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Friday, February 22, 2013

More Adverbs

We know the asinine advice "write with verb and nouns, not adjectives" comes from Strunk and White. Let's see how White writes:
Fern couldn't take her eyes off the tiny pig. "Oh," she whispered. "Oh, look at him! He's absolutely perfect."

She closed the carton carefully. First she kissed her father, then she kissed her mother. Then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out, and held it against her cheek. At this moment her brother Avery came into the room. Avery was ten. He was heavily armed -- an air rifle in one hand, a wooden dagger in the other.
The adverbs of manner give the spice and emotion to this writing. Fern's attitude toward the pig Wilbur, (absolutely perfect), her loving care of the pig (carefully), the delicious irony of "heavily" armed. The adjectives are also essential here, tiny, wooden, perfect. White's writing is not any worse for not following his own lumpheaded strictures. Nor is this a matter of a "rule" that you have to be an expert, already, to break. You cannot even begin to write well if you deprive yourself of an important tool. This short passage also contains three forms of the verb "to be."

I guess you could ruin the passage by adding a few more adverbs of manner. "she tenderly kissed her father..." But so what? Nobody has ever made the opposite claim, that where adverbs are concerned, the more the merrier.




8 comments:

Clarissa said...

This is not academic writing, though. Do you think it should be the same for academic writing and fiction?

Jonathan said...

Yes. It is the same! Not the same style, of course, but the same need for all the parts of speech. I'll use my writing as an example. I think I need all the adjectives and adverbs I use here, like sterile, academic, raw, finely tuned, highly receptive, critical, contemporary, pedagogical, expanded. Show me an single academic writer who doesn't depend on adjectives. Say, a paragraph of six sentences with fewer than six adjectives and adverbs:

We need, then, a shift in focus—away from a sterile academic formalism and toward a more finely tuned receptivity to the “raw materials” of the humanities. The work of Federico García Lorca puts this argument to the test. Lorca is, in my view, an example of a highly receptive artist—in some sense a theorist of receptivity—and one whose own critical reception exposes the inadequacies of contemporary academic criticism. My experience writing about Lorca and using him as a pedagogical model for courses at the graduate and undergraduate level confirms my commitment to an expanded view of receptivity.

Vance Maverick said...

Are S&W an active influence on academic writing (as opposed to the general public)? Or is academic style primarily maintained by the profession?

Jonathan said...

There's a kind of middle-brow, quasi-academic cult for S&W. It is still a best seller, as those books go.

Vance Maverick said...

Perhaps there's an analogue in the appeal of conservative rhetoric decrying "big government" -- it doesn't matter that the left doesn't actually seek bigness per se, nor that the right doesn't actually pursue smallness. Similarly, "too many adverbs" gives you something to say, the feeling that some error is being denounced, even if the text under censure is no more adverbious than the censurer's own.

Jonathan said...

Yes, that's exactly right. It is "conventional wisdom." Or Flaubert's idées reçues. In the same category as college professors don't teach enough / work hard enough.

Clarissa said...

"Are S&W an active influence on academic writing (as opposed to the general public)?"

- I was practically bullied into using it in graduate school. When my advisor learned I didn't own a copy, she was shocked.

Vance Maverick said...

Wow. I can see the use of an evidence-based guide (like the M-W Dictionary of English Usage), and depending on the environment, a narrow "house style"-type prescriptive guide (Chicago is like this, I think), but S&W is neither.