Fun with Adverbs

Sometimes the humor’s intentional …
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by Andy Scheer

As I prepared a workshop on ways to cut flab from writing, I included the standard advice about adverbs.

I said that writers often leave them propping up wimpy verbs, rather than seize the opportunity to replace an adverb-verb construction with a verb that’s more vigorous.

I repeated the party line about how combining an adverb with “said” in a dialogue tag often constitutes “telling,” as in, “I hate you!” she said angrily.

And I cited the classic quote from Mark Twain: “When you see an adverb, kill it.”

Then, as an admirer of the work of master punster Richard Lederer (author of Anguished English, The Miracle of Language, and Pun and Games) I remembered how adverbs can serve as a source of humor.

Recently, in the 1995 mass paperback mystery The Fat Innkeeper by Alan Russell, I encountered this wonderful use of an adverb.

She said she rarely ate red meat, and then ordered a rare New York steak with bourbon-glazed onions.

I hope you caught that. If not, take another look.

My only beef with his humor is that rather than leave it as a prize for perceptive readers, he felt the need to red-flag it in the next sentence:

He wasn’t sure whether her pun was deliberate, but smiled anyway and wondered why it was that women always announced what they rarely did. He had the sixteen-ounce T-bone, and didn’t bother to tell her that he, also, didn’t often eat red meat. But then he didn’t eat much tofu either.

For the most fun with adverbs, I pointed people in my workshop to that seldom-appreciated form of humor, the “Tom Swiftie.”

These one-liners take their name from a series of young adult “Tom Swift” adventure stories, published starting in 1910 and written by a variety of authors using the name Victor Appleton. One trait of Appleton’s prose was a tendency to take dialogue tags and slather adverbs onto them with a trowel. Here are the opening lines from the first book in the series, Tom Swift and his Motor-Cycle:

“It’s Tom Swift!” cried Sam Snedecker. “Look out, or you’ll run him down!”
“Let him keep out of my way,” retorted Andy savagely.

 Several websites list scads of contemporary Tom Swifties, most chock-full of adverbial humor. Here are a few of my favorites:

  •  “There’s no air in the spare tire,” said Tom flatly.
  • “I unclogged the drain with a vacuum cleaner,” said Tom succinctly.
  • “Go to the back of the ship,” said Tom sternly.
  • “I spilled the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen.

Perhaps you can reply swiftly with some of your own.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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