Saturday, September 22, 2012

Parts of Speech

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King

Yes, I'm pretty sure that's the other Stephen King who said that.  Certainly wasn't me.  How do I know?  Well, after posting on my own blog and on an OPB (Other People's Blog) yesterday I sat down to read some Twain.  Lately I'm really enjoying going back through Mark Twain's Roughing It, and that was no exception.  Twain really was a master storyteller.  Except, of course, that after reading and discussing writing-themed advice in part dealing with overuse of adverbs, I sat down to find that the first page I looked to in Twain's work contained three--in a row!--of the nasty little -ly words.

Poor guy.  Perhaps if he'd learned to speak without the use of the adverb, he'd've made a real name for himself.  *sarcasm*

Hey, look, I'm busting Stephen King's chops unfairly.  It's absolutely true that new writers really like to frequently abuse the unobtrusively simple part of speech we collectively know as the adverb.

But what if you don't know it?

No, I'm not kidding.  At the OPB I was greeted with someone who didn't know adjectives from adverbs.  The shame!  Granted, there's a reason the stereotypical grammar teacher is the stereotype.  We've all experienced one, and that experience falls down near the bottom of list of memories when ranked by enjoyment factor, doesn't it?  Probably the only thing worse in elementary school was learning multiplication tables. 

Anyway, put as simply as I can, here's the key.  You know what a noun and a verb are, right?  A noun is a word that identifies a person, place or thing.  It's the who/what of the situation.  Then the verb is the action term.  It's the answer to "they did what?"  "Students danced": Students is the noun, because it was them what danced.  Danced is the verb, because that's what the students did.  Easy, right?

So, continuing along, an adjective is what modifies the noun, makes it more interesting.  For example, you can sign documents with a pen, or you can sign them with a blue pen.  Now, didn't the adjective "blue" make it more interesting?

It did, didn't it?

Nah, guess not, but at least you know what color the signature was, yes?

So if the adjective tells us more about the noun, then the adverb tells us more about just about everything else.  That's why they're so important.  The students danced, big deal.  The students danced joyfully, though, after finding out that the Dean was suspending final exams (big fat chance of that).  Or perhaps the students danced gaily because it was the first day of spring and they were being let outside for the first time all year.  Or maybe the students danced apathetically because the steps they were learning held no interest with the younger generation, and the instructor was their old grammar teacher with the assistance of the mathematics teacher chanting multiplication factors to the beat. 


Like I said, though, the adverb can modify more than just the verb.  A pen may be blue, but it may also be deeply blue.  Darkly blue.  Vibrantly blue.  Gigantically blue--nah, guess that one doesn't work.  You get the idea, though, right?

But!  But!  But!  The writing purist sputters indignantly--adverbs are the lazy writer's way out.  It's one thing to say that the students danced joyfully; it's another, and in many or perhaps most cases far more entertaining, to show us their joy in your description of their faces, their light steps, the barely-controlled bobbing up and down of their torsos.  Yep, that's true.  In most cases, I must add.  There's a time and a place for such things.  Sometimes the description is needed, but other times the writer just needs to say that the students danced frickin' joyfully and get on with the dang story.

So you, as a writer, will find your challenge a little tougher than you might have thought initially when reading the quote above by Stephen King (the know, right?).  Adverbs themselves aren't bad.  Sometimes it's proper and right to smack one right down onto the page, in fact.  Just don't let yourself fall into the lazy habit of sprinkling them around instead of describing what deserves description, and also keep in mind that a stream of words ending in "ly" can actually distract and bump a reader up out of that Suspension of Disbelief.

Bottom line: use 'em, but use 'em carefully. all the other words at your disposal.


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