Stop being snarky about adverbs

I don’t want to make you all super sensitive to all adverbs by bringing this up every time I turn around, but here’s a post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog:

Elmore Leonard said, “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

While I’m not an absolutist on this, I think the use of adverbs should be as rare as a solar eclipse. Therefore, cut as many as possible. …

Yes, yes, I know, let’s all be grouchy about adverbs. (Bell’s next diatribe is about semicolons, and just stop, would you? Semicolons are fine.)

But right now, adverbs.

A) Dickens, Oliver Twist

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born: on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events: the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any age or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befal a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration, –a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.

As Oliver gave this first proof of the free and proper action of his lungs, the patchwork coverlet which was carelessly flung over the iron bedstead, rustled; the pale face of a young woman was raised feebly from the pillow; and a faint voice imperfectly articulated the words, “Let me see the child, and die.”

Of course, Dickens was writing a long time ago.

B) A Winter’s Tale by Helprin

Treading water, she looked at it carefully, and saw that it was a white horse twice as big as the draft animals that pulled ploughs in the potato fields, but with the lean look of a Southampton hunt horse. Though she had never seen either a cavalry mount or a battle, she knew from its motions that it thought it was in a fight. It was not drowning, but, rather, enmeshed in some sort of dream. Its front hooves left the water like leaping marlin, and smashed down into imagined opponents, cleaving the surface into angled geysers. It neighed the way horses do in a fight, in self-encouragement, and its legs never ceased flailing as it tried to trample down the brine.

If she were to approach it, she would surely be crushed, and if not, held in the vortex that it was slowly carving, and dragged under to drown. Even so, she swam into the ring.

The water there was far less substantial and less buoyant. Sometimes she went down in this rapids, and surfaced in a different quarter. But she kept swimming until she was literally upon him – half floating, half resting on his broad back. She put her arms around his neck as far as she could (which was not very far), and closed her eyes in anticipation of the detonation to come.

C) Under Heaven by GGK

The birds woke him from the far end of the lake.

He had attempted a formal six-line poem several nights ago, their strident morning noise compared to opening hour at the two markets in Xinan, but hadn’t been able to make the parallel construction hold in the final couplet. His technical skills as a poet were probably above average, good enough for the verse component of the examinations, but not likely, in his own judgment, to produce something enduring. …

Before drinking or eating, while the tea leaves were steeping, he stood at the eastern window and spoke the prayer to his father’s spirit in the direction of sunrise. Whenever he did this, he summoned and held a memory of Shen Gao feeding bread to the wild ducks in their stream. He didn’t know why that was his remembrance-image, but it was. Perhaps the tranquility of it, in a life that had not been tranquil.

He prepared and drank his tea, ate some salt-dried meat and milled grain in hot water sweetened with clover honey, then he claimed his peasant-farmer straw hat from a nail by the door and pulled on his boots. The summer boots were almost new, a gift from Iron Gate, replacing the worn-out pair he’d had.

They had noticed that. They observed him closely whenever they came, Tai had come to understand. He had also realized, during the first hard winter, that he’d almost certainly have died here without the help of the two forts. You could live entirely alone in some mountains in some seasons — it was a legend-dream of the hermit-poet — but not at Kuala Nor in winter, not this high up and remote when the snows came and the north wind came off the mountains.

The supplies, at new and full moon without fail, had kept him alive — and had arrived only through extreme effort several times, when wild storms had bowled down to blast the frozen meadow and lake.

He milked the two goats, took the pail inside and covered it for later. He claimed his two swords and went back out and did his Kanlin routines. He put the swords away and then, outside again, stood a moment in almost-summer sunshine listening to the shrieking racket of birds, watching them wheel and cry above the lake, which was blue and beautiful in morning light and gave no least hint at all of winter ice, or of how many dead were here around its shores. Until you looked away from birds and water to the tall grass of the meadow, and then you saw the bones in the clear light, everywhere. Tai could see his mounds, where he was burying them, west of the cabin, north against the pines. Three long rows of deep graves now.

He turned to claim his shovel and go to work. It was why he was here.

His eye was caught by a glint to the south: sunlight catching armour halfway along the last turning of the last slope down. Looking more narrowly he saw that the Tagurans were early today, or — he checked the sun again — that he was moving slowly himself, after a moon-white, waking night.


I’m sure you can pick anyone you think is a great stylist and do the same thing: Start at the beginning or pick a random scene and mark the adverbs and notice that (a) there are some, and (b) they aren’t as rare as an eclipse.


D) Can’t Stop Me by James Scott Bell

Sam Trask vaguely remembered the name at the end of the email. You remember guys named Nicky, even if you don’t think about them for twenty-five years.

