In praise of adverbs

Read any advice on improving your writing and one of the first suggestions is: NEVER use adverbs! Really? Shall we go through the entire English literary canon and expunge them all? Poor Charlotte Bronte would fail this scrutiny in the first three paragraphs of Jane Eyre. Not even the Bard would pass such a stringent test. Frankly, the clarion call to delete a whole class of words from the written language is prescriptive drivel.

The reason given for avoiding adverbs at all costs is that it makes for lazy writing. A writer may use an adverb to tell us something about a situation rather than show us through elegant and descriptive writing. It may be considered lazy if that were the only strategy a writer has in their toolkit, in the same way that overused adjectives can also diminish writing.

But playing with adverbs can also be a lot of fun. Take Tom Swifties for example. I once made an 8-hour train ride pass ever so quickly as I wrote pages upon pages of Tom Swifties before the era of constant internet distraction. In case you’ve never heard of Tom, this character was Edward Stratemeyer’s invention. He was the protagonist of books written under the pen name of Victor Appleton. Tom Swift appeared in over a hundred science fiction and adventure stories for boys from the early 1900’s onwards. Characteristically, Tom would say something before a cleverly placed adverb made a pun upon his remark. One of the original examples is, ‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly. Since then, these kinds of puns have been called Tom Swifties.

I modestly offer a small selection for your enjoyment:

‘It simply isn’t true, your Honour!’ said Tom judgmentally.

‘The bottle is half full,’ said Tom optimistically.

‘The bottle is half empty,’ said Tom pessimistically.

‘That’s beside the point,’ said Tom tangentially.

‘Open wide!’ said Tom obtusely.

‘Turn the air-con on,’ said Tom heatedly.

‘That’s R rated,’ cried Tom passionately.

‘Hands up and freeze!’ said Tom coldly.

‘I’m making my first curry,’ said Tom gingerly.

‘Fire!’ yelled Tom alarmingly.

‘I love Picasso,’ said Tom abstractly.

‘I prefer Ariel to Times Roman,’ declared Tom boldly.

‘The tablet is stuck in my throat,’ said Tom bitterly.

‘Wedgie!’ cried Tom briefly.

‘Lemon, lime and bitters?’ asked Tom cordially.

‘She’s such a bitch,’ Tom insisted doggedly.

‘I don’t like seafood,’ said Tom crabbily.

‘That must be Robyn,’ said Tom chirpily.

‘I was at the Queen’s funeral,’ said Tom majestically.

‘Shaken, not stirred,’ said Tom drily.

‘I’m just not that into you,’ said Tom flaccidly.

‘Adverbs, I wouldn’t be without them,’ said Viktoria absently.

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