Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Don't be a "Rule" Slave

Special Grace Note (5/13/17): 
I am taking the weekend off for Mothers' Day. 
See you next week.

Last weekend the grandgirls all had solo roles in local "Junior" productions of The Lion King and Grease. Hailey and Riley shared a role, performing on different nights. They also shared the same dress! Cassidy played the villain Scar in The Lion King.



Cassidy - a smiling villain (the show was over)

Don't Be a "Rule" Slave

A lengthy discussion on adverbs on the Regency authors' BeauMonde email loop is the spark behind this week's Mosaic Moments. I'll be holding forth on Adverbs this week, but I expect there will be a lot more about "rule busting" in the foreseeable future.

I'd like to begin with an adverb story from real life. Over the last few years I've been bothered by dentists and dental assistants telling me to "Open big." (In both East Orlando and Longwood.) I finally broke down and tried to explain it made me feel like a four-year-old with a minimal vocabulary.  Not that it was easy to explain to people in the medical field that "big" is an adjective and can only modify a noun, while  "open" is a verb and must be modified by an adverb. Therefore a dental patient should be told to "Open wide." 

For more uses of adverbs, please the definitions below.

From the Oxford English Dictionary (very academic, as one would expect):

Name of one of the Parts of Speech; a word used to express the attribute of an attribute; which expresses any relation of place, time, circumstance, causality, manner, or degree, or which modifies or limits an attribute, or predicate, or their modification; a word that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb.

From Random House Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (a little closer to clarity):

a member of a class of words functioning as modifiers of verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or clauses, as quickly, well, here, now, and very, typically expressing some relation of place, time, manner, degree, means, cause, result, exception, etc., . . . often distinguished . . . in English by the ending -ly.

From The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus*:

Adverbs are words that modify everything but nouns and pronouns. They modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. A word is an adverb if it answers how, when, or where.  

*Grace note: You can see why I recommend Ms. Straus's book for authors who need to brush up on their grammar and punctuation! Whatever definition made sense to you, I think we can now agree on what kind of words we're talking about; i.e., a large portion of the English (or any other) language. 

To put the matter more dramatically (please note the use of an adverb) - without adverbs, your book just lost a good portion of its punch. Descriptions go blah, nuances fade to black. You lost lively, delightfully, sorrowfully, wickedly, absolutely positively, inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, first, last, today, tomorrow, always, never, every—even happily ever after

So who's the idiot who decided authors should not use adverbs? You've got to be kidding! 

Which brings up the Big Question: Why do we have adverbs if we're told we can't use them? Not that my English teacher ever told me that, but I realize, looking back, he was never a slave to rules. His standard was quality. But evidently a great many budding authors have been hit with this problem—by teachers, by how-to- books, by critique groups. So . . .

This is my seventh year of Writing and Editing tips on Grace's Mosaic Moments, and I've bashed "rules" before, but until the recent discussion on BeauMonde I don't think I appreciated how badly damaged some authors' efforts have been by strict adherence to so-called "rules." Yes, I recall mentioning a manuscript I was judging that was almost incoherent because the author was afraid to use any form of "was" or "were." It was just plain sad, an excellent example of how to shoot yourself in the foot.

Grace's advice?

Don't be afraid to fly. 
"Wing it." 
Make your words sing. 

Like every aspect of life, don't overdo any one word or type of word*, but never be afraid to make your sentences shine with the words you feel need to be in that sentence. 

For examples of adverbs, I looked through my current Work in Progress, The Lady Takes a Risk. Could I have avoided the adverbs I used? Possibly. But why should I? As long as I wasn't overdoing it, why not use a perfectly good adverb and save elaborate verbiage for a more important moment? I.e., if I use a lot of descriptive words to replace the adverb in a sentence of a transitional or not-so-important paragraph, I detract from the big moments I want to dramatize with more colorful language. 

Grace note: All examples below are taken from the first six pages of the various books.

From The Lady Takes a Risk by Blair Bancroft:

What more could you possibly wish?”

 So here she was, feet flying to three-quarter time, while Cedric, Earl of Penhurst, imparted a running commentary—frequently derogatory—on each of the dancers, and more than a few chaperons, ranging from imposing dowagers to wilting lilies.

