Could We Just Lose the Adverb (Already)?

How are "there," "yesterday," "quite," "assiduously," and "indeed" all members of the same family?

I’m cursed with a mind that looks at a sentence and sees grammar before it sees meaning. It might be that I’m doing math by other means, that I overdid it with diagramming sentences as a boy, or that my grasp of English was warped by learning Latin. Translating Horace felt like solving math problems. Reading Emily Dickinson began to feel like solving math problems. You might think this is a cold way of reading, but it’s the opposite. You develop feelings. Pronoun, verb, noun — I like sentences that proceed in that way, in a forward march. Or those tricked out with a preposition, another noun, and a couple of adjectives. Conjunctions and articles leave me unfazed. If these combinations result in elaborate syntactical tangles, it thrills me. It’s cheap words I hate, and I hate adverbs. 

I’m unembarrassed to admit that my taste in literary style owes a lot to my adolescent reading of The Sun Also Rises — Hemingway was no friend of adverbs. He’s not alone. “Use as few adverbs as possible” is among V. S. Naipaul’s rules for beginning writers. When William Strunk and E. B. White admonish us to omit unnecessary words, I know they’re talking about adverbs without their having to say it.

What’s my objection? I am a recovering copy editor and proofreader, and I enjoy a good plunge into the usage wars. I think New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris’s best seller of last year, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, is a terrific book, but she doesn’t much concern herself with adverbs as a category. Most copy editors conceive of themselves as something between traffic cops and U.N. peacekeepers, and adverbs are not illegal. They are not war crimes. Which is just as well, because I don’t think immersion in either rules or theory can do much for style, and the question of adverbs is, in the end, a question of style. And in terms of style, rules are not that important; with all due respect to Norris, four years of working as an editor in England broke me of the belief that the codes of comma placement were anything but arbitrary. Whether you venerate or violate prescriptions, it’s diction that really matters, diction and word order. We are first of all slaves to our eyes and our ears, not to that wondrous document The Chicago Manual of Style.

But there have been moments lately when I feared we were speaking and writing in a new adverbial age. I took the appearance of Daniel Handler’s 2006 novel Adverbs, a love story in which every chapter is named with a word like “immediately,” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title signals the child narrator’s voice, as signs that this century would be friendlier to that part of speech than the one ruled by Hemingway, whether I liked it or not. I thought it might have something to do with the death of the typewriter and the rise of the internet, a zone with an excess of feeling and an amateur taste for the rhetorical flourish. Was the adverb winning?

I wanted numbers, or at least arcs, so I turned to Google. Its Ngram Viewer charts the frequency with which words appear over the decades in all the books Google has scanned. (Are they done yet?) I found that many adverbs have been on the run for more than a century. “However” and “moreover” have been disappearing since the 1840s. “Indeed” peaked in the 18th century and has since suffered a steep decline. “Not” was most popular in the 17th century but has enjoyed three stable centuries since, unlike its shriveled cousin “never.” “Hopefully” surged in the 20th century until the 1970s, when it started to buckle under attack for being used otherwise than for what it means. The comers of recent decades are what I can’t help but think of as the Valley Girl or Surfer Dude Adverbs, like “radically.” The 1980s were good to them. The most fascinating graph I conjured portrayed the adverbs of time. It used to be that we said “yesterday” more than “tomorrow.” Now the word we say the most is “today.” And today I’m feeling a bit more generous to the adverb. Over the past year or so, I noticed that my loathing for adverbs was teetering, both in my own writing and in my taste in new writing. It seemed time to examine my hatred and ask whether I was kidding myself all along. Excuse me if I do it pedantically.

Let’s begin with the big problem. The adverb is an incoherent lexical category, a catchall. How are “there,” “yesterday,” “quite,” “assiduously,” and “indeed” all members of the same family? As we learn in school — in a definition that dates from Dionysius Thrax in the second century B.C. — adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, noun phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. Adverbs indicate place, time, manner, frequency, degree, certainty. Anything an adverb does can almost always be done more elegantly by the adverbial deployment of the other parts of speech. Almost always more elegantly: in most cases with more elegance.

