Monday, March 27, 2017

Adverbs and the Road to Hell

While many languages are romantic and flowing, English is muscular and lean. It permits a direct discourse of cause to effect: subject kicks object.

English is well-suited for marketing and exaggeration. The adjective assumes a higher importance than the thing. The adjective precedes the noun. What strikes with more force in the following sentences? It was a bright cold day in April. . . or, I am an invisible man. Day and man have a secondary emphasis to bright, cold and invisible. The adjective can replace and become the noun: The Bold and the Beautiful. The adjective can follow an indicative verb and the noun equals the adjective. I am cold.

English stylists of the terse school of writing have long declared that the most important part of speech is the verb. If you select the right verb, you've constructed a forceful sentence. I phrase this advice as: "Choose the strongest, most vivid verb your sentence will allow."

From MacBeth's soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's [is] but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We have vivid movement verbs carrying a heavy weight: creeps, struts, frets. We have the sensory verbs; lighted, heard, told. As in death, the light is to be snuffed out (out!). Even the humble verb "is" is used to equate two nouns: Life equals a walking shadow; Life equals a tale told by an idiot. What does all this mean? Shadows, idiot tales, poor players, fools. It signifies nothing.

In line with the supremacy of the verb, stylists consider the adverb to be the lowliest part of speech. The adverb says: I didn't get the verb right and now I have to modify it. Ben Blatt, in his sprightly look at literature by the numbers, Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature cites Stephen King's advice, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Adverbs are like cholesterol: you have the good and the bad forms. Blatt divided out the bad form: the -ly adverbs, and then counted. Stephen King uses 105 -ly adverbs per 100,000 words. Hemingway, a spare 80. Blatt further goes on to demonstrate that many authors have fewer adverbs in their most acclaimed books. Faulkner had 31 and 42 adverbs per 100,000 words in As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, respectively, but had 130 or more in the forgettable (and forgotten) Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes.


Blatt examines Elmore Leonard's writing advice. One rule admonishes against the use of the adverb, "suddenly." He shows graphically how Leonard over his career had forty plus suddenlys per 100,000 words in his first four books and not once in his last nine novels.

How do mystery novelists perform with "suddenly?" In marking the performance of 52 authors, Blatt includes the performance of five who were primarily mystery writers.

Suddenlys per 100,000 words

Dan Brown, 59
Agatha Christie, 46.
James Patterson (22 Alex Cross books), 38.
Gillian Flynn 29.
Elmore Leonard 9.

This group fairs more poorly than the median rate for all authors he analyzed (24 per 100,000). Dan Brown has more suddenlys than some authors have total adverbs. I have no doubt he is laughing raucously all the way to the bank.

How well do I perform? I have three published novels and one novella. These average out at 71 adverbs per 100,000 and 3 suddenlys/100,000. While I don't go out of my way to follow Leonard's rules, they have invaded my writing style.

I have previously characterized Elmore Leonard's rules as: Do not write like a 19th century author whose fainting couch overfloweth.

While composing this post I was reading Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, (1908), a classic in the genre of spooky house with mysterious goings-on. I could not help but noting, again and again, adverbs modifying everything. After finishing I tallied up the incidents: 140 adverbs and 36 suddenlys per 100,000 words.

The rate of the use of the word "suddenly" by seven mystery writers. Patterson represents James Patterson's 22 Alex Cross novels. Rinehart is Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. Most of this data came from Blatt's book, referenced above.

In Praise of the Adverb.

The terse, lean language advocated in The Elements of Style and by others is not the only worthwhile form. Choosing to write effusively, rather than directly, is another choice. English can be a nimble language and its phrasing can be made to reflect that of the romantic languages.

From my pre-adolescent days, I remember reading a Reader's Digest article that spoke of a study which found that people who used adverbs in their speech were more likeable (and you can be more likeable using adverbs!). Ever since, I've noted authors who exploit this. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." (The movie version. The book version had two adverbs in the sentence). Within dialogue, exclamation points and adverbs and indirect speech serve to make a character colorful. My personal touchstone example of indirectness and repetition being used to make a character endearing is M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly. For example, "There might be naked female personnel showering in there with their clothes off!" and "Of course I could, but I'm not. I mean, I do, but I didn't!" I can't find the quote online, but from memory: "You're a female woman of the lady gender."

So, why all of these admonitions against adverbs? They are often found among the laziest and most amateur of writing. Good writing is never lazy. Good writing chocked full of adverbs and imprecision demands an even steadier hand at the helm: you are traversing choppy waters.


How Well Do Famous Authors Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing? Part One.
How Well Do Famous Authors Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing? Part Two.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


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