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On Target: Rehabilitating the adverb

The adverb has long been considered the enemy of every good writer. Stephen King once wrote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” H. L. Mencken called the adverb “at best, the stepchild of grammar,” and in The Elements of Style, the venerable Strunk and White declared that qualifiers—a subclass of adverbs including “rather,” “very,” “little,” and “pretty”—are “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

These men, the adverb’s detractors, feel that the adverb is a piece of useless fluff. An adverb describes a verb or an adjective, and no competent writer, of course, has any business describing anything. Good, strong, lusty prose, as Strunk or White might say, needs to rely only on nouns and verbs to get its point across. 

The adverb shunners aren’t wrong. Although their intent is to add detail, adverbs are often distracting. Qualifiers can turn an otherwise convincing sentence into a puddle. For example: “Qualifiers can sort of turn an otherwise pretty fairly convincing sentence into a bit of a puddle.” Too many adverbs can bog a piece down, so if you want to streamline your writing, it’s a good idea to avoid them when you can. 

But adverbs do have some legitimate uses. I would tell you what they are, except I can’t think of any right now. At least, I can’t think of more than one. So take it on faith for the moment that adverbs can be justified elsewhere, because I’m sure they can. I’m going to focus instead on a place where I’ve realized adverbs are indispensable: humor.

It must be said that the kind of humor I have in mind is British. The excessive use of adverbs is practically a British national sport; just flip to any page in “Pride and Prejudice” or an Agatha Christie novel to see how much of the world is “rather” something or is “certainly” something else. Today, that style of speech has passed out of fashion, but the adverb has survived through British writing as a useful tool for achieving something every Briton holds dear: irony. Where Americans generally laugh at sarcastic hyperboles like “The Colbert Report,” the British laugh at ironic understatement.

Bill Bryson, who was born in Iowa but has lived in the United Kingdom for most of his life, is a master of ironic understatement. In “Notes From a Small Island,” he relates the anecdote of a poor newspaper employee. Apparently, during Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Times newspaper in London, a whole room full of employees was sacked, save for one person who had stepped out for a break. “When he returned,” Bryson writes, “it was to an empty room, and he spent the next two years sitting alone, wondering vaguely what had become of his colleagues.”

“Vaguely” makes that sentence. It takes the force out of something that should be forceful. Of course the man wondered what happened to his colleagues, but the image of him sitting there, wondering only “vaguely,” is funny. 

As any comedian will tell you, timing is everything in comedy, and the adverb also acts as a delay and buildup to the punch line. Consider, for example, this dark joke from Jonathan Swift, which relies on the understatement of “hardly”: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worst.” 

Maybe you aren’t convinced. In any case, if adverbs are funny precisely because they weaken a sentence, that should give us pause. Adverbs are leeches, and we should be squeamish about using them. But I’d argue that they’re fine. Everyone certainly needs a little blood drawn now and then.  

Sinclair Target is a Columbia College junior majoring in computer science. On Target runs alternate Fridays.  |  @ColumbiaSpec


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