Woefully, Thoroughly, Embarrassingly Spaced: A Case for Adverbs (and Swears)

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If you stopped by on Friday, or Saturday, you may have wondered what happened to me this past week. Is she still alive? Is everything okay? Has she collapsed into postpartum depression?

Everything’s fine except my brain.

(Thursday was rough with the babe, but that’s because he was almost six weeks old. This is my third kid, and with all three I thought to myself right before six weeks hit, “Damn it! I can’t do this anymore. I can’t hold a baby this many hours a day. I can’t feed him this often. I can’t handle this much crying and fussing.” And then six weeks hit and they magically became good babies. So really on Friday I didn’t have an excuse anymore, other than recovering from Thursday, which I’ve dubbed Day of Massive Tears. Anyway.)

On Saturday, I began typing a tweet about spacing the post so thoroughly that “spaced” needed extra adverbs, but then my brain must still have been out to lunch because I couldn’t think of any clever adverbs to add to the tweet, so I deleted it.

But it made me think about adverbs in general, which IMHO have gotten a bad rep. Writing teachers love to rant about them and circle them with red pens: “No -ly words!” And really, what have the adverbs done to deserve this?

Now, granted, I do understand the point. I am a writing teacher, and I have cringed at plenty of “-ly words” myself. But maybe just because I love adding a new perspective to debates, I’m going to throw out the idea that it’s not the adverb itself that is bad; it’s the usage.

For example, think of the words we label as “bad” words. Go ahead. Think of a few of them. It’s sort of fun to let them roll through your head. They have a pleasingly rough sound to them, a hard consonant ending that stomps down to help us feel a little better just by slipping them out. I mean, when you’re upset, it’s natural to feel like you want to punch something, and an expletive is the verbal equivalent of that punch.

(My favorite is the mild-but-still-explosive “damn,” which I justify by only damning the pronoun “it,” never “you” or “him” or any other undeserving pronoun; somehow “it” just seems to ruin my life often enough to merit the curse.)

Anyhow, now I want you to think of a scenario where one of those bad words is really the only word that could possibly fit.

Maybe it’s because that word sums up a load of misery the size of a landfill; maybe it’s because that word perfectly fits the person/character saying it; maybe it’s because that word is just ironic enough in the context to shock everyone present into much-needed laughter.

(We named our baby after his great-great grandfather, and asked my husband’s grandparents to tell us about the namesake, and one of the first things Grandma Mantyla told us about her dad was that he loved to swear. I asked her if it was in anger or in jest, and she laughed and said it was always to be funny, because he was that kind of a character.)

See where I’m going with this?

I think there could potentially be a place for adverbs.

We try to avoid them on the principle that if your verb needs an adverb, you’re not using a strong enough verb — and therefore the issue is word choice. A writer’s job is to choose the best word possible for every situation, and that’s a challenge.

So maybe that’s why I bristle a little at the idea of being limited in my choices. I want to have every word at my disposal without being limited by ones that are supposedly “bad.”

Today I want to celebrate adverbs and give them the credit they are so often denied.

To the words “magically,” “thoroughly,” “pleasingly,” “perfectly,” “potentially,” and “supposedly” that slipped unintentionally into this post, thank you for adding that touch of emphasis I wanted in each place. (Note: There are more adverbs than that in this post, but these are the most obvious culprits that would offend certain past teachers of mine the most.) Sure, there might be a better verb that could eliminate the need for you, but since this post is already two days late and is written in your honor, I’m going to let you stay.

And perhaps we’ll make a game of it.

I’d love to hear your ideas. What words could I use to ditch the above-mentioned adverbs, or which of them do you think fit best and don’t need ditching? What are adverbs you’ve groaned over upon encountering and how would you have replaced them? What are your favorite adverbs and when could you justify using them? And best of all, what are some funny situations that just beg for a great swear word?

Leave a comment!

UPDATE 8pm: Okay, Hubby and I were chatting and suddenly realized that this movie clip below absoluteLY had to be part of this post. You might not understand at first, but you’ll hear it when you get to 1:37 and 2:56, and it’s awesome (IMHO). The movie is 1776 (the musical), and this is Ben Franklin and John Adams sending Richard Henry Lee off to convince Virginia to initiate the vote for independence. Enjoy!

UPDATE 5/2011: Sadly, the clip is gone and I can’t find another one from the movie, but you can find stage play versions on YouTube if you search for “1776 Lees of Old Virginia.” 😥

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11 responses »

  1. Nikki, I LOVED this post! I actually thought about writing a post exactly like this just last week. I totally agree about using adverbs. We studied them in class, and just like all parts of grammar, adverbs have a use. However, when people have the wrong usage, that’s where we start to see problems. But you go flip open a Harry Potter book, and there are adverbs all around the page. It’s amazing and gives deeper insights. The point is that the author knew how to use them.

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    • Aw, thanks! Glad you liked it. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while. Sometimes taking out the adverb can ruin the rhythm and feel of the whole sentence, so they do have their place on occasion. 😉

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  2. Thanks for this post! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I kept hearing “Avoid the -ly words!” But there are some places in my story where they need to be there–taking them out ruins the voice. Have you seen The Slipper and the Rose? If not, you should, but there’s a song about being protocoligorically correct and it just wouldn’t be the same with out the adverb. (You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22XcT6KCrjs)

    I LOVE the movie clip!

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    • Now that word is stuck in my head! And I can’t even find it in the dictionary. But I assume it means “according to protocol” or something. Thanks for introducing me to a new musical. I’d never heard of that!

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  3. The adverb issue is a constant in my mind when I am editing. I try to ignore rules when the writing is happening. I will almost always reword the sentence to eliminate the adverb and I almost always think it sounds better. Except when it doesn’t. When I am blogging or tweeting or status-updating… I don’t really care. Those words are meant to sound like my speaking voice and I can adverb it up in the course of any discussion! But in writing, I think it is important to not rely on adverbs. They make your descriptions lazy. But they definiteLY have a place. AND go through any book on your shelf. You will find adverbs in all of them. The better writers will have less adverbs but they will be present. Even in Sir Stephen King’s novels (he’s the one that alerted me to this issue all those years ago).

    Also, my Grandpa used to cuss when he told stories cause he was that kind of a character, too. I believe swears have a place as well but I’m a hippie-dippy-liberal so what can you do?

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  4. With my first book, I went through and eliminated all the that’s. My editor went back through and added at least 10 of them, and she said, “Sometimes “that” is what’s required.”

    I think of THAT whenever I come up against “hard and fast” rules of writing.

    Great post!

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    • Thanks for sharing. I’m always curious what editors think of the rules that writing teachers preach. I’d like to think it’s more about what works in each case than any blanket rule, like you said. 😀

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  5. Pingback: Kids’ Voices, Kings’ Speeches, Irish Accents, and the Damn Arbitrariness of Words « All About the Words

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