on writing

The adverb is not your friend.

— Stephen King in On Writing

ID-100351423 grammar
Are we doing our students a disservice by not teaching grammar in depth? (Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)


When I was in Primary School the ‘four main parts of speech’ were drilled into us:

♦ noun = naming word

♦ adjective = describes a noun

♦ verb = doing word

♦ adverb = describes how to do a verb

When I say drilled, I mean drilled with superglue liberally applied to ensure future longevity.

The ‘teaching’ was a ‘success’, only in that I still remember those exact definitions today. I was of the era of genre writing and process writing. Apart from our four friends, grammar received not even an inkling of a look-in.

Twenty-odd years down the track, I recall my Japanese teacher at university wringing her hands in despair as she not only had to teach us how to structure a complex Japanese sentence, but also had to teach us what phrases, clauses and transitive/intransitive verbs were.  (Hey — we all knew what nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs were though.)

‘Why do Australian schools not teach about English grammar properly?’ she despaired.

Why indeed?

Over the years since, I have gained smatterings of English grammar knowledge on an ‘as needed’ basis, both professionally and personally. I learned a lot about my own language when I was teaching it in Japan. I had to.  ‘Because it sounds right,’ is not an acceptable answer to why we sometimes use ‘a’, but at other times use ‘the’.

I have to admit, though, nearly 30 years after my graduation from compulsory schooling, I only really understood the difference between a phrase and a clause in January this year. Why? I was attending a professional learning session presented by one Misty Adoniou … Canberra’s guru of grammar (and other things Englishy) and she explains concepts in a way that can be understood.

Why is there an issue with students not being taught grammar?

I have managed to get through my schooling and my work life with my (lack of) more advanced grammar knowledge and am frequently complemented on my writing ability. I grew up speaking and writing English and I just know what sounds correct and what doesn’t.

However, as Misty pointed out, we may be good enough writers in our native language, but a deep knowledge of how grammar works allows us to manipulate the words and become great writers.

Something to aspire to!

Back to adverbs —

As a student, I spent many lessons listing, finding and adding adverbs to my writing. ‘Adverbs make your writing more detailed and more interesting to read,’ said my teachers.

As a teacher, I have oft been guilty of imposing the same lessons on my students. Know that I have been teaching for over 20 years … that’s a lot of adverbs.

Then, not so long ago, along comes Stephen King with his words of wisdom. He gives many examples, adding that deleting an adverb does not necessitate the use of a verb with more grunt. What the …?

Shortly after this mind-blowing revelation, my writing mentor, Tracey, begins to highlight all the adverbs in my writing, and that of my friend, ‘You don’t need those.’ Our mouths were circles of disbelief.

And so began hours of highlighting and deleting adverbs from our work. You do not realise, until you put a spotlight on the adverbs in your writing, just how many you use.

The whole activity became feverish. Soon, if we started to type an adverb an electric bolt would strike us, ‘Oh no! Another one!’ as we hit the delete key.

But, they were both right, Tracey and Steven. Our writing did grow more powerful with the omission of adverbs. Overuse of anything is not a good thing. Sometimes adverbs sneak in — but we hope they are well-placed and add to, rather than detract from our message.

It leads me to wonder — are we doing our students a service in our current teaching of grammar and writing? There has been a growing trend over the last few years to separate out the elements of writing, teaching them in isolation from each other.

This is not a good thing!

A colleague of mine is fond of saying (and she is right) ‘reading serves writing’. It is the same with the elements of writing; grammar, punctuation, sentence structure; purpose … they all serve each other. In isolation they mean nothing.

I rather feel we have a long way to go in the teaching of writing at school; and we are in desperate need of more Mistys, Stephens and Traceys in our classrooms.


5 thoughts on “on writing

  1. My immediate reply is ‘Grammar serves writing!!’
    I grew up in the old school where elements of grammar were taught in isolation. Language was ‘butchered’. I was never told ‘why’???? It is only after immersing myself in quality writing and experimenting myself over the years, ‘having a go’ to see how I could express my ideas effectively that I realised the answers I was asking. It is my opinion that adjectives, adverbs etc. enhance writing, they ‘serve’ in producing vibrant writing. It is so sad that many writing outfits are destroyed by overuse of writing elements. It is so important that a BALANCE is achieved in language instruction. I have seen wonderful writing cakes ruined by overuse of adverbs etc. just I have seen clothing outfits and home decor ‘overdone’.
    I like the quote: ‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery.’ As educators we should constantly massage our teaching methods in Language to discover answers in our pursuits to do better jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did I get your ‘reading serves writing’ saying correct? I’ve heard you say it so many times, but when I came to write it, I wasn’t sure. If you ever read anything by Stephen King (and I haven’t read a lot, because it’s scary stuff) you will notice he hardly ever uses adverbs. He makes some amazing points in his book ‘On Writing’ … which I would lend to you except it’s on my Kindle. He used to be an English teacher actually. I really took on board the no adverbs thing … forcing yourself to remove adverbs and select verbs and other vocab to replace these is an enlightening exercise, and, if done correctly, does make writing more powerful (particularly fiction).
    I love the ‘mistakes are the portals of discovery’ quote: very true and creates a strong mental image as well.


    1. I tend to say, ‘Spelling serves writing’!!
      I haven’t read any of Stephen King’s books as my son discourages me from reading them because of their ‘scariness’. In my son’s own words, ‘Mum, I know you wouldn’t like his books. They’re too scary for you!!’.
      Must ignore this comment and read a Stephen King book to see how he impacts on the reader with frugal use of adverbs! Interesting! Should I say, ‘with interest’ or ‘interestingly’ ? (Ha,Ha)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aah … I knew I stuffed it.
        If you are going to try a Stephen King book, can I recommend Mr Mercedes … it is not of the scary genre, but a detective story and not too bad. It was only published recently (as in the last couple of years) and was Stephen King’s first journey outside of the scary, bloodcurdling genre he is best known for. I liked it. He is an amazing writer.


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