On Adverbs, America and the God Hemingway

What is wrong with adverbs? A Linked-in discussion still rumbling on made me aware that there are writing schools in the U.S.A. teaching their students to never use adverbs, to write them out when they slip in and to find alternatives. This seems a strange perversion: adverbs evolved to help us communicate. It does seem to be mainly a U.S. orthodoxy, though as many Americans post on international forums as if the rest of the world didn’t really exist (or was just the same as the States) you wouldn’t necessarily realise that from the posts that talk simply about “what we are told”, “the consensus”  and the like.


It seems to be part of a cult of pared-down, ultra-simple writing that appeals to Ernest Hemingway as its god, but rarely approaches his skill.


I started thinking about our use of adverbs. On holiday I noticed a road sign: DRIVE CAREFULLY. Delete the adverb and you have DRIVE. “Drive carefully” seems a succinct and helpful way of expressing the message and others like “Don’t risk causing an accident” are longer and would either be ignored by the driver or cause the accident. I looked in a book I was reading – an example of pared-down American writing – and found “he was breathing heavily” and “she drank directly from the tap” in one passage. “He was breathing” is hardly useful information unless you thought he was dead, “panting” as a synonym doesn’t have quite the same meaning, and while I’m not entirely (adverb) sure about “she drank directly from the tap” (does it mean mouth to tap, no cup or glass?) at the very least “directly” applies emphasis. So adverbs can convey useful information that would be hard to convey otherwise so briefly (adverb).


Just about everyone uses adverbs in everyday life. They may fail to use the correct grammatical forms (“the boy done good”, “come on out real slow”), but these are still adverbs, just as they are in German where adjectives and adverbs correctly have the same form (Der Zug ist langsam; er kommt langsam – the train is slow; he comes slowly).


Of course you can do with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives too for that matter, so let’s see the effect. Here is the situation for your book. A country is fighting bloody wars abroad and is running out of soldiers. A very young Lieutenant has been sent to the front after a minimum of training. Here he is:


He picked up his gun nervously. Of course he’d handled it before, but under the bored eyes of the instructor. Now he had to check and clean it. It would be humiliating if he somehow shot himself. He remembered the instructions he had learnt by heart and obsessively repeated them aloud. Then, cautiously, he began the operation, speaking each stage as he did it. Somewhere outside a strange bird sang loudly: it brought home to him how foreign everything was. He wanted to hear a familiar, reassuring sound instead.


So for some high priests of pared down writing this becomes:


He picked up his gun. He’d handled it before, but under the eyes of the instructor. Now he had to check and clean it. He did not want to shoot himself. He remembered the instructions and repeated them. He began the operation. He spoke each stage as he did it. Somewhere outside a bird sang. Everything was foreign and he didn’t like it.


To my mind, the first version is more vivid and tells us far more about the young man. There are short, simple sentences there too, but mixing them in with more complex ones makes them stand out more and have more impact.


Writing with a minimum of descriptive words is justified by some because Hemingway did it. I learnt from the discussion that many American writers revered Hemingway. In the U.K. he is not revered or quoted as the foremost authority on how to write, though he’s certainly still read a lot. To some in the U.S. he seems to be an Olympian authority not to be questioned.


Hemingway wrote in his chosen style very well indeed. Those who imitate him rarely achieve such vividness and while the action may be technically exciting, the colourless characters don’t engage us. Hemingway’s characters do engage us, but at what level? I thought back to his books I’d read. They were all easy reads in the sense that I wanted to read on, but it seemed to me that except in “The Sun also Rises”, which has genuine subtelty, the characters were superficial. The main characters of “A Farewell to Arms” and “For whom the Bell Tolls” seem like idealised, uncritically presented versions of how Hemingway would like to see himself:  in fact they’re both American action men abroad and the character in “A Farewell to Arms” is even doing the same job in the same circumstances. “The Old Man and the Sea” is a beautifully written fable with the force and simple beauty of a fable or ballad, but as with fables and ballads, the characters are little more than stereotypes.


Even with a writer of Hemingway’s skill, there are tasks of description and contemplation you simply cannot do within this style, and for the rest – I suspect Hemingway is so popular with some writers because he’s easy for indifferent writers to imitate.


Hemingway challenged the orthodoxy of his time. In the U.S.A. he seems to have become the orthodoxy. It’s easy reading and it’s easy not to notice an absence of thought.










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  1. I truly enjoyed your post and might not have ever found your blog had it not been for your clever comment about English Major/English Captain. Thanks for the chuckle.
    I would also like to thank you for putting us yanks in our place. I will try to remember that my experience, however deeply impressed I was by it, may not be universal.

    • Thanks! Hope I didn’t sound too dismissive. More Americans read my poetry blog than any other nationality. Mind you, there are a lot of them. I do find it a bit frustrating, though, when someone on an international forum posts something like “X is what made this country great!” without the context helping. Which country? The Malagasy Republic, perhaps?

      As for grammar, we have slightly different rules and not only on spelling! That’s an argument I have with my spelling and grammar checker, and not with Americans!

      Actually I’ve been straining at the bit to make that joke about English Majors for ages. Over here we just don’t use “major” as a noun in that sense and any student who said (s)he was an English major would cause much amusement unless (s)he was a mature student of military bearing. So it sounds funny to me, but that’s because I’m British!

      Welcome, anyway!


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