Cheerfully Defending the Adverb

When I was in high school, someone gave me Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s supposed to be a great book. I’m sure that if I read it now, I’d really enjoy it. But I am a cold-hearted person and King’s comment that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” inspired fury. “What does he know?!” I shouted.

It’s common advice: adverbs are the death of writing. Ten years later, I do use less adverbs in my writing, but I still think they hold an important place in literature. A well-used adverb can make a verb striking or exciting or unsettling. So when I read the title of Lily Rothman’s article “Why I Am Proudly, Strongly, and Happily in Favor of Adverbs,” I cheered a little.

Rothman describes how adverbs can drag down writing when they’re used lazily or improperly:

Even if English speakers have a tendency to misuse adverbs, that doesn’t mean they’re evil. Some—those that help the current move “ceaselessly” at the end of The Great Gatsby or the crew of the starship Enterprise go “boldly”—are downright great.

Just because people misuse something doesn’t mean it lacks a place in literature. And I love that reference to Gatsby. “Ceaselessly” makes the rest of the sentence shine in an unexpected way. It wouldn’t be a classic line without that adverb.

I tend to like “useless” parts of grammar more than other people. (Don’t bring up that Oxford comma debate!) But I’m glad to see that the adverb has at least one other defender.


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