I have a problem with adverbs. You know, that part of speech that ends with ly and can modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Readers who looked at my manuscript commented on my use of adverbs and advised: “Get rid of them.” But, wait a minute, all of them? There isn’t one single adverb that can stay? Are they all so singularly, vehemently, and disgracefully bad? There’s none among them that usefully earns its keep or helpfully, gratefully and profitably provides my words with extra meaning?
Writers today are anti-adverb. Stephen King writes in his book On Writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Mark Twain called adverbs a plague and said, “They confuse me. They mean absolutely nothing to me.” Though Twain did use absolutely to describe his feelings against adverbs and King used usually twice and seriously once in the first paragraph describing the overuse of adverbs, the current sentiment is clear (and I’m quoting King again): “Adverbs are not your friends.”
Is the dislike for adverbs a new fashion? As an experiment, I picked out three books from my shelves. I chose Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, an eighteenth century gothic novel that was a must-read in its time and is quoted or mentioned in many later novels, Henry James’ classic The Portrait of a Lady, and C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I opened each book at random and looked for adverbs. Radcliffe, in a dramatic paragraph that has Montoni attacking Emily as she attempts to come to her aunt’s aid, did not use a single adverb. James, in a long-winded two-page monologue, wrote the adverbs really, horribly, fortunately (3 times), certainly, absolutely, exceedingly, parenthetically and definitely. Lewis, in a paragraph describing Edmund’s first interactions with the witch, employed no adverbs.
Of course, to make my experiment more accurate, I could have chosen three novels of the same genre and perhaps compared American novelists to their counterparts in other nations to see the global changes in the use of adverbs over the last three centuries. A different nineteenth century writer could also have given a different result, because Henry James, interestingly enough, is known as having expressed great love for adverbs: “I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.” But I am not writing a doctorate, and that’s the only experiment I’m going to conduct today.
I wonder if, in the world of words, adverbs are trembling with fear. Will they be banned from dictionaries? In one hundred years, will they find themselves mentioned only in history of linguistics books, sitting covered with cobwebs in a dusty, dark corner, like old no-longer useful relatives of other words? The English language is a living, breathing entity which changes all the time. Its dynamic nature is why I love it so much. But still, I hope the current scorn of adverbs will not last. I happen to like adverbs very much.