Five aspiring authors in a cage

Most people would have read the “five monkeys in a cage” tale. If not, google it or (if you’re lazy), watch the summary on vimeo. Essentially, it is a tale encouraging us to question why things are sometimes done the way they are done with no apparent reason.

Five monkeys in a cage

Five monkeys in a cage (ok, the picture has more than five… it still gets the point across I think)

Today, I read fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s nice post on “Adverbs… yes or no?” and I agree with her about adverbs getting a bad rap (not “wrap”, by the way 😉 ), but couldn’t help but notice that some of the comments there were fairly one-sided and “anti-adverb”. Is comparing people who advise against using adverbs to the five monkeys left in the cage a little extreme? Perhaps, but so is flat-out advising against the use of adverbs.

Adverbs are not evil, people.

As with so many things, the importance is to use adverbs in moderation. Granted, many of the commenters did advise moderation, and some pointed out why their overuse should be avoided. I don’t disagree with that. But saying their use is the “easy way out”, or a “shortcut”, that removing all adverbs from a manuscript makes it “stronger”, and that “said” should never be modified with an adverb? Really? I don’t want to offend anyone, and I don’t want anyone committing the strawman fallacy of claiming that I advocate liberal use of adverbs in all styles of writing (I don’t), but that just sounds like parochial adverb-bashing to me.

I also noted (with the slightest of smirks, I must admit), that those with adverb-allergies don’t mind using rather long adverbial phrases. How is that any better?

Journalism is probably an area where adverbs should be avoided more than in fiction. Sections in fiction where the reader should be left to fill the partially-drawn canvas with her own imagination should have fewer or no adverbs.

However, adverbs can (I stress can) be useful: they can clarify, modify, moderate, strengthen, explain; they can be elegant, precise, and more succinct than a laborious adverbial phrase. I suspect a number of adverb-despisers don’t realise how heavily they use adverbial phrases, and that sometimes – sometimes – a good adverb can be better. Adverbs have their place in first-person perspectives, for instance, where the narrator’s opinion should colour the reader’s impression.

I see close similarities between what is considered to be “good writing” and what is considered to be “elegant programming” (in my day job). Inexperienced writers, like inexperienced programmers, tend to sometimes follow certain patterns, or do too much or too little of something. Editors or code reviewers pick up on these patterns and, in formulating advice on how to prevent such anti-patterns, sometimes generalise a little too much, or state their advice as though it was doctrine. Such advice has its use, but experienced writers or programmers should take this advice with a hefty pinch of salt. The turkey city lexicon is a prime example. Know the rules, know the conventions, but also be aware of when and how they should be broken (or at least bent).

The comment that scared me into writing this post was one from a writer who said he was new to sharing his writing, hadn’t considered the use of adverbs too much, and now thought he should indeed remove adverbs to make his writing stronger. Please… let’s not create more monkeys who do things just because “that’s the way things are done around here”.

About Amos M. Carpenter

Web dev by day, author by night, and generally interested in (and opinionated about) way too many things.

Posted on 31 March, 2014, in Development, Rants, Tips, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I totally agree with you on this, I read that article and commented in favour of adverbs. Not the overuse of them, but I can’t see why people shouldn’t use them. I like adverbs as a writer and a reader, and I don’t think publishers or published authors should dictate what we can and can’t do in writing. Writing is a personal thing, and we should do it how it feels best for us. If we have a major overuse of them, then editors or readers should help to point them out, but don’t be put off using them just because others say you shouldn’t!

    Great post 🙂

    • Thank you Mishka, I’m glad you agree. I truly (whoops!) don’t mind if anyone disagrees with me (what do I know, anyway?), I just feel obliged to play devil’s advocate whenever I see “mini-extremism” of any kind, in the form of “you should always…” or “you must never…”. Never listen to people who use those phrases, you should always understand when such statements apply and when they don’t. 😉

      I do hope I haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes by comparing them to monkeys in a cage. The warning not to overuse adverbs has merit, of course, but “don’t overuse” does not equal “don’t ever use”.

      Appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  2. I’m kind of an anti adverb person but you do make a case for moderation as long as it’s not laziness. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks Sarah – and I hope you’ll forgive me for pointing out that “kind of” is actually an adverb phrase… and I’m glad it’s there! 😉

      • Ha I learned something new, thanks for that! Mostly I just have an aversion to -ly words, said Sarah smartly.

      • I know what you mean – if a writer overuses “said x y-ly”, it just makes it sound… amateurish. Of course, there’s also the faction that dislikes overusing alternatives for “said”, so it’s a fine line to walk. Ideally, the conversation is so engaging that the reader doesn’t even notice what you’re using or not using. Know the rules, know the conventions, and know when to bend and when to break them – easy 😉

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