Katherine Rosen, a student at Harvard, posts on Facebook:
Two assignments from a magazine journalism class last year (which counted for 3/4 of the final grade): a Q&A and a personal essay. I chose two exceptional subjects to interview, both authors in England. After multiple revisions and endless emails in to the wee hours of the night, our professor told us to cut our Q&A’s by half. The Q&A was a visual feast prior to being chopped, or so I thought. I read Strunk and White as an undergrad, and know to drop all adjectives and adverbs. Yet I still struggle with this. Any thoughts?
Ever generous, Francis Wheen replies:
Elmore Leonard’s fourth rule of good writing: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” Note, however, that he doesn’t say “Never use an adverb”. When I was running the New Statesman weekend competition, more than 30 years ago, Graham Greene wrote in to complain that one of our prize-winning entries in a competition for Greene parodies included an adverb. He challenged us to find an adverb in any of his books: it was a point of honour with him never to use them.* But why? It’s like a cook boasting that she/he never uses thyme. Presumably (sic) Greene disapproved of John Keats, who had his knight-at-arms “alone and palely loitering”; and, even more, of James Joyce, who included in Ulysses one of the loveliest adverbs ever minted: “The ghost walks, professor MacHugh murmured softly, biscuitfully to the dusty windowpane.” And here is the last paragraph of Joyce’s The Dead: “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Would it be better without those adverbial grace notes? I’d say not.
[*Ha! “Never” is itself an adverb – though, like “seldom”, it disguises itself by not ending in “-ly”. This was a good enough disguise to fool Graham Greene. Apparently.]