Thursday, August 6, 2009

Big Words and Little Words

Elizabeth Zelvin

In a batch of jokes circulating on the Internet recently, I found the following pair of quotations:

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
- William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

The general topic of the email was “When insults had class,” but I think these two are not just clever quips but statements of a philosophical gulf between two kinds of writing. As a college English major in the early 1960s, I found Hemingway’s language too plain and Faulkner’s so ornamented as to make the stories he was telling incomprehensible.

That is not to say that I reject plain diction. As a poet for thirty years, I was proud that no reader ever said to me, “I didn’t understand your poem.” My second book of poetry, if I remember correctly, contained only seven words of four or more syllables. Nor have I ever been afraid of “big words.” As a kid, I could rattle off “antidisestablishmentarianism” with the best of them.

Since my college days, the English language and its literature has endured what I consider the toxic embrace of Deconstructionism, with its irritatingly opaque invented vocabulary. Thank goodness that instead of going on for my doctorate, I ran away and joined the Peace Corps—and discovered mysteries and other genre fiction. I’m told that Deconstructionism lasted longer in American academia than anywhere else. And yet it’s Hemingway whose approach to language has triumphed. With my own ears, I’ve heard Stephen King (very much a writer’s writer) declare that his advice to aspiring writers is, “Read, read, read; write, write, write—and lose the adverbs.”

In the past few years, in the slow process of getting published and developing my craft to the point where I realize that the ability to self-critique is a never-ending process, I have come to understand what’s wrong with adverbial writing. Those tough action verbs can serve the writer well. But I still think it’s pretty weird for the arbiters of language to shun an entire part of speech. I have enjoyed reading work in which adverbs are used deliciously and evocatively to enhance the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs. So it’s a different style. So what? Why not?

Hemingway and Faulkner, like cozies and noir, are too often assumed to be the only alternatives. Let’s hear it for the middle ground. Language can be rich without losing the reader and strong without being stripped stark naked. But what’s really dangerous is allowing any one literary style to be considered the only right way to write.

There’s a famous quotation about the dangers of “contempt prior to investigation.” (You can Google it to learn how it came to be attributed incorrectly to Herbert Spencer, but that’s another story.) So by all means, let expansive writers rein themselves in by deleting adverbs and replacing Latinate words with their Anglo-Saxon-based equivalents. But let’s also invite the hard-boiled heirs of Hemingway to spread themselves a little. Stick in a couple of adverbs in every paragraph, if not every sentence. Go on, try it. You might find it’s fun.


Paul Lamb said...

It's a little astonishing to me that a post like this even needs to be made. The whole idea of avoiding adverbs is so idiotic that I find it hard to believe any serious writers give any credence to such a "rule." (I think someone is proposing banning he use of the semicolon too.) You're right; there is a middle ground, and that's where most writing gets done. When people pull out the Hemingway/Faulkner dichotomy, it's as though those are the only two choices in the writing universe.

We are the creative writers. We are inventing the language and expression. We should be pushing English to new boundaries, not cowering beside a stack of rule books, cranking out high-school level writing. (And besides, I really hate Hemingway's characters!)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

While anything in excess is bad, it's also counterproductive to follow too many "rules" in writing.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Susan D said...

Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate? Tell me more (though it sounds dangerous.

Sandra Parshall said...

In an online group led by Diana Gabaldon, an unpublished writer once informed Ms. Gabaldon that she was breaking one of the primary rules of good writing by using adverbs. The implication was that this internationally bestselling author might hope to become a "good" writer if she would follow the rules more closely. I enjoyed Diana's icy response very much. :-)

In writing, the only rule that counts is: Do what works.

Sheila Connolly said...

Any time the question of adverbs comes up, I remember "Tom Swifties." Does anyone else? ("You should sharpen that pencil," he said pointedly.)

Who makes up these rules? No passive verbs. No adverbs. No backstory. What we need is balance and moderation. Go ahead and use adverbs, but not in every sentence.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I remember Tom Swifties. ("Let's saddle up," he said hoarsely.) Maybe that's where the war on adverbs started.

Terry Odell said...

Love the Tom Swifties, which was a blog topic of my own not long ago! I think the "rule" is, "there are no rules." Or maybe it's "never say never."

Amber Green said...

What did she say, Sandra?

Vicki Lane said...

I love words and as a reader enjoy coming across some that stretch my vocabulary. As a writer, I can.t resist characters with high flown language to contrast with the Appalachian dialect of many of my regulars (use of dialect -- a whole 'nother question there!)

Heck, I even like it when Sayers goes on at length in French -- a language of which I know very little.

Adverbs? Let them flow freely I say!

Kim Smith said...

Hear hear! Thank you Liz for saying this. I agree a whole big fat adverbial lot :)

Kate L. (Guppy) said...

The 'rule' about not using adverbs reminds me of a scene in the movie "Amadeus": the emperor didn't like whatever piece Mozart had just performed. When pressed for detail, he says "Too many notes."

Different people have different tastes, that's all. What really surprises me is that today's media are so starved for actual content that they jump on anything that's even slightly new. So why would writers (and publishers) try to limit the variety of prose styles?