Don’t Go Gentle: Writing Colourful With(out) Adverbs

img_8430Adverbs are colourful things. Despite the advice of writers like Stephen King, they can do a lot to spice up your prose.

Agatha Christie, for example, was a prolific user of them. She used regular English adverbs (those ending in “-ly”) frequently, to great stylistic effect. Take, for example, this passage from And Then There Were None:

  Vera said hoarsely:
  ‘I don’t understand you.’
  Her fingers worked spasmodically. She felt suddenly afraid of this quiet old soldier.
  He said musingly:
  ‘You see, I loved Leslie. I loved her very much…’
  Vera said questioningly:
  ‘Was Leslie your wife?’

But adverbs can be treated in even more creative ways. Here, for example, is a passage from Henry Green’s 1945 novel, Loving, the story of English servants during World War II:

  ‘Sssh,’ said Edith watching rapt. The children turned. There were so many doves they hardly knew which way to look.
  ‘And then there came a time when this wicked tempting bird came to her father to ask her hand,’ Miss Swift said, passing a dry tongue over dry lips, shuteyed.
  ‘It don’t seem right not out in the open,’ Kate mentioned casual.
  ‘And again over there too and there,’ said Edith.
  ‘Where?’ said cried Miss Evelyn too loud though not too sharp as she thought to interrupt Miss Swift. The nanny just put a hand on her arm while she droned.

Notice the difference? As Sebastian Faulk writes in his 2005 introduction to the Living, Green’s prose is full of “stylistic quirks” – not least in his approach to adverbs. Although there is one regular adverb in the passage (“they hardly knew”) there are, many more words (like “loud” and “sharp”) that look, at first glance, like irregular adverbs – or, worse, downright ungrammatical ones.

You only have to pick up a page at random to find a myriad of other examples. There’s “he said low”, “this brought her up sharp”, “he went on canny”, “Edith said indifferent”, “she answered amused”, “take everything so solemn”, and so on. Whereas Christie is writing using a very standard form of English, Green is being more linguistically creative. In taking regular English adverbs (like “loudly” and “sharply”) to the guillotine, he is deliberately breaking grammatical norms. For me, the effect is striking – striking brilliant, even.

To understand why, it’s worth putting Green’s prose under the microscope. As it turns out, he’s doing more than just chopping off bits of words. There’s actually quite a lot to say about the linguistics of what Green is doing. And, although he’s playing with norms, he’s not necessarily breaking any grammatical rules.

In standard English, we are used to seeing adverbs immediately before or after verbs in a sentence. In grammatical terms, adverbs are said to modify the verb – that is, they say something about how the action is performed. (Adjectives are also modifiers, but they modify a noun.) Most English adverbs end in “ly”, and we tend to put them after the verb, so we are well used to seeing the standard pattern you see in Christie’s passage: “Vera said hoarsely”, “she felt suddenly”, and so on. When we see a modifier after a verb that breaks that pattern, as we do throughout Green’s passage, it’s always going to feel unexpected.

Of course, there are some adverbs that don’t end in “ly”. Adverbs like “fast” and “slow” are called flat adverbs, and generally have the same form as a related adjective. Because they don’t fit the standard pattern, adverbs like “fast”, “slow”, “hard”, “wrong”, “far”, and so on, generally feel slightly less formal than regular ones. But they have been around for centuries and so are a perfectly legitimate part of English.

So, one explanation for what Green is doing, is that he’s taking regular adverbs and turning them into flat ones. The effect is to create a sort of blunt, informal style that perhaps echoes the dialect of the below-stairs workers in his novel. (In Loving, both the narrator and the characters approach adverbs in the same way). Indeed, although Green was a member of the upper classes, he was enchanted by the dialect of the men that worked in his father’s West Midland iron foundry.

But that’s not the only explanation. The other explanation is that “loud”, “sharp”, “casual”, and so on, are not being used as adverbs at all. They are, in fact, being used as adjectives.

It’s certainly rarer in English to see adjectives immediately after a verb in a sentence. But it’s certainly not impossible. One exception is what linguists call copulative verbs. These are special verbs (in sentences like “you look good”, “stay safe”, “the pies remained fresh”), which link the subject directly to an adjective. Copulative verbs explain what’s happening in the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, for example, and in the expression “hang tough”.

Another exception is where what looks like an adjective is actually working like a noun and is, in fact, the direct object of the verb. That’s the case, for example, in Apple’s famous “Think different” advertising campaign.

Another exception is present participles (ending in “ing”) which function like adjectives, and which are not uncommonly found next to verbs. Here are a couple of examples from Loving:

(1)       ‘What’s this?” he enquired chuckling, a light in his eyes.
(2)       ‘Pounds?’ she asked making her eyes big.

Although some style guides would insist on a comma between the verb and the present participle, there is nothing particularly striking about the sentences above.

A fourth exception is adjective phrases, which are grammatically identical to adjectives on their own, but where the adjective is part of a larger chunk. The sentence below is perfectly grammatical, and not at all striking, even though the adjective phrase sits immediately after the verb:

(3)       ‘Yes,’ she said, always happy to help.

However, if you strip the adjective phrase down to just the bare adjective (“happy”), the effect might be a bit strange looking (shouldn’t it be “happily”?). But you still understand it in the same way:

(4)       ‘Yes,’ she said, happy.

This is how I read Green. In the passage from Living, I don’t interpret his “casual”, “loud”, “sharp”, and so on, as adverbs, flat or otherwise. Instead, I interpret them as adjectives. That is, they are saying something about the subject of the sentence rather than the verb – about the person doing the action rather than how they are doing it. It’s the same for Leonard Cohen’s famous lyric “You want to travel with her / You want to travel blind”. It’s the same for “Eat colourful” in this marketing for ready-made Indian food.

