To some writers the adverb is a largely pointless outcropping of language; to them a sentence is a lean thoroughfare of meaning, and the adverb is an unfortunate blip. The most famous proponent of this view is probably Stephen King. “Adverbs, like the passive voice,” he tells us in his book On Writing, “seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.” Once you begin permitting them they tend to proliferate and writers reach for them in moments of weakness, or as he calls it “fear.” He can be a “sport” about the occasional adverb, but his tone is clear: there is an ever-present danger of the writer reaching for one of those “nasty adverbs.”
It is easy to use adverbs badly. But what I think follows from this fact is that we should make sure not to use them badly. That we should minimize their use—what Stephen King urges—is an entirely different idea, and I am not really sure where it comes from. He makes a case—essentially the one I made above—but he simply doesn’t address what seems like the obvious alternative of not using adverbs badly. To consider a whole part of speech as a kind of linguistic detritus seems perverse for a writer, and far from the parsimonious response.
It was all well and good for Hemingway to avoid adjectives and adverbs. His protagonists distrusted those words also, and what other writers might do with verbal variety he could do better with syntax and diction. If his protagonist were Humbert Humbert he would have needed more words. And when Hemingway pronounced that one should write with nouns and verbs, or for that matter that one should favor the Anglo Saxon words, this was nothing new: good English usage has always followed these patterns.
Does anyone write differently because of some idea they entertain about how a sentence should be? Or do they just get the words on the page the best they can, and come up with the aesthetics behind their choices later? This question was particularly salient for me recently when I was reading Dickens’s Bleak House, with its many eccentric uses of adverbs, deployed with utter authority. Here Esther Summerson considers an image of dread or grief from many years ago, a single moment in which she glimpsed the lights of her carriage reflected on a river’s surface as she crossed a bridge:
“In my memory the lights upon the bridge are always burning dim, the cutting wind is eddying round the homeless woman whom we pass, the monotonous wheels are whirling on, and the light of the carriage-lamps reflected back looks palely in upon me—a face rising out of the dreaded water.” [The emphases inside quotations throughout this essay are mine.]
How else to describe this image but say it “looks palely in upon me”? The spectral image doesn’t peer, it doesn’t gaze, but simply looks, and its paleness is somehow a quality of its looking. It looks palely “in” because the carriage is moving slowly past it: “…the monotonous wheels are whirling on”—this is indispensable. And the homeless woman—indispensable also. As is the cutting wind eddying round her. It turns out every word seems inevitable—the details are those Esther would notice, in the exact order she would recount them, and in the exact mood. Start imagining how the sentence could be different and you end up changing all of it. But as it is, it rests perfectly.
What I am describing is that magic we call voice, which Dickens employed to perfection. He seems to have in some sense heard his characters and his narrators speaking. When he writes “looks palely in upon me,” it is because this is what Esther necessarily says; these are the words that fell, through Dickens’ art, with inevitability.
The second narrator of Bleak House, the omniscient narrator, has a distinct case of synesthesia that Esther lacks entirely: she would never say, as he does, that a gas street lamp “twinkles gaspingly.” It is not just that the narrator glides like a presence across London. His perception is phantasmagorical. And while Esther is a master of language in her way, the omniscient narrator really deploys some language. Here we are at London’s Court of Chancery:
“On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here—as here he is—with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains…. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be—as here they are—mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause….”
By far the most interesting words here are “softly” and “mistily.” In part this is because they are vivid, unexpected modifiers of rather ordinary verbs. But really it’s because of the utter specificity of these images: “softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains,” “mistily engaged.” The adverbs are performing the real business of the novel in its first few pages, which is that of the fog. “Fog. Fog everywhere,” the novel famously begins, and we follow the fog across the city, roiling, magisterial. The normal court business goes on but the fog moves through it. There are all kinds of circumstances where one could use “mistily” with “engaged,” but once we’ve read them here it is hard to imagine the two words going together as effectively ever again.
