Reading Closely and Using Sparingly

I thought that Ben Blatt’s  “Use Sparingly” was interesting. In the text, he discusses Hemingway’s opinion against adverbs and tries to see if he can figure out if there is any actual proof behind it. Specifically, Blatt focuses on -ly adverbs only. 

At first, I just thought that how often an author used adverbs was up to preference, but when he delved into the success of books by their adverb usage, it got interesting. In the text, he says: “The best books—the greats of the greats—do use a lower rate of -ly adverbs. On the other hand, an overuse of adverbs has resulted in ‘great’ books at a far scarcer frequency.” (p. 19)

In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure if I agree that adverbs determine a book’s success or not. I’ve read plenty of books that didn’t use a lot of adverbs that I didn’t like, and I’ve read a lot of books that used a fair amount of adverbs that I did like. Then again, this may be because of my personal taste in books. What I like may be different than what’s considered a “great” book or even a successful book. That leads me back to the thought that adverb usage may just be a matter of preference—preference of books, not necessary adverb usage. 

At the end of the text, Blatt admits that while there is some evidence to support Hemingway’s argument, there is also evidence that directly contradicts it. 

“Adverb rate alone could have not have such a direct impact on the success of a book. There are thousands and thousands of other aspects of writing in play. The Hemingway adverb stereotype may be true, but there are notable counterexamples—authors who have written successful books when increasing their adverb usage.” (p. 28) 

I wonder how the adverb usage has changed over the years, specifically the last century. I would be curious to see if it has influenced what kind of books become popular (including books that originally start out on the internet on websites such as Wattpad). 

4 thoughts on “Reading Closely and Using Sparingly”

  1. You may be right that in the end it’s just a matter of individual preference that determines how you feel about adverbs. And we all know that individual preferences are very arbitrary. But where it gets interesting is that (it appears) when you aggregate thousands or millions of individual preferences, they trend in a particular direction.

  2. I agree that I don’t think their use determines “success”. There are plenty of best sellers that aren’t literary masterpieces. I do generally agree that fewer adverbs increases the books quality because more interesting sentence structure is required to avoid them.

  3. As someone who can’t stand a lot of Hemingway’s writing, I hope that there is a lot more that goes into a book’s success than its adverb use. I love the idea of looking at the use of adverbs over time; I think it could spark some interesting questions about the way different generations view language!

  4. I really like your post. In one of my classes we have an assignment to look at different corpuses to see the frequencies of word usage that different authors use, and what you wrote about has kind of been on my mind as I have worked on the assignment. I’ve wondered whether the amount of times an author uses an adverb or a preposition has any more meaning or consequence beyond personal preference.

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