Wednesday, 10 September 2014

In praise of the adverb

I was reading The Welsh Girl (Peter Ho Davies) last night, and in the early pages I was struck by the description of someone as 'violently lonely'. There was something so wholly right about it, in context, that it made my skin prickle with delight.

What is it that makes a phrase like that so expressive? I'd argue that it's the addition of that beautifully chosen adverb 'violently'  - the perfect one, as it crunches too much to be a cliche, and yet has harmony, too. I set myself the task of trying to find a similar perfect pairing, and ended up reflecting instead on how delicate a balance it is.

For instance, look at the use of 'violent' and all it's aggressive connotations. Somehow, the addition of loneliness strips it of any threat in a way that many other pairings wouldn't. I tried to think about someone being violently sad, and my mental image was of ugly sulking and throwing toys out of prams.

I wonder if part of the beauty is in pairing words that have so little obvious connection..? I tried to think about being painfully lonely, but decided that that was too near a cliche, perhaps because it is so close to 'painfully shy'. That then discounted, for me, a whole raft of similar sensory adverbs, such as excruciatingly.

I toyed briefly with 'embarrassingly lonely', but the meaning changes so quickly then that the words risk whiplash. That would introduce a whole subtext (who is embarrassed by the loneliness?) and also, to me, it has a slightly comic flavour.

Which brings me to another thing - my perception of all these words is acutely subjective. Perhaps you don't 'see' the same thing as me at all in these juxtapositions - perhaps you like and dislike completely different ones. But it was interesting, exercising my brain to strive for alternatives that might be pleasing, and it challenged my vocabulary, too.

Have you ever found a particularly pleasing phrase in a book you've read? Can you find an adverb that can adjust 'lonely' in an even more interesting direction?

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