Adverbs. Definition, examples and when to avoid them

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops - Stephen King

Adverbs can be understood simply as modifiers. They modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs tell us more about the verb, adjective or adverb; they provide more information about when, why, where and in what manner something happened. This function can either be performed by morphemes or groups of words, called adverbial clauses or phrases.

Consider these examples:

He drove quickly.

Mark will go to town tomorrow.

Quickly and Tomorrow are adverbs here; they tell us how the subject drove (manner), and when Mark intends to go to town (time).

In the next examples, the clauses and phrases perform the function of modifying:

The family fled before the flood.

He danced like a madmanThe robbery happened behind the police station

Types of adverbs

  • Adverbs can be broadly grouped into five, based on their function.
  • Adverbs of time include now, yesterday, today, early and recently.
  • Adverbs of place include outside, near, around, here, there, behind, anywhere.
  • Adverbs of manner include quickly, lazily, well, happily, roughly, slowly, hard. They have to be placed after the verb or the object.
  • Adverbs of frequency or degree include often, seldom, rarely, daily, frequently, annually, constantly, never. There is a slight distinction with adverbs of degree, which include highly, completely, extremely, totally, slightly.
  • Adverbs of purpose include hence, thus, consequently, therefore.

Avoiding adverbs in prose

There have been several arguments made for avoiding or limiting the use of adverbs in writing. The formation of an adverb happens to be somewhat rigid. The adverbs function just fine, but when used in a sentence, they either seem superfluous or pointless.

There is also the point most aspiring writers are taught; in your writing, show, don’t tell. Adverbs do the opposite of that. It is better to describe the scene or emotion being experienced than to simply state that this is what is happening.

Consider the following two sentences.

Peter’s eyes narrowed as he tried to focus on the thief, his breath coming fast. Peter stared at the thief angrily.

As a reader, you are likelier to engage more with the first sentence because the author shows you what Peter is experiencing. Sentence 3 communicates the same essential information, but it spoon-feeds the reader.

Another important point to note from the usage of adverbs is that they create distance.

Her face was lovely, and her eyes equally so.

In this sentence, equally is meant to indicate the shared beauty, but the reader is smart enough to deduce this by themselves. By including the adverb, the writer communicates that he does not expect his readers to get it, as he is smarter than they are.

A lot of the time, adverbs are redundant.

In the sentence “Jane smiled very happily”, the adverbs are well placed, but they do not serve any true purpose. They act as intensifiers, but it would have been just as effective to say that Jane smiled.

Other instances when the adverb use can be deemed redundant include:

She smiled happily. He shouted angrily. The music blared loudly.

The point here is that none of these adverbs are needed. Smiling in itself implies happiness. If he was shouting then chances are he was angry. The word blaring shows the music was being played at a high volume.

A common mistake that occurs when using speech tags is to include redundant adverbs. Saying “he screamed shrilly” or “she explained naturally” seem like natural ways to provide further information, but they, too, come off as unnecessary. If a dialogue is properly constructed, the emotions and actions communicate effectively in themselves, without needing the help of an adverb.

Another factor is that some confusion can arise regarding the order or placement of adverbs. In the sentence “He fought at the bar fiercely”, the writer might be forced to pause to consider where the adverb fits best. Altering its placement can affect its meaning. Consider:

He fiercely fought at the bar. He fought fiercely at the bar. He fought at the bar fiercely

2 is perhaps the most grammatically correct option, but for a writer who is not keen, it can be easy enough to confuse the reader.

It is because of this that writers sometimes end up opting to omit the adverb altogether.

There is also an entire debate about the usage of adjectives in place of adverbs. Adjectives are modifiers too. They may not be used interchangeably, but an adjective is a more effective way of modifying your subject or phrase.

The larger argument against adverbs, of course, is that adverbs make the sentence less concise. It is easy to overuse adverbs, making your sentence cluttered. A good writer will surely have a better prose if they avoid adverbs.

Dos and don’ts of adverb use

  • Avoid mechanical writing. Do not use an expression just because it exists in common usage.
  • Do not be lazy either. Think of the best word and the proper way to achieve your goal of communication.
  • Avoid vague adverbs, or those which do not add to the meaning of the verb or subject. As a rule, it is often best to avoid very and really. Similarly, adverbs like interestingly and significantly can end up looking misplaced if the information that follows is more of a personal opinion. Literally is another adverb you should avoid, as it has a colloquial meaning most of the time.
  • Try and rewrite the sentence without using the adverb; it is the best way to determine its usefulness.
  • Keep an eye out for overuse of adverbs, especially when editing and proofreading. You write better when you don’t rely on adverbs to make your descriptions for you.
  • Use adverbs when they add information and are concise too. Do not use them to lengthen your sentences or make your work more poetic.

Proper use of adverbs

The secret to using adverbs is to ensure they perform a function in the sentence. Read through it. If the sentence can still communicate the same meaning without the inclusion of the adverb, then reconsider it.

In spite of the rules against adverbs, they are an important part of speech. Often, you WILL need an adverb, especially adverbs of time.

For example:

He came yesterday.

In this case, the adverb is necessary.

The key is to use adverbs sparingly, making sure they are right for that particular sentence, in that particular context.