In this post we first look at what adverbs are and what they do, along with some examples of adverbs in use. We’ll see how adverbs can be very useful in our writing and, conversely, how they can also be a problem - especially if they are overused. Finally, we’ll look at when, and where, we should consider pruning them from our writing.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
As I was writing this post about the much-maligned adverb, and thinking about how valuable, or problematic, this part of language is for writers, it occurred to me that much like Jane Austen’s universally acknowledged truth about wealthy single men, it seems it’s a universally acknowledged truth that adverbs are a problem – that they should be avoided, entirely if possible, and sought out and ruthlessly pruned from our writing.
Perhaps an appropriately similar quote would go something like this…
It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing in possession of too many adverbs must be in want of some pruning/editing!
I expect you have read a great deal of advice that recommends avoiding over-using adverbs in your writing, especially with regard to creative writing.
Mark Twain complained of an “adverb plague”, and according to Kingsley Amis, if you are using an adverb, you have got the verb wrong.
But probably the most quoted advice is from the writer Stephen King
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout if from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.
But are adverbs really such a problem? Should we purge them from our writing, or should we celebrate them as a perfectly good and useful part of language, and an essential part of the writer’s set of tools?
First, let’s take a quick look at what adverbs are, and what they do.
What are adverbs and what do they do?
Adverbs are words that modify (describe) verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
They provide us with additional information and describe the way something happens or happened.
They can tell us things such as how, when, and where something happens, and to what extent or under what conditions.
- She sings beautifully.
- I write in my journal daily.
- He writes very well.
- We saw her yesterday morning.
- We’re looking for somewhere to stay in France.
- We’ve never been to Paris.
Some examples of common adverbs
- afterwards – They met in May 2009 and got engaged shortly afterwards.
- today – Are you working today?
- here – The countdown to Christmas starts here.
- there – I emigrated from the UK in 1992 and I haven’t been back there since.
‘Adverbs showing the extent of something
- extremely – She did extremely well in her exams.
- terribly – Would you mind terribly if we didn’t come to your party next week?
Adverbs modifying verbs
- Our greenhouse was badly damaged in the storm.
- He walked home slowly.
- He gets up early every day.
- I’m sorry, I must go. My train will be arriving soon.
- She stepped carefully into the steaming bath.
Adverbs modifying adjectives
- He drives a very fast car.
- My grandfather was an extremely tall, thin man.
- Our boss expects us to work impossibly long hours.
Adverbs modifying other adverbs
- My train arrived unexpectedly early.
- He ate his food extremely quickly.
Many adverbs end in -ly
These are formed by adding –ly to an adjective.
- beautiful – beautifully
- bold – boldly
- eager - eagerly
- slow – slowly
- quiet - quietly
If the adjective ends in a ‘y’ you need to change the ‘y’ to an ‘i’ and then add -ly.
- angry – angrily
- cosy - cosily
- easy – easily
- moody – moodily
- ready - readily
- steady – steadily
Some adverbs have the same form as adjectives, for example:
- daily, weekly, monthly, yearly
For and against adverbs
The main argument against adverbs is that they can make your writing weak by littering it with unnecessary words.
However, as we have seen above, we need some adverbs - those that tell us things like how, when and where, and to what extent etc., something happens.
We also need linking adverbs – these are words such as ‘therefore’, ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘whereas’, and ‘while’, that enable us to do things such as connect or contrast ideas and emphasize contrasting points or arguments.
Adverbs can add meaning, clarification, colour, depth and interest to your writing. Used properly, they strengthen your writing.
If a character in your story is singing, you can give your reader more information with adverbs…
- Elsie sang quietly to herself as she folded her baby’s clothes.
You can use adverbs to create sentences that create a picture for your readers, or that evoke an emotion:
“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – from The Cloths of Heaven, W.B. Yeats
“…or if your wish be to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly…” – from somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond, by e. e. cummings
How to identify and cut unnecessary adverbs from your writing
Locate the adverbs in your writing – and see how removing each one affects its sentence.
Ask yourself whether, without the adverb, the sentence has less impact and its meaning is now less clear. If so, keep the adverb in, or think of a stronger word or expression to replace the adverb.
Conversely, if by removing an adverb you feel a sentence’s clarity and impact for your reader has now improved, feel free to unceremoniously eject the offending adverb from your writing.
Here are a few things to look out for…
Adverb/verb combinations can sometimes be better written with a single (stronger) verb, e.g.
- ‘She ran quickly up the stairs’ could be ‘She sprinted up the stairs.’.
- ‘He walked quickly through the graveyard and into the church’. Depending on your character and the effect you want, perhaps this could be better written as…
- ‘He strode through the graveyard and into the church.’
- walked slowly – ambled
- smiled cheerfully – grinned
Intensifiers are words such as, absolutely, completely, definitely, extremely, highly, really, so, totally, truly, and utterly.
They are very common in speech…
- Oh my God, this song is totally amazing.
- Her wedding dress was absolutely gorgeous.
…but ‘amazing’, and ‘gorgeous’ are strong descriptive words that most likely don’t need those modifiers in your writing, unless you are writing very informally, or you are writing a character’s speech.
- My father was extremely angry when I got home late.
Here, ‘extremely angry’ could be replaced with a strong adjective like ‘livid’.
- The hurricane completely obliterated the town.
The intensifier ‘totally’ is redundant here because if something is obliterated it is already wiped out or utterly destroyed.
Redundant or repetitive adverbs
Other redundant or repetitive adverbs include descriptors such as:
- she screamed loudly – ‘loudly’ is redundant because a scream is usually understood to be loud
- he smiled happily – ‘happily’ is redundant because it’s generally accepted that a smile is happy. An adverb would be an appropriate addition to ‘smile’ if you want to convey something other than happiness, e.g. sarcasm, malice, or fear.
Very often, adverbs are useful because they are helping you define and clarify meaning. But sometimes they are redundant, and excessive, and are simply literary litter to be deleted posthaste.
It’s impossible to completely avoid using adverbs, but when you check for them in your writing consider each one’s value and the work it’s doing for you and your reader.
Consider which ones are unnecessary and can be removed where doing so will improve your writing, and which ones should stay because they are earning their keep.
Don’t automatically assume that adverbs must be avoided at all costs – after all, it’s your writing, your unique style, and your audience. But certainly, do use adverbs wisely and remove them judiciously – use them, but don’t overuse them.
Finally, let’s finish with a positive shout-out for adverbs…
“I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I very much respect.” Henry James
Edited by romeo