« Shabbos Frivolity: My Greenhorn Cousin | Main | Giants! Wizards! Elves! »

Father, daughter and lolly

The excellent Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote On Adverbs the other day. There is, you know, a Rule of Writing that is given more or less as don’t use adverbs; this is not entirely Strunk and White’s fault, but it comes from what you might call Strunkian thinking. I loathe that rule.

But something occurred to me, when I was reading Mr. Rosenbaum’s note. Mr. Rosenbaum, by the way, was neither defending the rule nor attacking it, but was sensibly pointing out that adverbs, as tools, have good uses and bad, and thoughtful placement of adverbs was part of some good writing. That is, he rejected the extreme form of the rule, which one would think would be a straw man if one hadn’t had conversations with people who believe that adverbs are the sign of Bad Writing—also the passive voice, the split infinitive, the sentence modifier, and beginning a sentence with and. But I am speaking here of adverbs, as was Mr. Rosenbaum, and he interrupts himself in an offhand way, the way he does, with this parenthesis: Adverbs (of the kind you mean; "now" is after all also an adverb, but you don’t mean that).

Wait, what? In one sweep, Mr. Rosenbaum sweeps away the bulk of my rejection of the Bad Adverb Rule. He simply acknowledges that the word adverb in the Bad Adverb Rule doesn’t mean the same thing as the word adverb in a grammatical study. He doesn’t mock the idea, and he doesn’t even explain what an adverb really is, to show the stupidity of the rule. I have used the opening sentence of The Stranger to highlight the absurdity of the rule, and would in fact challenge any strict defender to improve the opening; Mr. Rosenbaum just (wearily? Or is that my imagination) moves on to the adverbs of the kind you mean. I stand amazed by this. It would never have occurred to me, not in a million years. Just of the kind you mean and move on. Wow.

So, I’m starting to wonder if the rule does in fact have some use when restricted to adverbs of the kind you mean. The problem is that having, to my earliest recollection of knowing how I wanted to write, what kinds of writing I wanted to imitate, rejected Strunkian thinking entirely and certainly rejected the Bad Adverb rule, I honestly have no idea what adverbs are of the kind you mean. That is—yes, I can quickly rule out a bunch that are not of the kind you mean, like Mr. Camus’ famous one. Or in sentences like She lives downstairs from me or He arrived early; perhaps the Bad Adverb people do not want us to rewrite those sentences to use adjectives instead. Which leaves things in the she drove slowly, slowly through the woods and The flash was blindingly bright; are those the ones they mean?

Part of my problem is that I don’t believe in adverbs at all anymore. I blame the Language Log for this. There just doesn’t seem to be any definition of adverb that satisfies me, even with the syndrome-based concept of definition that grammar seems to require. Nouns? Nouns are complicated, but they do seem to exist. Verbs? Sure, verbs. Adjectives? I suppose that the category of modifiers-that-only-apply-to-nouns is well-defined enough to accept. But adverbs? What the hell are adverbs? Or, rather, what the hell isn’t an adverb?

If you give me a piece of writing, I think I can identify the adverbs in it, but if the writing is at all complicated, I’m going to identify everything else, and then just double-check what is left to make sure they don’t fit another category, and then call ’em adverbs, and that’s how I identify adverbs these days. Which is, perhaps, why I hate the rule so much.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

That’s the opening paragraph of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Take a moment and identify the adverbs. There are, I think, three in the first sentence and one in the second, not counting adverbial phrases and clauses, of which there are at least a dozen. I also have no idea if the rule is generally considered to apply to adverbial phrases—it would make no logical sense to claim that adverbs weaken prose and distance the reader from the narrative (or whatever the argument is ) but that adverbial phrases are good strong vibrant immediate writing, but then it would make no logical sense to send people scouring their writing for adverbs if you mean adverbial phrases as well, which are trickier to spot. Anyway, there’s a paragraph, and there are the adverbs.

Now, many Gentle Readers will, YHB imagines, find that paragraph to be Bad Writing. I love it. I adore this book, and I adore the way that Mrs. Gaskell writes, and I like (it turns out) quite a bit of this nineteenth-century style of storytelling. Is it distant? Perhaps it is, I am not altogether sure. Certainly the writer is present, and stands between the reader and the story. Some people find that boring, and if you don’t like the writer, you can’t forget about her, and that will inhibit your enjoyment of the story. Which is why I accept that many people will never enjoy reading the works of Charles Dickens; if you aren’t fond of his voice, you can’t enjoy his stories. It does not follow that the stories are Bad Writing.

I’m not denying the existence of Bad Writing, mind you. I’m just saying that there’s more than one kind of writing that isn’t Bad, and some of the writing that isn’t Bad has adverbs.

Now, I’m talking about storytelling and fiction writing, but Gentle Readers will have already noted that YHB applies this to blog writing as well; my stylistic attempts, whether successful or not, adhere to my own sensibility and taste, and not to Strunkian thinking or any other theory of writing. This is not because I am a Good Writer—I’m not even a careful writer—but then I don’t know why I would approach the thing any different if I were to think myself a Good Writer. And when I advise My Perfect Non-Reader in her writing, which she has begun to do, I do not tell her to avoid doing those things that a Good Writer can do, and stick to those things that a Beginning Writer can do—or worse, simply avoid doing the things that a Bad Writer does. I tell her to write the way the writing calls for, whether that is the dreaded and dreadful Five Paragraph Essay or a play for her and her friends to put on. I suspect that this means she will run up against an assignment where she will limit her use of adverbs (or at any rate adverbs of the kind you mean) in order to get a good grade, and I will encourage her to do it, while explaining why I think it’s a terrible rule.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


As I recall, in my Morphology class, there was an argument that in English, adjectives and adverbs aren't actually distinct categories. We don't have adjectives and adverbs, we just have A, and sometimes there are markers to indicate that a particular A is modifying a verb. I don't know if that's current, though.

