first army, brightly coloured banners blowing, are the Lyrical. We won’t sacrifice our lovely, individual voices for one which is conformist and unadorned, they cry.
Next, entrenched in deep foxholes, are the Direct. Use of adverbs is weak. Demonstrates lack of vocabulary. A strong, accurate verb is available in every circumstance.
Last, cautiously navigating between the others, are the Nuanced. Those of us in this alliance are tired of the in-fighting and name calling between those other cry-babies (yeah, I went there). We recognize (and sometimes agonize) over word-choice. Each is selected with care for accuracy and effect. There’s a big difference between someone speaking softly, whispering, murmuring, or slurring. All those actions could be described as speaking softly, yet all are unique. Sometimes speaking softly is exactly what’s called for.
To-adverb-or-not-to-adverb is representative of a host of common debates among those who love words. Debate can be a wonderful thing. Healthy discussion promotes clear thinking about our story-craft choices. It can lead to awareness of our own habits, and experimentation with different approaches, both things I favour.
However, no matter how passionate or intense the debate, I believe there are no ‘rules’ which can’t be broken. The real trick for any writer is applying your ever-growing awareness of ‘rules’ in a way which lets you pen the best story you can.
No writer is perfect, and no book will be perfect for all readers. But no matter which camp you belong to—no matter what your philosophy on writing—you’ll never lack for conversation so long as you’re happy to discuss adverbs over your drink of choice.
Make mine a rum.
This is an entry from my bestselling* book, A is for Adverb: An Alphabet for Authors in Agony. To read the entire alphabet, join me weekly for #WriteTipTuesday. If you’re in a rush, get the whole book free by signing up here, or do this writer a solid and buy the book on Amazon. I would kiss you if the internet wasn’t totally in my way.
*Totally a bestseller for, like, a day on Amazon.ca. I have pictures to prove it!