Friday, March 19, 2010

Merrily Merrily

So it’s a capital offence to use adverbs? It is, according to Elmore Leonard, who lays down the law in his book 10 Rules of Writing, to be published shortly. If you haven’t seen the Guardian’s Leonard-inspired article Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, in which a number of authors share their dos and don’ts, you should. It’s packed full of advice: useful, funny, exasperating, gnomic, silly…see

But the poor old adverb. Why such animosity? I think there can be few words as wonderful as an adverb when it’s used in the right place. I remember the first time I came across “friendlily” many years ago, in a novel by Kate O’Brien. I’d never thought you could make an adverb of friendly and it stopped me dead in my reading tracks.

Hang on – isn’t that what good writing is not supposed to do, interrupt the flow, introduce a bit of rough with the smooth? Well, no, not really. The occasional jolt or jar can work wonders. I stopped at “friendlily” and I read the sentence again and I said the word to myself a few times: friend – li – ly. I said it quickly, I said it slowly, relishing the sound of it, the sense of it. Then I reread the sentence and I thought, yes, that works.

A couple of days ago I came across "premonishingly" in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Diaboliad. I had to look it up. What a lovely word! Pre – mon – ish – ing – ly. Say it quickly, say it slowly…I don’t even agree that it’s a bad thing when a reader has to go to a dictionary (another bugbear of Elmore Leonard’s). Can you imagine anything more dreary than being stuck with just the words you know? Being deprived of the excitement of discovering a new word?

When I was a child I read a bowdlerised version of Gulliver’s Travels long before I was old enough to understand it. I didn’t know half the words, but I loved the sight and what I thought was the sound of them. I copied some of the best into a little notebook, long, multi-syllabled words, they looked so good on the page, so packed with significance. I didn’t know what they meant, but I loved them. (OK, I was a weird child.) I remember reading somewhere of one writer – I think it was Will Self – who said he collects words. I know what he means. Words are beautiful things. Even adverbs.

So enjoy your adverbs, I say.

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