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October 21, 2009

The War of the Adverb is On (Second Front)

Earlier this week, British writer David Hewson remarked on his blog that in trips to the United States for writing conferences, he's been taken aback, to say the least, by the extreme antipathy shown adverbs on this side of the pond.

He's not the first writer from the UK to express this particular variety of puzzlement. I remember the Scot writer Denise Mina at a local conference sitting on a panel devoted to dialogue and registering increasing dismay as one American writer after the next categorically slammed any use of adverbs whatsoever.

Finally, as the microphone was passed to her, she mustered her inimitable brogue and chimed in prettily:

"I'd like to stand up for adverbs."

In recounting his own rationale for the reasonable use of adverbs, David cited my support in this cause. As a countervailing voice he quoted the legendary Elmore Leonard, whose Fourth Rule of Writing, as listed in his famous article for the New York Times on July 16, 2001, states in part, with respect to using adverbs with the verb "said":

"To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin."

Well, the folks who manage the Leonard website apparently caught wind of David's remarks and took them for fighting words: www.elmoreleonard.com.

I realize that in post-Hemingway American letters, the adverb has all the appeal of a retrovirus, and yet I find this obsession just as affected as the overuse of adverbs itself. As David rightly notes, the point is economy and finding the mot juste. When I'm the midst of one of these annoying discussions and the "Elmore Leonard Rule" is invoked with a reverence bordering on smug, I typically provide the following counterexample:

"I love you," she said bitterly.

I defy anyone to convey the meaning of that sentence more concisely or powerfully.

And with that I think I'll get back to, you know, writing.

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