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.

Finding Dylan In “Translation”


Bob Dylan in 1963

I’ve busked a few Bob Dylan numbers in my time. I’m one of those people who ruin the end of parties by bringing out their acoustic guitar. In my twenties, I used to play regularly at folk clubs and open mic nights. One of my favourites is “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And I do a mean “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – or at least I think I do.

It’s not just Dylan songs. I have an anachronistic love of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and early 70s, so I like singing songs by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen too. And, until about five years ago, I would always sing them with a North American accent – the same sort of approximate, hybrid North American accent that most British artists resort to when they sing.

On “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, I would go to town trying to imitate both the standard and less standard features of Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic accent (“Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village”, according to journalist Graeme Wood). I would g-drop right from the opening line (“Early one mornin’…”). I would drop the yod from “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues”. I’d elongate most of stressed monopthongs, like the “e” vowel in “offered meee a pipe”. I would reduce the /aɪ/ dipthongs in “I” and “my” to “ah” and “mah”. I’d reduce the unstressed “of” (for example) in “I seen a lot uh women” to a schwa. And so on.

It wasn’t until someone asked me once why I was singing in an American accent that I started to question it. I realised it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was automatic. I was trying to recreate “Mr Tambourine Man” as perfectly as I could – note for note, word for word. So, in some ways, it made sense to copy every phoneme too.

Then, I got a bit more into folk music. I started to listen to English folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. They, like almost everyone on the folk scene, sing unashamedly in their own accents. It’s actually something of an unwritten rule among folk singers (often attributed to 20th century folk revivalist Ewan MacColl) that you only sing songs in a language or dialect that you speak.

Later, I studied linguistics. I found out that accent, and dialect more generally, is just one part of what sociolinguists refer to as “style” – the part of language, which is not about “what you say” but rather “how you say it”. Sociolinguists posit that our linguistic style is intrinsically linked to our social identity. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s almost impossible to say anything to anybody without them making some kind of judgement about who you are – where you are from, where you were educated, what you do for a living, and so on. And, just like we can code-switch between languages, within our personal repertoire, we can style-switch depending on whom we are talking to, and what sort of identity we want to project.

It made me realise the obvious – that when I sing in an American accent, I’m not being myself. I’m taking on someone else’s identity. I’m being the one thing that the folk singers of the 1960s were aiming to avoid: inauthenticity. I’m being a fake.

It took a long time to unlearn the habit, a bit like a golfer having to change their swing. But these days, I only sing covers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in my own accent – a sort of generic South-East England British Standard English with the odd Nottingham vowel thrown in.

However, when the guitar comes out, I’m still left with a problem when it comes to Bob Dylan. The reason is that Dylan didn’t just sing in dialect, he wrote in it. His songs are not only full of phonological markers of his Woody Guthrie-influenced Midwestern dialect. His identity is marked both lexically and grammatically in the lyrics.

Take “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” for example. Across the four verses, there are particular forms of address (“honey”, “baby” and “gal”) that I would never use. There are archaic forms of goodbye (“fare thee well” and “so long”) and North American terms like “rooster”. There’s the addition of the prefix “a-” to present participles, which somehow makes me think of Mark Twain, concurrent with the frequent g-dropping (“a-thinkin’ and a-wanderin’”). There’s the contraction “I ain’t”, which isn’t part of my dialect (I’d say “I’m not”). There are bare adverbs (“you treated me unkind”), and grammatical constructions (“it ain’t no use to”), that don’t exist in British Standard English. There’s the North American use of simple past where British English would use the past perfect, and some nonstandard conjugations (“the light I never knowed”). In fact, probably the only stylistic feature in the entire song, which I would also use in speech, is the contraction of “kind of” to “kinda”.

Because of all the wonderful lexical and grammatical stylistic features, it turns out, there are very few Bob Dylan songs that I can sing without putting on someone else’s identity.

There’s only one solution. It’s the same thing you would do if you wanted to sing something written. You have to rewrite the lyrics in your own dialect. You have to attempt some sort of “translation”.

Of course, that’s not a trivial thing to do. Change just one word of a song, or one syntactic construction, and you can screw up the rhyming pattern or scansion. More fundamentally, you are faced with the same challenge all translators are faced with when changing one language for another: finding a replacement word or phrase (say, for “gal” or “it ain’t no use”) that doesn’t completely wash out any sense of identity entirely.

But, with a bit of effort, you can do it. Here’s how I now sing the first verse of “Don’t Think Twice”:

There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
If you don’t know by now
There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
It doesn’t matter anyhow
When your alarm clock rings and it’s a brand new day
Look out your bedroom window, and I’ll be gone away
You’re the reason that I just can’t stay
Don’t think twice, it’s OK

I’m definitely not saying it’s as good as the original. But it’s still recognisably the work of the Nobel Laureate – and I can sing it while remaining true to my own suburban, English identity.

Of course, hardcore Dylan fans will be screaming, “heresy!” But I would argue the opposite. Fans think of Bob Dylan as a true authentic: someone who never compromised, who was always true to his own, idiosyncratic self. I like to think, by “translating” Dylan so as not to compromise my own authenticity – I’m actually giving Dylan the respect he deserves.


This excellent book by David Pichaske includes an in depth discussion of Bob Dylan’s dialect. There are a couple of interesting papers in the journal Oral Tradition on translating Dylan into French and Spanish.

Image in the public demain downloaded here.