Why are adverbs inelegant? Few of them start as adverbs, exactly, and it might be a matter of wanting words to stay in their place — wanting nouns to be nouns and adjectives to be adjectives, wanting words to stick close to their roots without the clutter of prefixes or suffixes. For an adjective, going adverb is a clunky transition. Of all the suffixes littering the English language, “-ly” is the most conducive to a singsong sound, and a vast category of adverbs are simply adjectives with “-ly” or “-ily” attached to their rears. Hopelessly, seemingly, fitfully — often adverbization results in a suffix pileup. You can convert a noun by reconceiving it as an adjective and adding the suffix to make a big, beautiful adverb, to put it Trumpily. You can also turn a noun into an adverb by attaching it to “-wise,” though that’s frowned upon of late (because it’s silly, soundwise). A “flat adverb” is an adjective that’s come over to adverbial use without the “-ly,” as in, “Take it easy.” The dark lords of the adverbs — the negators “not” and “never” — are so perfectly adverbial that some linguists think they deserve their own lexical category. (Yet a word as deadly as “not,” nullifying everything it touches, is weak enough to be subsumed in contractions like some apostrophized suffix — or is that part of its cancerous force?)

But there are other reasons. An excess of adverbs in prose signals a general lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives. You might have to say someone ran swiftly or walked slowly, but you’d never have to qualify galloping or lumbering. The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs — also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of “moreover,” “accordingly,” “consequently,” and “likewise” are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying “indeed” is tantamount to saying, “I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.” Next time you come across the word “meanwhile,” ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase “of course” but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. “Nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and the atrocious “however” are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word “but.” But you can never have too many helpings of “but,” and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.

But some adverbs are the most powerful words in English. We can no more escape the adverbs of time than we can escape aging. Without the adverbs of place, we wouldn’t be anywhere, not even nowhere. I am in awe of “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and of “here” and “there.” All these words can provoke potent feelings along the spectrum of sadness and happiness and are essential to getting on with the job of reporting what has or will have happened and where. They’re beautiful words with a simplicity undiluted by suffixes. But their power is best spent in small doses. If you’re deploying an adverb of time in every sentence, you must be writing a police report or singing the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” And the adverbs that indicate continuous action — “always,” “often,” “still” — try removing them to see if you’re missing much. Verbs carry with them an intrinsic sense of continuity. The postman rings twice. It’s not as pretty as James M. Cain’s title, but the implications are the same.

If you want to make characters sound insane, you can do worse than infect their speech with adverbs. In the opening of Moby-Dick, Melville has Ishmael describing his own depression: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Emphasis mine.) The actions he describes are nuts, but the real madness, as well as the comedy, is in the adverbs. (No more acute example of adverb mania can be found than the voice of the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which all the movements in the story come attached to repeated adverbs: “steadily, steadily”; “stealthily, stealthily”; “slowly — very, very slowly.”) Nineteenth-century American writers had no inhibitions when it came to adverbs. The ironic weight of the era’s most famous pair of lines — Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me” — is all on the adverb. Henry James had no shame about kicking off a sentence with a trio of adverbials: “At present, obviously, nevertheless, he was not likely to displace himself,” he writes in The Portrait of a Lady, a novel in which the word “very” appears “very, very often” — more than 500 times.

I was telling a poet about my hatred of adverbs, and she said one word, “Uglily” (part of a special category, where “-ly” is appended to an adjective ending in “-ly,” known in the usage biz as “the awkward adverbs”), and told me to reread Gertrude Stein. The adverbial excesses of the 19th century met their match in Stein. She can do without them completely, as she does for pages on end, or she can build a paragraph almost entirely from them, as in this one from “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story”: “Even now, now and even now and now and even now. Not as even now, therefor, even now and therefor, therefor and even now and even now and therefor even now. So not to and moreover and even now and therefor and moreover and even now and so and even now and therefor even now.”

At present, obviously, nevertheless, no one is allowed to write like Stein aside from certified experimental poets. Stein and the other modernists broke the language, and they broke the adverb’s back. You can see this by comparing her pupil Hemingway to Henry James. What’s been dispensed with are those sentence adverbs like the trio that begin this paragraph. Hemingway likes nothing better than to begin a sentence with “He.” The adverbs he favors are “really” and “very,” sometimes in combination, because they have the ring of simple speech. But in the work of his mid-20th-century disciples — Ralph Ellison, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer at his sparest in The Executioner’s Song — verbs and adjectives tend to fly solo. The era’s great exception is Nabokov, who knew how to wring comedy from adverbs in the manner of Melville or Poe. Lolita teems with adverbs. They satisfied Nabokov’s thirst for neologism — “apostately,” for instance. To steal a line from Humbert Humbert, you have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, to love adverbs.

*This article appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.