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Tricky little things

08 February 2016 08:17

How about a spot of debate? No, no, nothing heavy. I'm writing this late on a Friday afternoon and the heaviest thing I'm in the mood for is a large slice of warm chocolate fudge cake, topped with a melt-in-the-mouth dollop of vanilla-infused ice cream. So I'm not suggesting anything political, social or even vaguely spiritual. I'm talking ... wait for it ... adverbs.


Yes, I know, but as you may or may not be aware, there is a debate around adverbs. Quite heated at times it seems, if any of my Googlings are an accurate representation of how numerous writers and creative writing tutors respond to the little critters. There's a definite divide: those who see adverbs as evil infiltrators of language that should be banned, flung forever into the nether regions of grammar hell - and those who've never heard anything so ridiculous in all their lives and if we're banning adverbs, why not ban adjectives, nouns and verbs too ... Seriously, I sense a lot of desk-thumping going on out there.


When I was at school, I was taught by my various English teachers that a verb is a doing word. I've never liked that definition (don't know why, just makes me prickle), but I suppose it does serve to sum up a verb's purpose. A verb tells you what someone is doing. And what does the adverb do? It qualifies the action expressed through the verb. Which is fair enough, isn't it? It makes someone smile 'impishly', or laugh 'heartily', or shout 'loudly', or march 'purposefully', or flinch 'painfully' or ...


Ah. And therein lies the problem for the 'get-them-out' thumpers. I suppose if you flinch, then 'painfully' is an unnecessary qualification. The action of flinching of itself suggests pain is involved. Presumably the narrative leading up to the moment of the flinch would have described the painful instance resulting in the inevitable 'ouch' moment - thereby making 'painfully' redundant. And as for shouting 'loudly', has anyone ever shouted softly? Unlikely, although I like to think my mind is open to the possibility. (I did once write an essay exploring prison life called 'The Silent Screaming'.) As for marching 'purposefully', what other way is there to march? And let's face it, aren't 'impishly' and 'heartily' just - well - a bit cliché?


The 'get-them-outs' would call writers who rely on the use of adverbs, lazy. Instead of creating a narrative that shows through an unfolding characterisation or situation how someone might move or speak or think - or flinch - adverbs are the cop-out. They tell what should already be evident. Or at the very least implicit. Should it ever be necessary to describe someone as talking angrily? Shouldn't the anger be integral to the content of the text at that moment?


And what of the other camp - those who swear by adverbs? Who think they add richness to text, depth to the action; who want the reassurance of reading (or the freedom to write) exactly how someone speaks or moves or thinks; who, immersed in a book, like to be given it straight - not coaxed or manipulated to an understanding or realisation. Perhaps they would be accused of being lazy readers.  


Everything has its time, I suppose. Who knows? Perhaps adverbs have had their day. But maybe the old adage, 'Everything in moderation', holds good even on points of English grammar. Good writing, we're taught these days, should be pared back and precise, not littered with non-necessities that clutter the page and do nothing to drive the action forward. In other words, stick to the nitty gritty and you won't go far wrong. But if there are odd and infrequent phrases where a cleverly inserted adverb might just enhance the flavour of a particular written moment that tiny bit more, then perhaps they shouldn't be shunned completely? (Yes, I did intend to use the adverb 'completely' there. Only suddenly I find myself asking, 'Can anything be shunned slightly ...?')


Yes, tricky little things, adverbs.


Now, where's that's chocolate fudge cake? Oh, and in case you're wondering, that old adage I just mentioned? It hasn't ever applied to chocolate fudge cake. Not in this camp.


With thanks to Lydia Tewkesbury (follow @LydiaTK on Twitter) for blog inspiration.