fbook icon 60Adverbs and Chocolate

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Image: Lindt Chocolate 

I have a confession to make. Just as I yearn to finish a box of Lindt chocolates in a single sitting, I'm also tempted to sprinkle my prose with adverbs. I can trace this tendency back to primary school days when we were encouraged to drop adverbs into our sentences in the same way you might add a generous handful of chocolate chips to a biscuit mix.  If you wanted a high mark for your story, you soon learned that lean, spare prose wasn't good enough. You had to produce a lavish confection loaded with modifiers.

Some years later, I read Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing and discovered I'd been committing a terrible sin.

This is what Mr King had to say:

‘… the road to hell is paved with adverbs.’

He was right, of course. And in my case, he might equally have said: ‘The road to hell is paved with chocolates’.

After that, I followed Mr King's advice and established some rules for myself: verbs and nouns are okay but exercise caution with adjectives, and extreme caution with adverbs. And ration yourself to two squares of dark chocolate per day.

Recently I’ve been writing an historical novel set in the Victorian era. It's a time period which allows me to indulge my secret passion for adverbs. You see, unlike the literati of the modern world, the Victorians loved them. In fact, you would rarely find an adjective or a verb without a modifier accompanying it.  ‘Dreadfully’, ‘exceedingly’, ‘awfully’ were favourites. The Victorians combined them with positive words: dreadfully nice, exceedingly handsome, awfully good to intensify the meaning of the adjective.

But before I proceed any further, let me dispel a myth. Not all adverbs end in ‘–ly’. In fact, some of the most useful ones don’t look like adverbs at all:

sometimes, often, seldom, never, ever, always, soon, already, seldom, now, nowadays, today, tomorrow, yesterday, then, …

perhaps, maybe, also, almost, only, just, quite, very, too, …

everywhere, nowhere, anywhere, elsewhere, backwards, forwards, …

And that’s just for starters.

So here's the thing. When people offer warnings about adverbs, are they just referring to the ‘-ly’ variety or to all of them? And if certain types of chocolate have a higher fat content than others, is it the same with adverbs?  Are the  ‘–ly’ variety more sinful than those I listed above? I really don’t know the answer. Perhaps someone can tell me ...

P.S. If I missed out on highlighting any adverbs, please let me know! 

Deborah O’Brien

February 22, 2013