adverb: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree etc.
“Scandalous,” my friend Monty said in his half-Southern drawl, half-French lilt, when I ask him what he thought of adverbs in writing. He’s a 30-something writing snob who can’t keep his mind off the written word for more than a few, sober, hours.
His opinion isn’t a solo in a chorus of adverb-enthusiasts. From my work in writing text, for everything from speeches to articles to webpages, I regularly watch clients edit out the dread pirate -LY. Well, not all clients.
Monty aside, those who consistently nix extremely, quite, always are also those who happen to have birthdates before the year 1975 (formally known as Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Greatest Generation - we’ll skip the genealogy lesson). But the Oregon Trail Generation and Millenials (aka those born around the 1975 mark and beyond) have a very different response. They are quite happy-go-lucky about adverbs, even going so far as to find new ways to fit another one into a sentence.
In looking at the trends, I had to wonder what spurred this whole “put an adverb on it!” style - and why our parents and grandparents are so anti-adverbstablishment.
Adverbs in a Pre-Millennial World
Slightly older folk were raised in a time when writing lessons focused on sentence diagramming, the strictest adherence to Strunk and White grammar laws, and the praises of Hemingway. Which is all to say, writing education was different back then. Gen X and before learned there were proper ways of writing and communicating, and there were absolute wrong ways to put a sentence together. Short sentences were favored, especially ones that were easy to read yet told full stories.
If writing well in this style sounds hard, that’s because it is. Hemingway’s famous six word story, “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn,” looks simple when read, but we know as writers he probably toiled over that for weeks if not months, as he did every piece of writing. Now imagine being asked to do that at age 10. Even if these students of yesteryear didn’t have their fingers rapped with a ruler for their mistakes, it’s unlikely their errors were celebrated as teachable moments or "descriptive writing."
So everyone learned there were rules for writing. Rules like, avoid adverbs.
Speaking of Hemingway, his style became remarkably influential - and why wouldn't it. The man was famous, and a brilliant writer, known for sparse sentences, and forcing a reader to read between the lines and do a little work. Those who dreamed of writing studied his prolific portfolio of books and stories as devoutly as a Buddha-in-training practices meditation.
Because Hemingway was so popular, so became those who cited him as an influence (Charles Bukowski and David Foster Wallace come to mind). And when you skim the texts of Papa Ernest and his followers, you’ll notice the sparse, adverb-free writing fairly quickly. In fact, the style is so revered there’s even an app for that - though interestingly, Hemingway himself doesn’t always follow his own standards.
One other notably famous writer (infamous for telling Rolling Stone that Hemingway sucks) still adheres to the Hemingway style. Opinion of the late writer or not,Stephen King is on record stating “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” The style was indeed steeped in our writing culture like melted butter on porous toast.
Millennials Are (Knowingly or Not) Taking a Stand
Which leads us to this brave, new generation of writers. The bloggers, copywriters, ad writers, and emailers of the now who liberally apply adverbs like a sparkling balm to landing pages, sales emails, and Thought Catalog articles.
As a generation, we care about how language flows and sounds on the page. We were taught the phrase show not tell like a chain gang chant. We want our writing to be in our voice, and because the same words and phrases have been splattered about for the better part of a century, we’re looking for ways to modify them so they hold more power, and more importantly, convey who we are. And what better way to intensify all this than with an adverb?
It’s hard not to think about how our culture has grown to overuse or misuse an abundance of vocabulary, like awesome, epic, mind-blowing, and literally. Yet it’s no wonder we do. We want to somehow be more than our parents. We want to denote that things have changed, are changing, and will continue to change. Modifying the words we use is one way keep overuse or misuse at bay - or expand upon them.
But perhaps most importantly, because so much of our correspondence is now text based and done faster than a bell tolls, we are trending toward not making declarative statements. They don’t read as friendly, open and curious about the world. Consider the conversation about “just” - one little tugboat of an adverb getting one boatload of attention for the way it's used. Gender concerns aside, the use ofjust lightens any message to a colleague or a friend. Without intonation or facial expression, in a way just is all we have to express our meaning clearly.
There is of course, the written world outside of personal and professional correspondence - like the fast-paced, highly public publishing online world. One mis-step and your writing is under the scrutiny of anyone pinching open their smart-phone screen to find, as zoomed as possible, the errors of your thinking. Adverbs thus become a self-protective measure. Millenials grew up in a litigious, offendable, knowledge-troll society, and we worry that what we say will be held against us, in the face of everyone online. To not use an adverb is almost making your own bed to lay in when the internet comes down upon you with research you didn’t uncover or an un-thought out statement.
Only Millennials have this frame of reference. Every other generation remembers it differently, when smear campaigns weren’t blasted the whole world over and the only thing viral was the flu, not your reputation on top of it.
Do You Care to Adverb?
While we are fans of clear, concise writing (which often means, yes, following the rules of grammar), we are also fans of beautiful, compelling writing. Suffice it to say, we have a follow-your-heart attitude when it comes to adverbs. If it works in the sentence, tells the story better, or sells your product in a more meaningful way, go for it. If not, sure, omit it.
The rules of writing are ever-evolving with how our culture thinks, communicates, and wants to be remembered. Go ahead and evolve with it.