Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?

The Sin of the Adverb

with 6 comments

Some time ago—I am not sure when, but just like death, taxes, and Starbucks raising its prices, it is now an established certainty—adverbs became taboo.  I go along with the trend just like any savvy writer.  Adverbs perch themselves right on the nose, and infringe upon a reader’s imagination like a misplaced colon.  For example…

“I love you,” she said sincerely.

I should not, under any circumstances, have to be told how she said it—I should be able to pick it up through her actions.  “I love you,” she said, and touched his hand.  Or, “I love you,” she spat, and slammed the door. 

I am told that the adverbial sin can squash a writer’s chance at publication.  Editors will not take you seriously, they say.  Among the stack of authors guilty of this shameless act, J.K. Rowling receives much of the flack for some reason.  And for no other reason than that I can, I wanted to highlight another egregious sinner…

Take Terry Brooks.  Brooks has earned scads of money on what he openly (see, sometimes you just can’t avoid it) admits was a riff on Tolkien.  Here’s an excerpt from page 3 of The Sword of Shannara:

A low-hanging branch brushing against his head caused Flick to start suddenly and leap to one side. In chagrin, he straightened himself and glared back at the leafy obstacle before continuing his journey at a slightly quicker pace.  He was deep in the lowland forest now and only slivers of moonlight were able to find their way through the thick boughs overhead to light the winding path dimly.  It was so dark that Flick was having trouble finding the trail, and as he studied the lay of the land ahead he again found himself conscious of the heavy silence.  It was as if all life had been suddenly extinguished, and he alone remained to find his way out of this forest tomb.  Again he recalled the strange rumors.  He felt a bit anxious in spite of himself and glanced worriedly around.  (Brooks, Terry.  The Sword of Shannara.  NewYork: DelRey, 1977.)

That is, count ‘em, four adverbs in a single paragraph.  From a book that not only stayed a while on the NY Times Bestseller list, but spawned 15 other novels. 

Please do not take this to mean I think Brooks a terrible writer—there are some places where his prose really shines.  He spins a great tale.  But adverbs, even in their excessive use, do not always spell doom for the aspiring writer.  They are still something to avoid, but not something on which to pin your talent.  Like ending a sentence in a preposition, like I almost did. 


Written by taj

September 5, 2007 at 8:57 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Adverb Nazi…



    Although you are grammatically correct. But in my determination, the proper rules of grammar are not what bring people to read books. The plot and characters are of more importance.

    Take Hemingway for example. You’ve probably heard the joke where various writers try to answer the age old question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and the Hemingway response is:

    To die. In the rain.

    Two sentence fragments, but that’s how he wrote. And the punctuated style definitely served him well. It does things that writing the grammatically correct “The chicken crossed the road to die in the rain” just cannot convey: a harsh, brutal one-two punch.

    King is another good example. He will often write words as they sound (and I don’t just mean “Ayuh!”) without concern for proper grammar. For instance, you might have a character say: “Workin on it.” The “Workin” is presented without the apostrophe.

    We can see more grammar violations with the commonplace usage of words like “gonna” and “kinda” too. Not to mention the Dan Brown method of short paragraphs.

    Sometimes made of only sentence fragments.

    It violates the rules of grammar but makes the book feel more real, like someone is actually telling it to you face to face. People naturally speak elliptically and with very poor grammar…but if you’re not writing a scholarly work, why concern yourself with that? (Although, that said, I know that I, like Brooks, have an overtendency to use the word “suddenly”…but this is Bush’s fault.)


    September 5, 2007 at 9:36 pm

  2. Oh, and I also quote (I believe) Churchill who said:

    “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.”


    September 5, 2007 at 9:40 pm

  3. Granted and agreed. It is Bush’s fault.

    Really, though, I dislike the adverb for one reason–it tells me how to think. I violate the rules of grammar probably twenty times in a post . All. the. time. You’re right, it punctuates the writing.

    But I maintain that, while Brooks’s use of adverbs given in the example above are forgivable, the use of “she said sincerely” or any such derivative just makes me want to throw the book through the wall. But that’s me. I do not ever take it to mean that the story is poor, or that the writer has no talent.


    September 5, 2007 at 11:00 pm

  4. I don’t think it annoys me as much as you guys. It bothers my wife and her friend Heather. Especially Heather, I think.

    What is killing me right now is trying to read JK Rowling out loud with the way she mish-mashes her sounds together so my tongue wants to slam the door and walk out on the job. Angrily.

    I just tried to find an example, but couldn’t do it quickly, so I’ll try to post one when I find it again. But it goes something like:

    “Heck of a hot day at Hogwarts, huh, Harry?” said Hermione happily.


    September 6, 2007 at 8:03 am

  5. I was enthusiastically reading your post and fervantly agreeing with the points you were clearly making when I found myself happily responding with this quick note of support!


    September 6, 2007 at 8:58 am

  6. I agree with Andrew. You can’t get through a page of a Harry Potter book without 4-5 obnoxious adverbs leaping off the page at you. They got worse with each book. I think her editors stopped worrying about her writing style when she’d earned her first $100 million.


    September 24, 2007 at 1:01 pm

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