Adverbs – the siren’s call


A few weeks ago I posted a list of words and phrases I want my students to shun. I also tell them to think twice before using adverbs, specifically the subcategory known as intensifiers (“It was super hot”; “It was definitely a good experience”). But I’m not immune to their rhetorical power. Colin Dickey has a piece up in which he sticks up for’em:

Adverb detractors tend to focus on the straw man example of a weak verb modified by an adverb: don’t write “he said indistinctly,” write “he mumbled” instead. It’s true that this is not great writing, and in many cases the replacement verb is indeed better. But where adverbs get interesting is when they modify an already strong verb. The adverb in such a situation allows for far more complexity: it can contradict the verb, alter it subtly or dramatically, change the meaning of the sentence in some irrevocable manner, or provide a puzzle of sorts for the reader, giving her pause. If “he walked slowly” is bad, and “he ambled” is good, then “he ambled purposefully” is great—a kind of precision that emerges only when words are at cross purposes with one another.

That the correctness of “He ambled purposefully” depends on how the writer has already developed the character should go without saying. Few twentieth century writers were more beholden to adverbs than James Joyce. When I consider precise adverb use, I turn to the first chapter of Ulysses; indeed, the first word of Ulysses is “stately,” modifying “plump.” Knowing what we will learn about Buck Mulligan and the air of preposterous self-mocking importance with which he carries himself, “stately” is perfect. Note the next three exchanges:

—Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly.

“Briskly” modifying “cried” suggests insouciance or liveliness. Or:

—The mockery of it! he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek!

The faked outrage of “The mockery of it!” gets a gentle nudge with “gaily.” And my favorite: He shaved evenly and with care, in silence, seriously.

Two adverbs, not counting the two prepositional phrases acting as adverbs. To shave with care doesn’t presuppose one does it evenly, let alone seriously. Buck Mulligan mocks everyone and everything except his toilet (the chapter begins with a mirror and a razor crossed).

That’s what a master can do with adverbs.

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