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Friday, February 11, 2011

In Defense of Adverbs

Rule number 5 in my own “9 Rules for Writing” (February 5th Post) is avoid adverbs. And it’s a good rule, too. Really.

Except I have a sneaking fondness for adverbs, even the weasily wimpy ones.

So what’s wrong with adverbs in the first place? They’re a perfectly valid part of speech, worthy to hold their place alongside pronouns and prepositions, right? Well, for one thing, adverbs don’t exactly know what they are. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. There’s something essentially indecent about a part of speech that likes to modify itself. And when an adverb is doing its job – and how well can it do it, when it has so many jobs to do? – it’s usually saying something unflattering about the author; it’s probably either propping up a word that was somewhat slipshod in the first place, chosen haphazardly and requiring additional reinforcement from a stapled-on modifier, or else watering down a bold and daring word with a craven equivocation.

I don’t care. I still like adverbs. I tell myself I can take them or leave them, but the next thing I know, I’m snuggled up to a great big adverb, letting its big floppy –ly dangle all over my syntax. And what’s worse – I blush to admit this – I even like adverbs like certainly, of course, and doubtless. I like essentially. I don’t know if I could ever do without perhaps.

These are the worst of the rogue’s gallery of adverbs. If adverbs were Dick Tracy villains, Certainly and Of Course would be Prune Face and Flat Top.

Of course, these adverbs do have a meaning.

Look at the above sentence. The purist – and by “purist,” I mean, sniveling kill-joy – will say that if anything is “of course,” it’s something everybody knows already, so it doesn’t need to be said, and therefore “of course” either doesn’t add any meaning to the sentence or makes the sentence unnecessary. But of course does have a meaning! I insist it does! (At this moment, imagine me pounding a nearby table with my fist.) The of course does mean this is something everyone already knows, but that’s the beauty of it! It’s a sneaky way of getting the reader to subconsciously agree with something, assuming it’s already an accepted fact. The phrase “it goes without saying” accomplishes the same thing, but it takes more words.

So in spite of Rule #5, which tells us to avoid pronouns, and it’s true, their overuse is a slippery slope, a pronoun, even a weakling pronoun like of course, has its place, and is in its way, irreplaceable.

Do you get my point? Of course you do. It goes without saying.

I rest my case.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely!

    I write like I talk, but then I have to go back and edit out all of the "bad things". But once in a while, I'll re-read and think, "I like the original better" and back they (at least a few of them) go!