Nicky Oberlin. That’s how he’d signed the email, along with a phone number.

The tightness in his chest, the clenching he’d been feeling for the last few weeks, returned. Why should that happen because of one random email? Because it presented a complication, a thing that called for response. He did not need that now, not with the way things were at home.


That’s the very first sentence of the book. I’m just saying.

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12 thoughts on “Stop being snarky about adverbs”

  1. Patricia Wrede shares your opinoin and has some lovely snarky posts complaining about annoying people who are convinced that there are Rules for Writing which everyone should obey. Things like no adverbs, no passive, no first-person POV etc. And never mind that your favourite masterpiece breaks most of those rules.

    I found her post specifically on the adverbs point and thought you’d enjoy it. (Do you read her blog? Definitely recommended.)

    She’s also pretty hot on

  2. No, Rowan, but obviously I need to! I’ve been a fan of her books for years, but I don’t know that I ever realized she had a blog, so thank you very much for pointing to it.

  3. Guy Gavriel Kay uses adverbs in dialogue too—effectively, I think ! (She said, adverbily… at any rate I consider this perfect justification for my own usage.

    She’d laughed, a little bitterly. “No! You always do this, Tai. Your heart never changes its beating. It tells me nothing.”

    In the North District where they were—an upstairs room in the Pavilion of Moonlight Pleasure House—she was called Spring Rain. He didn’t know her real name. You never asked the real names. It was considered ill-bred.

    Speaking slowly, because this was difficult, he’d said, “Two years is a long time, Rain. I know it. Much happens in the life of a man, or a woman. It is—”

    She had moved her hand to cover his mouth, not gently . She wasn’t always gentle with him.

  4. Just noticed that I somehow truncated my last post. I was going to say that Patricia Wrede is pretty hot on there being no One True Way that works for all writers and all books.

    You’re welcome for the blog pointer.

  5. I often wonder if, when people pontificate about adverbs, they are sometimes conflating them with adjectives, and whatever the grammar name is for those interjected sentence-bits that explicate a noun or verb; and these people are just objecting to all the adornments that get in the way of reading through the action at speed.

    I.e. “… a white horse twice as big as the draft animals that pulled ploughs in the potato fields, but with the lean look of a Southampton hunt horse.” White is an adjective, IIRC the English grammar term correctly; but the entire sentence-bit after the word ‘horse’ fullfills the same function, of describing something about the horse.
    I never learned sentence diagramming the way you’ve shown it, it’s not part of the Dutch school education; but I expect that entire sentence-bit to be connected to ‘horse’ the same way that ‘white’ is (but further dissected, if that is the right word to use for pulling a sentence to pieces to fit it into a diagram).

    And I can concur with Rowan, Patricia Wrede’s blogs on writing are manifold and interesting.

  6. Hanneke–
    There is a competition that often turns on subordinate clauses like that: the Bulwer Lytton. And yes, the two clauses would each dangle off “horse”, with a dotted line decorated by the conjunction between them.

  7. Hanneke, amazingly, writing advice often goes this way: Don’t use adverbs OR adjectives. This is hard to believe. It’s like saying, “Build a house, but don’t use hammers or nails.” It can be done, but why would you demand it? Or think it was a reasonable demand? Or advise that all houses be built with that constraint?

  8. I mean, is it possible to over-use adverbs? Well, yes, but that doesn’t make them evil!

    And anytime I see a mention of Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale, I wonder anew what on earth an Antwerp Flinder hot beverage is made of…. Basically, I’ve been wondering since about 1985.

  9. Oh my! Deb you got me curious and I found this
    From Helprin’s daughter:
    “I just called him to ask about the Antwerp Flinder, and he told me that it is not real and that he’s never made one. His advice is to follow the recipe and hope for the best.

    He is extremely fond of made-up recipes in general, and he actually does make some. These creations were absolutely infamous in our home, and thankfully he only cooked when my mother was away or indisposed. He called one particularly awful dish Circumpolar Pasta. It involved pasta, sardines, and pistachios, and would have at least been edible had he not neglected to shell the pistachios before adding them to the pasta.”

    From here
    Which includes the (dubious) recipe.

  10. Thanks, Pete! I’ve googled that from time to time over the years but haven’t tried to actually make it. I was 18 when I read the book the first time, so too young to drink, but the fact that it was ordered as a hot drink–some with gin, some without–sounded so satisfying!

    That thread kind of reads like debates about what exactly one of Sharon Lee/Steve Miller’s “Maize Buttons” are. It could be anything!

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