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Adverbmania!

I once wrote a whimsical story about a kingdom where the parts of speech all had important roles to play. but that over the years, people seemed to use adverbs less and less. So while the nouns and the verbs and the adjectives were given much attention, the adverbs were increasingly ignored.

Eventually, the adverbs got together and formed a deputation to speak to the king. They wanted him to encourage more use of them, and a better benefits package. The king was somewhat sympathetic, but said that there was nothing much he could do if the subjects were not as interested in employing adverbs as the past. And the other parts of speech laughed at them, or ignored them.

So the adverbs said that they would go on strike, and not be part of any sentences. The king and his court didn’t seem to care much. But as time went on, people realized that there was something missing. They were reduced to saying that a play or a song was “good.” If they wanted to emphasize that it was better than good, they would say “good!,” or “GOOD,” both of which are more discernible in writing than speaking.

They would say that the temperature was HOT! or HOT HOT HOT!!! The books of course became less interesting, as they had no nuance and comparatives in them. Finally, the king realized that the land needed the adverbs back, so he apologized to them, and guaranteed that they would be used and appreciated more. And the adverbs graciously ended their strike, and everyone was very much gratified.

I thought it was a cute story, and much needed when I wrote it, when people were not using adverbs very often. But now, things have changed, and suddenly we are confronted with a plethora of adverbs. They are in virtually every sentence. Of course, the rise of the internet has afforded many more people a chance to have their writings read, which is both good and bad, mostly bad, in terms of style.

I am certainly not setting myself as the arbiter of writing style. I had a friend in law school whose team brief he researched and I wrote, and which got a very high numerical grade, tell me that I sometimes used split infinitives, which I admit I am inclined to sometimes do, because I think it can make a sentence more fun to read. And I do like to use semicolons, perhaps too frequently; it is probably because I liked reading Melville.

So people will write how they like, even though I shudder at some of the writing in the entertainment sites, where “the movie was kinda good,” and “it was sorta exciting to not know the ending until you got there.” You see those words so often. I think it is an effort by the writer to act like he or she is just a regular person, and so hip, so post-modern, as to not want to write in a more formal way. I find it irritating, a movie is not “sorta” good. The language has devolved enough, in an Orwellian dystopic way, to not need people to used slang in place of modifiers.

But putting that aside, there is an explosion of adverbs used. It is as if the writers feel that a sentence is naked without having every adjective given an adverb to adorn it. Rather like in Restoration England, or in the Regency Period, where a man needed that extra manifestation of style: the cummerbund, or the earring, maybe even some rouge on the cheek. This showed that one was a la mode. There is a famous Restoration play called “The Man of Mode.” In this era, it is not so much how you dress–although that does have its role–it is how you express yourself on the social media.

I very much like adverbs, when they are expressively used. It does take some skill, and I sometimes think of what the right adverb might be, to accurately express my perception or assessment of something. What I see now is the same four or five adverbs being used over and over. The ones I think of right away in that regard, are “incredibly,” “hilariously,” and “amazingly.” These words can be useful, but not when they keep being repeated.

Sometimes I will read reviews of shows or movies, and you can really see it there. I read something the other day, I cannot remember what show or movie it was about, but the writer used the word “incredibly” to modify an adjective, four different times. That reminded me of second grade or so (and everyone probably had a teacher like that) and the class being encouraged not to keep writing “good” as the only adjective they used.

Now, we all know that adjectives and adverbs can overstate. It is okay, if it is sparing. If you watch sports on television, you will hear announcers saying that a play was “incredible” or “unbelievable.” “Unbelievable” became so overused (I think it is partly because it feels satisfying to say the word), that some producer must have told them to stop saying it about every play. So now it is “incredible.”

I don’t demand that you can only use “incredible” if it is literally incredible; i.e, you can’t believe it, it defies credulity. But players who play football, to take just one sport, have great skills; and they are only limited by human physiognomy, so that no throw or catch or play is really that incredible, though it may be amazing to see on occasions. By definition, if you hear the announcers say “incredible” ten times in a telecast, it becomes not only repetitive, but self-contradictory.

But that’s sports; and there is excitement, and sometimes announcers get carried away. In writing reviews, you don’t have that excuse. If you write that the movie is “incredibly exciting,” what are you saying, that it was not just exciting, but the excitement was incredible, could not even be believed, it was so exciting? Meaning, you had never been that excited by a mainstream movie before? Could you not say “very exciting,” or is that too bland, so you use the word “incredible” like the sports announcers would always say “unbelievable,” as a place filler? And four times in the same review?

Then we have “hilarious,” and the phrase “hilariously, funny,” which I see in virtually every on-line comedy movie or show review. To me, hilarious means immensely funny, more than just humorous; you are laughing almost every minute. I have virtually never seen a show which I would call hilarious; maybe a few episodes of “Fawlty Towers,” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Or the “bookshop” sketch on a Monty Python record (I don’t think they wrote it, it was originally done in the 1940’s, but it was very similar to their “cheese shop” sketch; here the customer keeps asking for books, but apparently has no intention of buying any; he asks for “David Copperfield,” but when it is brought out, he says, “No, I want the version by Charles Dickenns, with two n’s, not Charles Dickens,” and this goes on, with variations, until he asks for “Edith the Aardvark Goes Quality Surveying,” and the owner somehow actually has it, but the customer then says he has no money, and no checkbook; and the owner just shoves it at him, and says, “Take it!,” and the customer says, “I can’t read.” Now, that is funny!)

Outside of that, the word “hilarious” should very rarely be used, but it is almost literally in every online review you might see of a comedy show or movie. It is either that the writers are all being paid to hype the movies, or they cannot think of any other descriptive words besides “incredible” or “hilarious.”

Oh, there is another adverb I saw used the other day, I think it was actually in The Hollywood Reporter or Variety, and it was saying that the battle for Best Picture Oscar between “Belfast” and “The Power of the Dog” was “utterly anxious.” I don’t even know what “anxious” quite means there, but what is “utterly anxious”? “Utterly” should mean, “absolutely,” or, “completely,” as, “the room was utterly silent,” which means that there wasn’t a sound. “Utterly” to modify “anxious” is another example of someone putting in an adverb because they feel it looks better, seems more profound, than just having the little adjective by itself.

I bet that if you look for it, you will see all sorts of examples of “adverbmania,” where people just can’t write an adjective without trying to emphasize or color it with a preceding adverb. Adverbs can be wonderful additions to speech, they give a description nuance and power–if they are carefully chosen and appropriate. Right now, they are moving to the realm of “kinda,” or “really,” or “way.” Which might be seen as incredible, but since virtually everything is described that way now, it becomes virtually devoid of meaning.

The adverbs in my story would not want to be used in that way! There are so many wonderful ones, that one should use them as most appropriate to the description of what one is actually trying to say. That would be refreshingly surprising!