The fog is a cosmic indictment of course, of the Court of Chancery, for which Dickens issues this ringing denouncement:
“This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right….”
This last phrase is a bit much to my ear. If there are darlings to be killed in the novel this might be one. I happen to be glad the phrase “…which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right” is in the world; but it is that single word, “abundantly,” that makes it remarkable. Take out “abundantly” and it is merely commonplace-preachy: “…gives to monied might the means of wearying out the right…”? “Abundantly”—it is not just the word but its placement, which gives the phrase a kind of rolling thunder. The word echoes through the nearest words on both sides of it. To accomplish this Dickens stretches English word order convention to the limit (we allow it for this narrator). Arguably the adverb is a modifier of either “gives” or “wearying”; it certainly echoes against “monied might.” And there is a way it bears down on “wearying out.” The wearying is continuous, thudding.
You could argue “abundantly” is an excess word here—but that’s to fixate on denotative meaning. “Abundantly” is the essential word; throw it out and you may as well scrap the whole phrase. What matters here are the echoes, the significant landing of the word. An adverb may be subordinated grammatically, but that doesn’t automatically mean it has less effect. In all these examples it is the adverb that is the notable word.
Here is a little more of “abundantly”—as it happens, it is the first adverb (and the first four-syllable word) in the King James Bible, appearing halfway into the first chapter of Genesis.
“And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”
There is the simple and fitting grandeur of “bring forth abundantly.” The verb action is spread out, provides a suspenseful little beat. If we could find a “stronger” verb here it would sound peremptory by comparison, as if God were in a hurry. But why would we want to get rid of “abundantly”? Abundance is the whole idea. One more word to dwell in the abundance doesn’t hurt. Indeed, there is no harm in saying it twice.
Sometimes the whole point is the manner of an action. We know this as people who experience the world and want to describe the actions of our fellow beings—and it happens that we have a language that is well adapted to help us do so. The very best example of this that I can think of is Hamlet’s “trippingly on the tongue,” which is how he tells Player 1 to perform the lines he inserts into the mousetrap play. He then goes on and on, delimiting and expanding on what he means, instructing the actor not to do the various hacky things he has seen other actors do, but Player 1 is probably dazed by all of this: “trippingly on the tongue” has already nailed it, for any normal human purposes. But do we remember what the verb is that’s being modified? It takes me a second: speak. “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” The adverbial phrase completely takes over our impression; the verb fades. This is because the whole interest—what Hamlet goes on about for the next three minutes—is the manner of the speaking.
Sometimes we want to separate the action and the manner of the action. When Macbeth is consumed with remorse after killing Duncan, and hears a voice that says “Macbeth shall sleep no more,” Lady Macbeth chides him for thinking “so brainsickly of things.” There is the thinking, and there is the disease that attends it. We could say Macbeth obsesses, that he indulges morbid thoughts—but that doesn’t capture the potential of thought to spread in a cancerous way. The adverb imposes a measured linguistic distance between these two concepts, the thinking and the disease of thinking. It forces us to consider them separately and together; it makes us dwell in a very specific way. “Brainsickly” remains in the mind for a very long moment as a result.
This extremely specific word by word derangement of expectations is characteristically Shakespearean. Here is another place where the adverb subverts our normal expectations. The witches show Macbeth, at his insistence, the long line of Banquo’s heirs who will rule the kingdom, and Macbeth, in the first breath of despair, says “What, is this so?” Notice how the first witch taunts him.
Ay, sir, all this is so: but why
Stands Macbeth thus amazedly?
Come, sisters, cheer we up his sprites,
And show the best of our delights…
…That this great king may kindly say,
Our duties did his welcome pay.
You’re Macbeth—a poor forked creature standing before the witches. As if to emphasize this, the first witch speaks to you in the third person. To complete the sense of dissociation, there is that word “amazedly” in the second line. There is the fact of your standing there, and there is, separately, your “amazement,” or your despair. It is the adverbs here that turn the knife. “That this great king may kindly say,/ Our duties did his welcome pay.” “Kindly” appears in a phrase of normal hospitality, which makes it land in a sickening way.