It’s also the same for Dylan Thomas’ famous line of verse “Do not go gentle into that good night” where, for me, it’s not about how we go – rather, it’s about not being “gentle” when we do.

Thomas perhaps even stands above Green as a master in surprising you with an adjective where you might expect to see an adverb. In Under Milk Wood, for example, there is “The boys are dreaming wicked”. Elsewhere, the cats of Llareggub “lope sly”. And so on. Stylistically, these examples are striking. They’re unexpected and surprising. Even if the sense is little changed in each case, because it plays with grammatical norms without necessarily breaking any rules, the substitution of an adjective feels more creative – more poetic, somehow.

Of course “Do not go gently” might have sounded just as powerful in its central message of raging against our inevitable journey to the grave. But it wouldn’t have sounded like Dylan Thomas. (Winston Churchill, maybe – but not Dylan Thomas.) Likewise, Living would still have been a masterpiece of modernist literature without Green’s “stylistic quirks”. But it wouldn’t have been so uniquely his.

Beyond simply the strangeness, it’s worth dwelling on a more nuanced effect of the substitution. One of the main arguments against adverbs in prose is that they amount to author intrusion. That is, because the narrator is effectively making a judgement about how an action is performed (“fast”, “loudly”, “questioningly”, and so on), their subjective presence is apparently intruding into the story. Green told the BBC in 1950 that he always avoided the “authorial adverb” because, in his words, “nothing kills life so much as explanation”.

Finally, I would propose another potential stylistic effect. In all of these examples there is an intrinsic ambiguity. In each case, it’s possible to interpret the word immediately following the verb either as a novel (flat) adverb or, as I prefer, as an adjective. (As one linguist writes: “If intransitives are followed by an adjective, the adjective is ambiguous between modifying the (intransitive) verb or the subject nominal.”) Because of the ambiguity, there’s some sense of “mystery” – of not knowing exactly what the narrator is really telling us. That speaks neatly to Green’s assertion that all other humans are essentially unknowable.

Regular adverbs will always have their place, irrespective of what Stephen King might think. And others have already preached the use of flat adverbs as a stylistic device. But, as Green and Thomas show, I think there’s even more fun to be had in surprising the reader with an unexpected adjective or two. It might start to feel like a cheap trick, once you know what’s going on. But it will definitely make your prose stand out (he said, confident).

At least, of course, until everyone starts doing it.

Milking The Cow, Amoebic Dysentery & Other Metaphors For Creative Writing

metaphors-for-creativityOne of my Christmas presents this year was Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by American novelist Anne Lamott. It’s a book for aspiring writers and novelists – aren’t we all? – and it’s full of advice and inspiration about the writing business. It’s also honest, spiritual, and consistently funny. Lamott writes a bit like Charles Bukowski spliced with Alice Walker.

What really struck me about the book is the range of metaphors Lamott uses to describe the creative writing process. The title itself comes from a memory she has of her brother, in tears, momentarily defeated by a high school assignment he has to write about birds. She recalls her father putting his arms around him and telling him to “just take it bird by bird”: a metaphor she says is helpful in approaching a novel –one paragraph or one chapter at a time.

Early on, for example, Lamott writes about writing as a form of magic or divinity:

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.”

Later, she compares setting down the plot to driving a car at night and only being able to see as far as the headlights. Elsewhere, she describes bringing the plot to a climax as if composing a symphony:

“The climax is that major event, usually towards the end, that brings together all the tunes you have been playing so far into a major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed […]”

Somewhere in the middle, she describes writing dialogue as an act of translation:

“You’re translating the sound or rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.”

At one point, she compares creativity – the generation of novel and striking ideas – to holding a lantern in the dark while her unconscious (which she imagines as a “kid”) digs for treasure:

“I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t know even know what the kid is digging for half the time – but she knows gold she she sees it.”

Then, she compares the act of writing – of arranging those ideas on paper – to knitting or embroidery:

“What we have in our head are fragments and thoughts we’ve heard and memorized, and we take our little ragbag and reach into it and throw some stuff down […]”

And to painting:

“I talked earlier about the artist who is trying to capture something in one corner of his canvas and keeps discovering that what he has painted is not what he had in mind.”

And also gardening:

“What happens instead is that you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and re-written […]”

All of her metaphors for writing are memorably evocative. I particularly liked the analogy of milking a cow: “the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it”. And perhaps the most striking of all is the one she uses to describe getting over writer’s block:

“[…] it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my own business, and the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.”

But what’s interesting for me is the way Lamott is using metaphor – as an artist rather than a scientist – to explore the very real cognitive processes of linguistic creativity.

As she herself says in the book: “metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known”. It’s true that we don’t yet fully understand the complex linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics involved in the creation of language, let alone creative language. If we did, we wouldn’t need authors. We’d be able to design a computer programme to write the next Booker Prize winner. The Nobel Prize for literature would have already been awarded to Microsoft or Google.

Instead, linguistic creativity remains a fascinating subject for research (and novelists, at least a handful of them, can still make a living). While the metaphors Lamott uses to describe the process of writing – or at least how she herself perceives that process – perhaps don’t explain how linguistic creativity works, they do provide places for scientists to start looking.

For example, why might a writer experience the emotional need to write such that finishing a novel feels like being milked? Is the lantern holder really different to the kid digging, and what does that say about the structure of the brain? And why might creativity sometimes feel like running to the lavatory?…

They’re all great questions, of course. Indeed, they are exactly what this blog is about.