Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Defense of Adverbs (etc.)

I see the admonition frequently. No adverbs. They weaken the bones. This is sometimes expanded into the advice that all extra words should be summarily exorcised. Except, of course, they wouldn’t use the word ‘summarily.’ Or, probably, ‘of course.’ Or ‘probably.’ Probably.
And here's where I get to my point. Yes, words weaken our work when those words are unnecessary. But what was unnecessary to, say, Raymond Carver may be vital to Jennifer Egan. Which is to say: all words can serve a purpose. Adverbs are not, I believe, inherently bad. They are easily abused, that’s for sure. They are the gateway drug to purple prose. To prose whose ornamentations blunt its power. But there are times when what might at first glance appear to be ornamentation—those flourishes and the those uses of the linguistically baroque—are, on further review, a powerful part of the prose. Indeed, they can often be an important aspect of what we call voice.
When voice was first mentioned to me, I wasn’t sure what the hell it was. I sensed it had something to do with syntactical choices, as if voice was a formula for producing sentences. I was wrong, obviously. But I wasn’t wrong wrong. Because there is an element of voice that enters the syntactical. And that often has something to do with the preponderance of flourishes. Of adverbs. Of asides. Of conversationality (but, of course, you see…). These ‘unnecessary’ words can give a story a certain pop, a unique rhythm that enhances rather than detracts from the artistic/emotional/enjoyment impact.
They also give us a sense of the writer’s consciousness. Meaning, it is through the way a writer uses language that we enter their interior world. We see things the way they see things. Even when we’re being led through a story by a character or characters, we are still within the writer’s consciousness. The greatest writers expand our view of the world by forcing us to tilt our heads and see things from a different vantage. And that vantage is, by the nature of the craft, their vantage.
I believe the admonition to delete so-called unnecessary words can flatten prose to the point that we no longer have access to a writer’s consciousness. That helps create what is often (erroneously) called MFA-style writing. Those sentences that haven’t been carefully constructed so much as they have been industriously pruned. Those voices that don’t invite us into a consciousness but rather try to impress (or at least avoid offense) with their technical precision. That is the kind of writing I often see and almost never enjoy.
I am making a broad claim, I realize. Just as I realize that a wonton use of language can be equally alienating. There is room for a thousand opinions when it comes to craft. But the more I write and (more importantly) the more I read, the more I fall in love with those so-called extra words. Those embellishments. Those much-maligned adverbs.
Our language is a vast and roiling pool. I like the idea of diving deep and barely making it up for air.


  1. I was just teaching a class and had a whole discussion on adverbs - why didn' tyou write this a week ago :)

  2. Strong bones are good. But give me some organs, muscles, sinews, and skin as well. And a little fat, yes, in the right places. Judiciously-used adverbs can provide all that that in a work of prose.

    Unpublished writer, swimming against the current. Just my opinion.

  3. (Crumb. I typed "that" twice in the next-to-the-last line. Mea culpa.)