Along the same lines, here is Macduff informing Macbeth that he was not “of a woman born”:
Despair thy charm;
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
“Untimely” is the unexpected, sickening word in this case. In almost any other context the word would suggest mere inconvenience; it would almost never be paired with violence. “Brainsickly,” “amazedly,” “kindly,” “untimely”—all modify their verb in a disorienting way. And they are effective precisely because they lie outside the main business of the sentence; they have the flexibility, these single words, to do something surprising.
Here Duncan and Banquo are outside Macbeth’s castle before the whole night of horrors. There is something that Duncan and Banquo feel is sort of terrific about the air and they feel compelled to talk about it.
This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.
The air “recommends itself unto our gentle senses.” It is “delicate.” These are the pleasantries; meanwhile the play works its own purposes. The air “nimbly” recommends itself—which is to say, in Shakespeare, with erotic undertones. And if one really wants to get to the point of what the wind is doing, that single ravishing word “wooingly” is not a bad candidate. “Wooingly” completely overwhelms the verb. We have the trappings of a metaphor with “heaven’s breath smells….”—but wooingly takes it over; it is the only impression that remains. For me the image is of what we might say is the wind “caressing” the feathers of a bird. It is hard to say because the metaphor only suggests. But the suggestion is enough.
Perched there atop the main sentence structure, the adverb can be something of a free agent. Malvolio, in Twelfth Night, tells us, in the most direct way he can, that he has been the victim of bullying: he declares “there was never a man so notoriously abused….” He means “shamefully abused,” but if he said he was “shamefully abused” that wouldn’t really be Malvolio at all. That “notoriously” captures something essential about him, his feeling that the world might as well be crying out for his outraged dignity. It is this impenetrable solipsism of his that Sir Toby Belch and the other bullies in the household try so hard to crack, but it’s uncrackable. In fact the whole audience is sucked into that “notoriously,” because we’re all implicated in the bullying. We were there, we saw it, we laughed at it: maybe the bullying is “notorious,” finally. In this single word we get the essential flavor of Malvolio’s personality, of which he is unaware.
We say that an adverb modifies a verb. That’s a very abstract way of putting it. If you think all an adverb does is modify a verb, it might be very natural for you to think the nifty thing would be to simply find a verb that doesn’t require modification. But what if what the adverb does is comment on the verb? The comment that is made on some action—and we know this both from life and literature—can contain the whole interest. I think this is a key point that someone hostile to adverbs misses. Adverbs can be subversive in bad ways, pointlessly distracting. And they can be subversive in good ways, supplying another layer of consciousness to a sentence. (Stephen King may not be interested in this.) There is a way the psyche tends to outrun the deliberation of our words. If we have the linguistic richness to handle this, why shouldn’t we use it? Maybe the writer isn’t mindless; maybe he’s an artist working in a very well-regulated way.
Here is Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, reaching decadently, luxuriantly, for adverb after adverb. He’s describing a casual relationship he takes up as he knocks about the country after he has lost Lo:
“I picked her up one depraved May evening somewhere between Montreal and New York, or more narrowly, between Toylestown and Blake, at a darkishly burning bar under the sign of the Tiger moth, where she was amiably drunk: she insisted we had gone to school together, and she placed her trembling little hand on my ape paw. My senses were very slightly stirred but I decided to give her a try….”
The whole progression of the first sentence suggests Humbert reeling across the countryside; we converge on the map down to “between Toylestown and Blake,” then to the darkishly burning bar: the image blends from lit-up outside windows to the interior, the meeting with “amiably drunk” Rita. There is that “narrowly,” with its suggestion of Humbert languidly inspecting the map before being able to narrow down where he met this woman. And no one else is likely ever to say “darkishly burning bar.” “Darkishly” rather than “darkly”: he is constantly making these blithe aesthetic judgments; a habit that seems deep in his character, tied up with the numbness, the distant wit, the decadence, the contempt. The psychological distance from what he observes seems tightly bound up with his aestheticism, and it is the adverbs that give us that distance. Maybe you can count on a murderer to reach for adverbs.