No matter how waspish her suitor became, Lady Amelie kept her perfectly polished social smile firmly fixed in place.

Horrified by her vehemence, Amelie silently begged forgiveness.

 She twisted, squirmed, her fists pounding his back, her feet kicking frantically until she encountered solid flesh.  She had the satisfaction of hearing him grunt, before abruptly breaking off the attempts of his wet, slobbering tongue to force open her mouth. Revolting!

A heaviness in her heart told her she really shouldn’t ask, but inevitably the words tumbled out.

The awful thing was, Amelie almost laughed. The thought of Cedric being able to compromise anyone was simply beyond her imagination. Which didn’t bode well for what she could expect of her marriage.
~ * ~

After copying the above from the first six pages of my manuscript, I got the bright idea of checking the masters of the Regency (since the discussion that sparked this blog was confined to Regency authors). Here is what I found. (All examples are from the first six pages of each book.)

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party.
~ * ~

From The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer:

Grace note: Since Ms. Heyer’s sentences tend to be long and involved, I confined myself to the clause with the adverb in it.

The butler, having tolerantly observed those transports . . .

. . . said his sister hastily.

. . . so rudely interrupted,

You see, what with the really dreadful expense . . .
~ * ~

From The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer:

A lady, soberly dressed in a drab-coloured pelisse . . .

She stepped up into it, her spirits insensibly rising . . .

. . . by performing menial tasks, generally allotted to a second housemaid.

Miss Rochdale’s astonished gaze alighted presently . . .
~ * ~

I tried to picture what convoluted passages might have prevailed if Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer felt they had to avoid those adverbs. Absurd! Both authors, masters of their art, are telling you a tale in the language that was appropriate for her voice. (Their magnificent voices.) Are there places you should ask yourself, "Is there a better way of saying this?" Of course there are! Every sentence cries out to be the best you can make it. But those sentences must come from your heart. Not from the dictates of some how-to book, what you heard in a workshop, what someone whispered in your ear at an authors' meeting, or what people of no talent - forced to regurgitate what they've read or heard because they have no original thoughts - tell you.

Finally, I decided I should add examples from other genres, just to show that Regency authors aren't the only ones using adverbs.

From Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry:

As Pitt vaguely recalled being here before, Sir Peter stopped abruptly and knocked on a large paneled door.

In short form, still from the first six pages:

. . . visibly struggling 
. . . drew in his breath sharply 
. . . almost as if they were equals.

From Rain on the Dead by Jack Higgins:

They were obviously on drugs, which exasperated Tod, though there was no point in mentioning it now.

They didn't reply, simply turned and swam away, and so did he.

 ~ * ~
The moral of ALL these examples: Adverbs are good. They give us a way to play with our verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, to subtly alter or nuance what we want to say. They provide us with words like forever and never, phrases like I walked upstairs, I'll see you tomorrow. Adverbs are an integral part of our language. And yes, they provide us with a simple way to say what we want to say. (And many times "simple" is best.)

No, you don't tack an adverb onto every verb in your paragraph, any more than you attach an adjective to every noun. But for heaven's sake, don't listen to the no-can-do's who throw up their hands and cry, "Oh, horrors, you used an adverb!" 

Hold your head high, fly in the face of ignorance, and if an adverb is the word that works for you in a sentence, USE IT!

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.  


  1. "Open big"? Don't these people read? EVERY dentist says "open wide." Isn't that taught in dental school?

    I'm glad I'm old enough that my English teachers never taught me to avoid adverbs, not that I think much about them. I do remember encountering (long after I graduated) an article strongly demanding avoidance of all forms of the verb "to be," which seemed to me both stylistically and philosophically absurd. If God is "I AM," and I'm made in the image of God, then I am going to BE, no matter what some writing expert tries to tell me.

    But I also insist on using masculine forms as general terms, and avoid the singular use of plural pronouns whenever it doesn't make the sentence ridiculous. And I've often called a drake a duck. So you see, I am incorrigible.

  2. Thanks for your excellent comment, Linda. And to Mary, I thought I'd made it clear that adjectives must be used with nouns. If I didn't, I apologize. (Please see Ms. Straus's definition of an adverb.)