Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adverbs: The Spanx of Lazy Verbs

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang… There are subtleties which I cannot master at all, --they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me, --and this adverb plague is one of them.   ( Mark Twain's "Reply to a Boston Girl" in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1880)

In the past I have snickered at Mark Twain’s quick wit, but no quote has troubled me like the above indictment of adverbs.  Digging deeper, I was surprised to find that a number of respected writers and thinkers agree with Twain, including Stephen King, Graham Greene, and Theodore Roethke.   So, I wonder.  What is the big deal with adverbs?  How is it that an entire category of English words “mean absolutely nothing” to Twain? 

Let’s consider the simple verb-adverb pair of run quickly.  If run is our verb and quickly our modifying adverb, then we will make sprint the pair's alternative.  

When we think of the verb sprint, we gain access to a narrow but specific set of memories, which help it to produce evocative images.  Perhaps you recall a photo finish at a high school track meet or a midnight dash away from a toilet-papered residence. 

 Run, on the other hand, contains under its umbrella a multitude of acts of self-propulsion.  It is non-specific.  The adverb quickly is intended to narrow the many ways a person can run, to emphasize speed.  However, quickly, like many adverbs, describes only relative magnitude.  When I say relative magnitude, I mean that an ant travels quickly when compared to a slug, but not when compared to a rabbit.  So, even with an extra adverb, we are left with only a vague sense of what is going on.  How quickly, we wonder?

We begin to understand Twain’s frustration with this part of speech.   What is the point of adding an extra word if it doesn’t get your full meaning across?  This brings us to my peculiar assertion that adverbs are like thigh-squeezing, butt-molding Spanx.  The idea is that if you are going to go to the trouble of adding on adverbial modification garments, why not instead spend that time exercising your flabby verb, run, turning it into a toned sprint?

A note before you go forth and purge all adverbs from your lexicon:

Adverbs have a time and a place.  Mark Twain’s opinion is just that, an opinion.  It is undeniable that adverbs have been successfully implemented in a variety of contexts.  Consider the hilarious use of adverbs in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 during a conversation between the psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, and Captain Yossarian...

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties.  And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites.  Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”

Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help.  “I hate them consciously.”


  1. my favorite phrase: "a multitude of acts of self-propulsion"

  2. I'm with Twain. Verbs are the engines of strong syntax, so we need to select effective verbs.

    If I remember right, another American writer, Hemingway, disliked not only adverbs but also adjectives.

    And don't even get me started on the slouch toward nominalizations...

  3. I'm totally, absolutely, ridiculously with Twain on this one as well. I mean, totally.

  4. Steve, brother, you've done it again. The money sentence in this masterpiece is:
    "This brings us to my peculiar assertion that adverbs are like thigh-squeezing, butt-molding Spanx".