This sort of decadent rambling across the countryside seems to me to be central to the energy of the novel. Here is a very different sentence, from when he makes contact with Lolita again:
“And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago.”
Notice all the things that are done around that verb “emit.” It is a beautiful verb particularly because it’s tucked amid all that language on either side. The verb only suggests; the adverbs are much louder, because they are all the noise in Humbert’s mind in this moment, the jangling of impressions and thought and anxiety, amid which he is very astutely observing his beloved. From the first words of this sentence—“And softly, confidentially,”—his attention is absorbed in her, given over completely.
As great as this sentence is, it is missing something vital to the novel which is abundantly evident in the first sentence, namely the sour intelligence evident in those surly, anarchic adverbs. They carry the energy of the first sentence, which seems to me the basic energy of the novel, arising from the author’s delight and horror over this aesthetic monster he has created in Humbert Humbert. The narrator’s grief over Lolita seems something the author imagines his way into; but his feelings about Humbert Humbert (which are of course linked to that) feel more like a grief the author knows.
These are all examples of adverbs that are the most interesting element of a given sentence, often the most memorable word. But even colorless adverbs, what might look like lazy intensifiers, can be indispensable to the meaning of a sentence. Austen is probably the deftest deployer of these—all those very’s and remarkably’s and particularly’s and altogether’s. In the following, Emma has just met her childhood acquaintance Jane Fairfax after not seeing her for a number of years; she has been for Emma a kind of long-distance rival for years:
“Her height was pretty, just such as almost everybody would think tall, and nobody could think very tall; her figure particularly graceful; her size a most becoming medium, between fat and thin, though a slight appearance of ill-health seemed to point out the likeliest evil of the two. Emma could not but feel all this; and then, her face—her features— there was more beauty in them altogether than she had remembered; it was not regular, but it was very pleasing beauty.”
“Very,” “particularly,” “most,” “altogether,” and again “very.” This is the omniscient narrator, but the adverbs here put us a bit more in Emma’s consciousness. They’re essential. After a little social observation, while Emma’s suspicion and aversion build, we get this: “She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved.” Here we are most definitely in Emma’s voice. Every one of these very ordinary adverbs has to do with Emma evaluating Jane Fairfax along some social dimension: her features, and how they might be regarded by those in their society; her reserve. In the following we can hear Emma’s voice plainly if we stress the adverbs and allow ourselves to linger on them for a beat. Then we can hear Emma’s voice rising out from the omniscient narrator’s perspective. (She is considering whether to take Harriet Smith under her social mentorship.)
“She was not struck by anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging—not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk—and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of everything in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given.”
But the passage can be read just as naturally avoiding each one of these emphases—and then we hear none of Emma. There is nothing accidental, nothing lazy about these adverbs, however haphazard they might seem. They are essential to the novel’s voice.
So why doesn’t Stephen King like adverbs? What he gives us is not so much an argument as a little discursion. “With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” He tells us this is why someone writes a sentence like “He closed the door firmly.” And this seems reasonable. “He closed the door firmly” does show a lack of imagination which might come from timidity, though it might also come from laziness or lack of writing experience.
Next he gets to what seems like his real business.
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”
Notice he started by talking about timidity and after joking about dandelions he comes back to it, switching it up for “fear.” If you will buy “timid,” how about “fearful”? But if we’re talking about someone who writes “He closed the door firmly?”—why are we psychologizing that? Shouldn’t we consider whether it’s a mechanical issue?
It is not a humble position to cast a whole class of usage into this category of linguistic detritus for “timid writers.” He does say he can be “a sport” about “the occasional adverb.” But his tone is clear. They’re like “weeds,” they’re “nasty,” they pave the road to hell. The giant omission in his discussion of adverbs is how they really work—not when an inexperienced writer types something like “He closed the door firmly,” but in countless examples in hundreds of years of literature and common usage that suggest adverbs are often essential.