Jul 022014
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adverb definition

Is adverb phobia justified?

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Stephen King

If you see an adverb, kill it. Mark Twain

Writing advice usually includes instructions to remove or replace adverbs. If so, why do adverbs exist at all? Do they have a place in good writing? Is adverb phobia justified?

Adverbs are words that modify or qualify verbs. For example, she sang sweetly or he walked quickly. Often their use merits the pleas to exterminate them.

Sometimes adverbs are superfluous. For example, he shouted loudly. Have you ever heard someone shout quietly? Adverbs are accused of distracting from the action. Mark Twain called adverbs “the tool of the lazy writer”. Writers are advised to replace adverbs and their associated verbs with more active or descriptive verbs, such as “cradled” instead of “held gently”, or to describe the action in a way that negates any need to qualify the verb.

Some articles I’ve read blame adverbs ending in “ly” for giving all adverbs a bad reputation, but I have trouble thinking of adverbs that don’t end in “ly”.

Never use an adverb to modify the word “said”…he admonished gravely. Elmore Leonard

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said, “I can be a good sport about adverbs. Yes, I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of circumstances.” So, instead of writing “she said softly”, perhaps “she whispered” is a better alternative. Then again, in addition to advising against using adverbs to modify the word “said”, Elmore Leonard also said, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” All of which leaves a challenge for the writer.

A writer who writes crisp, action-filled prose dispenses with adverbs. But sometimes a well-placed and well-chosen adverb conveys the story better than another option. Not all writers are averse to using adverbs. If you open up any book in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you will find no shortage of adverbs. Indeed, J. K. Rowling has been criticized for excessive use of adverbs. Yet, that hasn’t distracted millions from enjoying her books.

Adverbs are guilty until proven innocent. Howard Ogden

In the rest of the passage following Stephen King’s famous quote about adverbs and the road to hell, he likens adverbs to dandelions. One in your lawn is pretty, but if left untended, your lawn is soon covered in weeds. I think advice to avoid and reconsider adverbs is good because it forces writers to strengthen their writing and seek the best wording. But complete abstinence may be overkill and result in awkward and stilted prose. If you sparingly use well-chosen adverbs, they can enhance the writing. (Yes, I just used an adverb in that last sentence.)

At their best, adverbs spice up a word or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it. Roy Peter Clark

What is your stance on adverbs?

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  27 Responses to “To Add To A Verb”

  1. I lean rarely marginally, sometimes slightly, frequently considerably and often precariously towards using them abundantly, redundantly and excessively !

  2. Very informative article Donna. I had no idea there was such a cause to eliminate the poor adverb. I will pay closer attention to how and when I use them from now on but for me it is all about the sentence flow. When you have right, you have it right. Quite possibly that is because I eliminated an adverb. I will attempt to work that out. Thanks.

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  4. Yikes, it makes me want to ask my publisher if they caught all of these! I actually never thought about my use of adverbs. But you can bet you I will now, frequently.

    Over from LinkedIn group BHB

    • I think after a while writers get to notice what they do a lot of that needs to be changed in editing. I think you or your editor would have noticed overuse or inappropriate use of adverbs. Also, like all writing advice, the admonishments about adverbs need to be taken with a grain of salt. Frequently!

  5. I was weaned on minimalist writers. I had profs who went on at length about making prose as lean as possible. I guess I’m okay with an adverb here and there, but really it’s the verb that needs to to the real work.

    • I too like lean prose and agree the verb needs to do the real work (although if a writer gets too carried away with fanciful verbs, the writing jars).. I remove most adverbs from own writing, but sometimes the adverb works.

  6. I find myself guilty of this and try to limit my use of adverbs. Unfortunately, I can stop! I love them dearly and deeply and will never stop!

  7. Donna, this was such an interesting take on the poor adverb. I am going to go back through some of my posts and see if I have been guilty of overuse. I do know I overuse ‘so’ and am trying to find another way to say things.

    • I think every writer has some word or phrase they tend to overuse. I know a few of mine (e.g. I use the word some a lot and it is usually unnecessary) and am surprised I keep using them because I keep editing them out.

  8. The nest advice I ever got from an editor was this. After the manuscript it finished, do a search for “ly”. I was shocked at how many adverbs I found…an then re-did. It was a great lesson moving forward.

  9. This is an interesting post and discussion! I was taught not to overuse adverbs, either. But on the other hand, they do exist as a part of speech and shouldn’t be banned altogether. One instance of when an adverb should be used is when it can reduce wordiness. For example, I’ve noticed the rise in use of the phrase, “on a ____ basis.” Fill in the blank with regular, daily, weekly, or yearly. Instead of writing, “I blog on a regular basis,” writers should use the adverb and say, “I blog regularly.” “I blog on a daily basis” can just be “I blog daily.” Keep it tight, less wordy, and use an adverb if necessary to avoid extra words.

    • Excellent example Jennifer. I don’t know that I have use “on a ____ basis” much, but have caught myself using a similar construct out of paranoia about adverbs.

  10. Hi donna; thanks for opening my eyes or ears as you have. 🙂 i didn’t know that there was such a negative opinion of using adverbs. I write for information, but I strive to be as good a writer as I possibly can be. I will now be more alert to them. I wish I had read this before pressing publish on my most recent post. thanks again and take care, max

    • Thanks Max. Being alert and paying attention to everything we write (adverbs and other words) is a good thing so we phrase things in the best manner and remain true to our own voices. It doesn’t mean that we always get rid of the adverbs, just use them carefully.

  11. Hi Donna! Thank you for this informative article. I know three languages by heart (Filipino, English and Mandarin), each of them having distinct grammar rules. I may have been guilty of falling into the “adverb” trap and after reading your post, I vow to be more vigilant in checking and re-checking my articles. My solution – “think in English, write in English.” (It gets really crazy if I get to form thoughts and ideas in a different language and write about it in English.)

    • I can’t imagine what it is like to think in one language and write in another. Being fluent in 3 languages, I wonder if your thoughts flip between languages.

  12. Now I feel badly for the adverb. It is the underdog of our language. Perhaps I will start using adverbs more often 🙂

    • I never thought of the adverb as the underdog – interesting analogy. I suspect it was thought of differently in past centuries. Writing styles change over time.

  13. Oh boy, I’m going to read over my posts straight away. I have no idea if I’m an adverb abuser. I just might be. I think it’s also challenging depending on the genre. As you mentioned, an action writer will use a shorter, to the point, style. A travel writer will add some flowery adjectives and adverbs into the mix.

  14. Hi Donna,

    Thank you for your enjoyable, well-written article on adverbs. After reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”, a book I enjoyed, I became more vigilant about adverbs. I agree they are often unnecessary, unpalatable and best omitted. I use my editorial judgement and still choose use them when I want. (My, oh my! I have just used the adverbs: more, often, best, still and just!)

    🙂 Ramona

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