Hard-working adverbs

I came across the passage below in Ben Yagoda’s book The Sound on the Page. It discusses the old chestnut of how writers should eschew all adverbs, finding some agreement with it, but more to my taste, finding the proper and powerful use of adverbs to be desirable as well. The Hitchens he refers to in this quote is Christopher Hitchens. (This book does a lot of writerly convention busting, including a passage dismissing in part the style conventions advocated in Strunk and White.)

Adverbs are rightfully scorned because of all the people who use weaselly modifiers like rather/pretty and somewhat/a little to avoid coming out and saying what they really mean, or empty intensifiers such as really, incredibly, and profoundly to do their work for them. Hitchens is more precise. In an essay about anti-Semitism he writes, “Even as a wretchedly heretic and bastard member of the tribe [he did not discover his mother was Jewish until he was an adult], I perhaps conceitedly think that there may be something about Jews’ being inherently and intuitively smart.” Wretchedly, perhaps, conceitedly, inherently, intuitively: maybe there’s one too many, but the basic idea is sound. Each word palpably nudges an adjective or noun until it falls into its proper place with a satisfying click.

I’ve read on many blogs and in countless how-to books about the evils of adverbs. It’s pleasant to see a thoughtful discussion of their value and uses in contrast to knee-jerk parroting of rules. I’ve said before, though, that I think many writers want a rule book (even if they don’t follow it) to make them feel comfortable with the hard work of writing.

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One Comment on “Hard-working adverbs”

  1. Like any other tool of the writing trade, adverbs should be used sparingly.

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