A Note on the Misuse of Adverbs

Brian Doyle

One time my brothers and I were sitting at a balcony table in an ancient pub in New York City, conducting scholarly research, when my brother Thomas overheard a conversation below us and embarked on a memorable adventure that I believe should now be shared with the world, as his prompt and courageous action in the face of what some might call an emergency is something of a lodestar to us all even now, many years later.

We were perhaps ten feet above the floor tables, my brothers and I—high enough for a semblance of privacy, but not so high that you couldn’t hear shreds and shards of conversation from the floor. Just below us was a young couple, the woman eager and attractive and the man cocky and fulsome. He was oiling her up at such a rate that finally my brothers and I slowed our conversational ramble and bent to listen. We debated the right word for the young man: unctuous, said one brother, sharkacious, said another, oleaginous, said a third, horny as Howard Hughes’ fingernails, said a fourth. Finally there was a moment when the young man leaned toward the young woman and gently covered her exquisite digits with his offensive paws and said, hopefully, you and I . . . at which point my brother Thomas stood up suddenly, launched himself over the balcony rail, landed with a stupendous crash on their table, and said to the young man, Never, and I mean never, begin a sentence with an adverb.

We had to take up a collection to pay for the table, of course, and we were ejected from the premises, and the young man made a show of glower and threat until my brother Thomas told him gently to stop, but to me and to my brothers, and to my mom and dad when they heard about it, my dad being a newspaperman and my mom a teacher and so the both of them relentless sticklers for good grammar, the sort of parents who would instantly correct you when you started a sentence Tom and me instead of Tom and I, which drove us all insane, but it worked, because even typing the words Tom and me here in the prospective context of the beginning of a sentence gives me the willies and makes me expect to hear the polite dagger of my mom’s voice from somewhere near my shoulder blades saying if you say that again I will sell you as a slave to Malaysian pirates, a sentence my brothers and I heard more than once, and to which one time my brother Tom replied is that a conditional statement?, for which he was sent to his room for a week, but anyway, my point was that my brother Tom’s quick and decisive action is still a beacon and compass point for us all, and something we should remember when we are daily faced, as we are daily, by the egregious misuse of adverbs.

We need not cower and quaver, we need not flee and wince, we need not resort to long whippy sticks like the nuns used to use with such effect, o how they plied those sticks willy-nilly among the crania of their students, the secret was all in the rolling of the wrist, you just sort of snapped your wrist sharply as if you were throwing a curve, and that thin lathe of ash or willow would flash out and cause wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention a welt the size of Utah. One time Sister Rose Marie caught Danny Murphy right in the eye and his eye fell out! and rolled under the desks in the third row! but that total suckup Margaret R. Sullivan picked it up right quick and raised her hand and said here it is, Sister! in that total suckup voice that melted nuns like butter and Sister stuffed Danny’s eye back in his head so fast that some kids said it didn’t even pop out even though later you could pay Danny a dime to see the dust threads on his eye and how his eye was all discombobulated because Sister didn’t have her feet set when she crammed it back in Danny’s head, and good footwork is crucial.

Margaret R. Sullivan, boy, that R. drove us nuts, it was bad enough she insisted on writing it whenever she wrote her name on test papers or the chalkboard but saying the R. when she said her name, Margaret RRRRRRRR. Sullivan, like when she was named May Queen and got to say the prayer and started the prayer by saying I am Margaret R. Sullivan, Queen of the May, as if we didn’t know who she was, well, you wanted to hit her with a long whippy lathe, but you can well imagine why any boy who even approached the holy lathe got lathered with it right quick as punishment for evil ambition, and anyway we got even with Margaret R. Sullivan by teasing her the rest of the year about the the there, Queen of the May, what did she think May was, a battleship?

In conclusion, the adverb is a crucial and necessary element of the language, and should be respected as such, and used with caution. We do not drive cars without first checking to see if there are enough cigarettes in the glove compartment; why then do we handle adverbs so carelessly, as if they were a resource that could never run dry? So I leave you then not only with a useful story, but with an unforgettable image, one that speaks powerfully and poignantly about the character of Americans, their dash and brio, their verve and grace, and their mordant attention to the rules of grammar. I give you my brother Thomas, one hand on the railing of the balcony, the rest of his long self aloft, his boots pointing grimly toward the smoked salmon salad below, his hair aflutter, his face alight with joy, the moment pregnant with possibility, as all moments are. Such holy battleships, moments; we are granted so many, and sail so few.

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