Friday 15 July 2011


I was reading a bestseller the other day, or rather I was trying to. But I couldn't. I'm going to try to explain why I couldn't by studying only one word of the whole book. This doesn't mean that the word (which came on page 39) was the novel's only fault, but it was a representative fault. So here goes. Here's why I couldn't read the novel. The narrator is on a boat and...

I jammed my hands in my pockets, hunched my shoulders up around my neck and crossed unsteadily to the starboard side.

The word that made me wince was unsteadily. Not that I have anything against unsteadily per se. Fine word. It was the placing of unsteadily within the sentence that I couldn't stomach. You see, try as I might, I can't read that sentence aloud.

By that I mean, quite specifically, that if I were chatting in the pub and (for some weird reason) trying to pass off the words of the novel as my own, it wouldn't work. It would sound odd.

When I was learning to drive, my driving instructor had this irritating way of talking. He would say:

I would like you to proceed to the junction where you will turn to the left.

Of course, nobody speaks like that naturally. So when you hear the words coming out of somebody's mouth it sounds odd. You get the same thing when you phone up customer service lines and the chap says "In order to redirect your call more efficiently I'd like to ask you three questions." It's hard to identify what's wrong with that sentence, but you know that he's reading from a script, which is infuriating because, when you start to make your complaint, instead of helping he just keeps reading from the damned script until you want to strangle the little waste of skin and bury his body at sea.

The same thing happens with novelists.

... and crossed unsteadily to the starboard side.

I could say:

And crossed to the starboard side unsteadily.

I would be happier with:

And crossed to the starboard side - unsteadily.

You see, an adverb like that needs to be set off. In spoken English it never just qualifies a verb in the way that a standard adjective does (I saw a brown dog). If you use an adverb like unsteadily at all you put emphasis on it. So I would be happy as Larry with:

And crossed (unsteadily) to the starboard side.

I wouldn't have to use parentheses, commas might do, but parentheses give you a far firmer idea of how, in the middle of the sentence, I pause for a split second and then raise my eyebrows as I say unsteadily. There's a change in the tone of my voice, and in the pitch. Try it.

And crossed [pull face, look up, make hand gesture] unsteadily [resume normal tone of voice] to the starboard side.

That works.

In the end, though, I'd be much more likely to say staggered.

Some writers say that they never use adverbs. However, never is an adverb. I'm not objecting to adverbs by themselves. Just this one right here.

Nor am I merely being snobby about a bestseller. I read all seven Harry Potter novels without ever coming across an unnatural sentence like this. You see, it's very easy to avoid writing unnatural English: just say the words quietly as you type them. That's what I'm doing right now, and though I probably look a trifle insane, it keeps my prose natural and therefore convincing. This is how I talk. This is my voice.

(Incidentally, Raymond Chandler once said: "I'm caught talking to myself quite a lot lately. They say that is not too bad unless you answer back. I not only answer back, I argue and get mad.")

Now, there's a premise underlying all this that you may object to: does all prose have to correspond to spoken English? No. But it has to correspond to something. You might, for example, want to sound biblical. In that case you can write:

I did cross the boat: yea even unto the starboard side did I cross unsteadily.

Or you could do Shakespeare, or romantic poetry, or Dickensian/Brownian intricacy:

I attempted to cross to the starboard side of the craft, an exericse which, due to the obstinate periconfluctuations of the ocean, could be accomplished only in a manner that, had it been witnessed by the Leaning Tower of Pisa itself, would have been scorned for the wild and omnidirectional tiltings of my gait.

I'm fine with that. There's a voice there. It's not a voice in which anybody on earth has ever spoken, but it's a fully conceived and consistent voice that I can hear in my head, but...

And crossed unsteadily to the starboard side.

Who? What? The narrator is an Englishman, so this isn't some twist of the American or Australian English that I don't get. It's just unnatural. It's like saying:

Proceed to the crossroads and, when instructed, take the second turning to the right.

Me, writing this post.


  1. I read the entire Harry Potter series aloud to my kids, for which I deserve a medal, I might add, and the one worst attribute of those sloppily written and "edited" tomes is the adverbs Rowling insists on shovelling into almost every bloody sentence.

  2. Don't you mean "shovelling shovellingly into almost every bloody sentence"?