Such rules also make it easy to teach writing, even as the debate rages over whether it's a skill that can be taught or an innate gift. Writing isn't
math. It has no Pythagorean theorem, but it's simple to ban adverbs. In many cases, doing so can improve the work in question, as it encourages
writers—children, adults, newbies, veterans—to think about structure and diction. The no-adverbs rule only becomes problematic when students don't
learn—just like how there are many words where "e" comes before "i"—that there are times when the rule is meant to be broken.
Even those most famous rulebooks couch their points in qualifiers. Dig past the section headings, and Strunk and White aren't always against an adverb.
It's in the rush to get it right that those who rely on those rules replace Zinsser's "most" with "all." We forget that there are exceptions, that an
adverb can go a long way.
Examples abound. Without "lightly," we would be having breakfast at Tiffany with Holly Go. Without "darkly," we would not know how we see
through a glass. Without "merrily," we would row, row, row a boat down a stream and think it a nightmare. We still wouldn't give a damn, just as Rhett
Butler didn't in Margaret Mitchell's original Gone With the Wind, but without the addition of "frankly" we wouldn't have one of the top movie
quotes of all time.
Adverbs don't just make a sentence memorable, they change its meaning. Sure, there are many times when a more precise verb can narrow the
gap in understanding—but some verbs can't be fine-tuned any further. A sigh is just a sigh, but anyone who has ever been in love knows how important it
is to distinguish between when she sighs happily and when she sighs otherwise.
It's not that adverbs aren't often unnecessary. In screenwriting parlance, an acting instruction meant to make up for lazy, nondescript dialogue is
known as a "wryly," so called after the overused parenthetical direction—and nobody wants to be accused of relying on wrylies. It's that adverbs are no
guiltier than any other part of speech. A noun can be nonsense. A verb can be vague. A preposition can be improper. An adjective can be antiquated. A
conjunction can be confusing. Even if English speakers have a tendency to misuse adverbs, that doesn't mean they're evil. Some—those that help the
current move "ceaselessly" at the end of The Great Gatsby or the crew of the starship Enterprise go "boldly"—are downright great.
The only way to learn the difference is from the supreme writing teacher: reading. Reading great books, great magazines, great blogs—and
reading a lot—allows you to internalize what works and what doesn't. Read great sentences until you can tell when one isn't. Read great paragraphs
until their rhythms get stuck in your head.
Only by reading can you know when an adverb belongs in a phrase and when it belongs in the trash. Then you can write beautifully. You can write
masterfully. You can write cleanly.
You can write however you want—and you can tell us about it with an adverb.