And since you mentioned Strunk & White, I point you to this XKCD: http://xkcd.com/923/

I'm confused. I don't see very many if any adverbs in that opening paragraph. Adverbs modify verbs or other adjectives, if I recall correctly. I'm seeing adjectives and prepositions and adjectival phrases, but I'm missing the adverbs. What are you counting as adverbs in there?

Well, I think the adverbial phrases and clauses include in a country and in that shire and so on, along with for fear and until six o'clock struck and of herself and as sure as clockwork. Single word adverbs, and I am even less sure about this, include wide in wide awake, very in very little peace and afterwards just, well, afterwards. I'm not sure if early counts as an adverb in the adverbial phrase early as it was—I'm not sure how I would diagram that one, but it seems to modify the was in the room was, or maybe in it was a June morning.

Also, is not an adverb in not daring to do so? I can't think of any other part of speech it would be, by the scheme that has adverbs in it. That, certainly, would not be an adverb of the kind you mean.


I get very steamed whenever I even see an argument that using adverbs is really bad, so hopefully people will totally get over not liking adverbs so much.

I just came across a web page that had a version of the advice that makes sense: instead of using a general verb and a specific adverb, use a specific verb and no adverb. Thus, instead of went quickly use strode or rushed or ran. I would endorse this at least to the extent that a writer should try substituting the verb to see if it works.

I am reminded, however, of something that Fran Lebowitz told Terry Gross in an interview, unless I am misremembering who it was in what circumstances… anyway, Ms. Gross asked Ms. Lebowitz about revising and rewriting, and Ms. Lebowitz said that once she actually got a sentence down on to paper, if she were to revise it she would have to find new words with the same syllable count and stress pattern. The rhythm of the language was absolutely paramount to her, she said, and that having decided on the rhythm for a sentence or a paragraph, she wasn't going to change it.

Now, I happen to love writing with lovely rhythms to it. This is true particularly for comic writing or poetry or dialogue, but it's hard for me to imagine that attention to rhythm would harm any writing. As such, it is possible that a sentence would call for a verb-adverb pair rather than a single verb, however powerful that verb might be.

Now that I am thinking about it, I wonder if in non-fiction writing, academic or journalism or such, adverbs provide nearly the only opportunity for springing or unspringing rhythms in your sentences. I would have to think about it and look at examples, but things that you can do in an essay or a short story—repeating words for emphasis, fragmenting a sentence, using dashes or ellipses—and y'all know how much I love my dashes and ellipses—you just can't do in a newspaper article or textbook.


Morphology is a linguistic thing; linguistics and grammar are different; and grammar and style are a third thing, entirely. In a morphological sense, I think you're correct, Stephen, that in XP, sometimes X is A, and sometimes A is adj and other times it's adv, at least in X-bar theory, and I further believe you're also correct that X-bar theory is not State of the Art.

I don't think, though, that linguistics is an apt way of describing writing, any more than physics is an apt way of describing a pleasant country drive. Honestly, grammar isn't much better. As a teacher of writing, I make it plain that I teach a style, and that style has a name, and it's Standard Edited Academic English. It is an amazingly boring style, but it can be quite useful in avoiding the steely witches glare of schoolmarmish thugs. Like V, I enjoy hearing the writer's voice in a book, and Standard etc is designed specifically with eliminating the writer's voice in mind.

It can be a useful way of writing, especially in circumstances where the writer's voice might get in the way of the purpose of writing. If the writer's voice is that of a semi-educated GED holder, for example, said GED holder may fail to secure a job interview. Hence, my Foundations of English remedial writing class. I basically tell my students to KISS and eliminate style entirely. A useful skill to have, to be sure, and a style in which "get rid of adverbs" is a fine adage.

However, Ben Rosenbaum, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Winston Churchill, William Vollmann, James Joyce - even V and you readers of his blog - even I am not the sort of person for whom that is a valuable rule. Anyone who has written enough to be able to write character can switch from Writing With Voice to Writing Without. And when you can do that, you know... go hog wild with it. Use the cliche when the cliche is the right tool; split boldly infinitives that never were split before; double - yea! - triple your negatives, little butterfly; freely end that sentence, if the sentence you must end, a preposition with!

It's your damn sentence, after all.


I make it plain that I teach a style … an amazingly boring style, but it can be quite useful

See, it seems to me that this is what you are doing right. The Number One Rule of Writing, as far as I'm concerned, is to know what sort of thing you are writing and for whom. And the ability to write dull Standard prose happens to be incredibly useful. Alas.

Because it seems to me that Strunk and his accomplice have created a world where mastery of that one style of writing is seen to be so useful that the one style is all that is taught to many kids, and often (yes, I am going by anecdote here, so I am willing to believe that it isn't as often as I claim) instead of being taught that it is a style, teens are taught that it is Good Writing. And it ain't.

Because I am convinced that anybody can write in different styles, because I believe that everybody does talk in different styles—I suspect your students are quite adept at code-switching in speech—but they have to know that it is possible to do deliberately. And, as you say, have practice at it.


Well, and I think that there is confusion in the pedagogical world where teachers are taught that they should teach "proper" English, and blah blah. There is also confusion in human nature to want to do things correctly, and people have an expectation that teachers are teaching them to do Englishy things correctly where doing Englishy things, really, like writing, is an art, not a science.

Hopefully, my students will learn that code switching is possible, and they will become adept at least at switching into that particular code.


Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.