On Adverbs

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

During one of my many dates with the library senior year, none of which I dressed up nicely for, my friend D caught me slumped against the keyboard of my laptop, looking jaundiced from the lack of sunlight and bemoaning my decision to write a thesis in creative writing, of all things.

After a pat on the back and some shared commiseration about our respective writing projects, D pulled up an Elmore Leonard article for me that spelled out ten good rules for aspiring writers. Then she began to read them out to me with great flourish.

“Never open a book with weather,” she said.


“Avoid prologues.”

I was cool with that.

“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” she asseverated.

I bit my tongue. But then came the bullet.

“Never use an adverb to modify the word ‘said’”.

At this, I categorically stopped her. That just sounded like silly talk.

“What do you mean, I can’t use adverbs?” I asked.

“To use an adverb in this way, or any way, really, is a grave sin,” she read.

“But that’s ridiculous,” I sputtered. “Leaving out adverbs entirely is like cutting a limb off of the English language.”

D looked at me sympathetically. “I understand that English is your second language,” she began.

“J.K. Rowling uses adverbs! And she was Harvard’s commencement speaker two years ago! That means they’re legit!”

D rolled her eyes and shifted them back to the computer screen.

“Does Elmore have anything against split infinitives? I like to playfully sprinkle those in sometimes. Wait, why are you walking away?”

I smiled as this memory came to mind today during my tenure in a reading room at the law library after lunch. I was stealing away from medical school’s claim over my time. I was going to spend the afternoon freely writing, adding to a story I started a long time ago.

Thinking about one’s goals for their writing is something that every writer should spend time on, as part of an opening ritual or something. My work will probably never measure up to Elmore Leonard’s standards. But I’m the only audience I have right now. I just want to write to produce something that I can be proud of.

Oddly enough, that’s enough for me at the moment.

And ps: if your writing is good enough to make it to an editor’s desk, she’ll probably take your adverbs out for you.

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