Thursday, February 25, 2010

A stay of idol execution...

A funny thing happened on the way to killing some idols today. For part two of my barnburner apparently-at-least-two-part Kill Your Idols series, I was good and riled up, ready to tear into an idol or two over their preposterous blanket dismissal of adverbs. (I mean, c'mon, idols, there's a proper place and time, you know? Be reasonable, idols. Just look at my use of "apparently" back there! Modifiers used for a little comedic topspin are perfectly acceptable. A mountain of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse quotes back me up on that, even if you're of the opinion my usage above wasn't all that funny. Which, upon reflection, it wasn't. And sometimes, they're the surest, most concise path to what you're trying to say. Take a favorite quote of mine, by newsman Bill Stout: "Whether or not you write well, write bravely." If he'd said "...be brave in your writing" instead he'd be sacrificing style and adding words. So tell me, idols, why the hate?)

Only here's the thing: I couldn't find any idols who blanketly (ha!) dismissed adverbs.

Oh, sure, Stephen King said "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." But a) that's hardly a blanket dismissal (he himself cops to using them on occasion), and b) I already beat up on Mr. King last time, and this feature isn't called Beat Up On Stephen King, Who Is A Major Influence of Mine, and Who I Really Quite Like, and Who Also Could Squash Me Like A Bug At Any Time If He So Chose. And then there's prose-genius Elmore Leonard, who advises writers to "go easy on the adverbs". Not a lot of fire and brimstone behind that one. Mark Twain said that adverbs failed to excite him. Not much to work with, there. Henry James quite liked them, so he's no help at all.

No, it seems my idols have little objection to adverbs themselves: what they object to is the fact that they're often a symptom of lazy writing; a crutch for those unwilling to seek out the proper word for a given situation. And the afore-mentioned idols are completely, completely correct. (See what I did there? A twofer of sentence-weakening modifiers! Suck it, hypothetical adverb bigots!)

Point is, it's not the idols that are to blame for the blanket adverb-hate, it's their fundamentalist disciples -- the folks who hang on their every word, and who attempt to codify every scrap of their advice into a set of Immutable Writing Rules. Those nutjobs are the ones who refuse to assess each adverb placement on its own merits. Those nutjobs are the ones who clutter up the internets with their all-caps type-yelling to the heavens about the suckage of adverbs. And dismissing any group based on objections that only apply to their nuttiest of offshoots is a straw man of the highest order. So yeah. All idols alive and well.

My point (assuming I have one)? For that, I'll defer to Mr. Leonard (with one parenthetical caveat): "Easy on the adverbs, exclamation points, and especially hooptedoodle." (But for God's sake, don't blame the words. The words themselves are fine. It's us schmucks who keep using them badly. "Badly"? Crap! I've done it again!)