Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is a the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish moustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
The above 80-word paragraph features five adverbs, i.e., 6.25% of it is pure adverbiage—quite remarkable for a paragraph explicitly composed to discourage rather than to promote their employment—including a whopping three instances of the word usually. (On the previous page, Mr. King had stated that he was “not in love” with the sentence My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss because it contained the word with twice in four words.)
Mr. King continues:
Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there.
Good point. While I’m at it, I shall also ask myself if really really has to be there.
A Tenth Anniversary Edition of On Writing is scheduled for July 2010. Whether the author or his editor will excise a few adverbs from the anti-adverb section remains to be seen.
What also caught my attention—other than the substantive content itself—was that in its 290 pages, On Writing contained at least twenty instances of the word apt in the sense of likely, as in you’re not apt to get a very unbiased opinion from folks who’ve eaten dinner at your house on page 217. (Incidentally, does very really have to be there?)
The last time I found the frequency of a particular not-so-common word similarly conspicuous was when I read The Da Vinci Code. In one of its early chapters, someone snaked himself through a partition at the Louvre. A few dozen pages later, a van snaked its way up a hill. For the rest of the novel, at clockwork intervals, someone or something advanced by snaking.
About halfway through the tale I began to suspect that the repeated use of the word “snake” was yet another clue to the solution of the mystery. Thus I resolved that a serpent of some sort must have swallowed the Holy Grail; or perhaps that the Holy Grail was indeed Mary Magdalene’s offspring, and “snake” was used as a phallic motif that, yes, snaked itself through the whole novel.
Given the wealth of verbs that signify locomotion, it is hard to imagine that all this snaking could have been a mere editorial oversight:
Arriving at the partitions, Fache snaked his way through them, saw the rest room door, and ran for it.
Sophie snaked her way toward the stadium.
The truck, after an unnerving pause atop the bank ramp, had moved on, snaking left and right for a minute or two, and was now accelerating to what felt like top speed.
Castel Gandolfo snaked downward through the Alban Hills into the valley below.
Before Sophie and Teabing could respond, a sea of blue police lights and sirens erupted at the bottom of the hill and began snaking up the half-mile driveway.
Winding down narrow hallways, Silas snaked through a kitchen, past terrified workers, who left to avoid the naked albino as he knocked over bowls and silverware, busting into a dark hallway near the boiler room.
In addition, there was a lot of wheeling going on in The Da Vinci Code. No one ever seemed to turn around. Everybody “wheeled”:
Fache wheeled to Collet.
Wheeling, he stared back in the direction from which he had come.
Grouard wheeled and aimed his gun at her but instantly realized it was an empty threat.
He wheeled suddenly and pointed to the far wall.
Collet wheeled, anger brimming.
He wheeled back toward the knights.
As the first officer wheeled to shoot, Silas dove for his legs.
Langdon wheeled, looking fearful.
As Stephen King would put it, characters and objects in Mr. Brown’s novel were usually more apt to snake and wheel than they were usually apt to move and turn.
Usually, that is.
Tags: Words & Language