September 7, 2003
A Few Choice Words

At the Back Bay restaurant where Edith Pearlman and I are having dinner, ours is surely the only table where grammar is being discussed. And being discussed passionately. Pearlman has a bone to pick with adverbs. (You remember--the ones that modify the verbs.)

"I'd like to see 'very' and all other adverbs held accountable," she says. "I think adverbs are slack. If you have to use an adverb, the verb is weak.

"A stronger verb," she concludes "will banish the adverb." (Notice how muscular, how energetic her sentence is. Nothing circuitous, nothing unclear. No adverbs.) We sip our wine and pick at risotto, while pondering how adverbs, used indiscriminately, can suck the life out of verbs. How often, for example, do we say we are "so" concerned or "very" or even "terribly" concerned? Simply saying, "I am concerned" should be enough to cover most situations, but, without those ubiquitous modifiers, it sounds almost meaningless.

Pearlman is the author of travel articles, op-ed essays, and two prize-winning short story collections, Vaquita and Love Among the Greats. A third collection, How To Fall, is scheduled for publication in February, 2005. This fall she will teach a course at the Boston Center for Adult Education called, "Taking the Time to Be Brief," a title that captures her feeling about how to write: shorter is better. Careful revision and boiling down make for stories in which each word needs to be the right one. Her own work habits make for precise writing. She composes her work on a typewriter and uses the computer only for her final draft.

"I revise by retyping the entire page. I know the computer makes it easier to revise, but not easier to revise well. The longer you work at a piece, the better it gets. And the shorter it gets.

"I want to inspire would-be writers to become passionate about parts of speech," she says. "The mechanics of writing are important to master in order to do justice to the content."

Why bother? Who cares if adverbs are overused, verbs undercut; if anyone remembers what a dangling participle is?

Pearlman points out that people have probably been bemoaning the decline of English since Shakespeare was a tot. But if the language loses its potency, how will we speak to each other? I am on guard for worrisome signs everywhere, from incorrect punctuation in literary novels to the unintentionally hilarious crawl at the bottom of the CNN screen: Eerie, Pa. ...the Niagra Mohawk grid (no wonder there were power failures); to the certainty that nothing good ever comes in a sentence containing the words, "to serve you better." And it isn't only writers who are responsible for the care and feeding of the language. Just asking for our lattes "tall" when we want the smallest size chips away at the intent of the words we use.

But guarding the language goes deeper than noticing the laughable missteps. To paraphrase Tip O'Neill, all politics is verbal. George Orwell knew that when he envisioned the language-based horrors of 1984. We don't need grainy 1930s newsreels to see how words can be weapons of mass destruction. And every day's news of "the Patriot Act," "the Defense of Marriage Act," "ethnic cleansing," or "regime change" shows their mind-altering power. As the poet Ruth Stone has written, "Words make the thoughts...They herd your visions."

Edith Pearlman and I finish dinner and go our separate ways. I walk home thinking that maybe, if we could just keep our words powerful and sharp enough, we might not need other weapons. Who knows? It could happen.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at

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