The Dreaded Adverb Problem
The poor adverb. No part of speech is more maligned than this little modifier. When authors want to insult each other, what do we do? We accuse each other of using too many adverbs. It’s the writer equivalent of “your mama.”
But to say that all adverb use is lazy or a sign of bad writing is an insulting oversimplification. The Dreaded Adverb Problem isn’t hard to navigate, and all writing can benefit from the wise use of adverbs.
The most basic definition is that an adverb is a word that modifies a verb and usually ends in –ly or –ily. But adverbs can also modify adjectives, clauses, and sentences. It’s more comprehensive to look at the adverbial function—what a word or group of words do in a sentence to modify the rest of the sentence. Often, an entire group of words can function as an adverb to tell when, where, why, or under what conditions something happens. For example:
He wore his hat jauntily.
The fire burned brightly.
Those are the basic types of adverbs—the ones we learn in school. In the first sentence, “jauntily” modifies the verb “wore.” In the second sentence, “brightly” modifies the verb “burned.”
Some adverbs aren’t so obvious:
I really wanted a cup of coffee.
He swam well.
“Really” modifies (and intensifies) “wanted,” and “well” modifies “swam.” If you take out the adverbs, you still have a complete sentence. However, we lose something when we take out the adverbs—we don’t know how desperate I was for that cup of coffee or whether his swimming would win him a gold medal.
Some adverbs are downright sneaky:
Finally, she found the right key.
They often vacation in Maui.
Her mother insisted she eat her vegetables first.
In the first sentence, “finally” modifies “found.” But don’t mistake “right” for an adverb—that’s an adjective, because it modifies “key,” a noun. The word “the” is a tipoff—it’s the article that precedes the noun phrase.
In the second sentence, I’m using “vacation” as a verb, not a noun. “Often” modifies “vacation,” so it’s an adverb. “Often” is an adverb of frequency.
In the third sentence, “first” modifies “eat”—it’s an adverb of time. But the sneaky bit is the function of “she eat her vegetables.” The sentence is technically complete at “Her mother insisted,” but imagine if you put a “that” in there—“Her mother insisted that she eat her vegetables.” The clause “she eat her vegetables” modifies the verb “insisted,” and you don’t really need the word “that.” In this case, we say the clause is performing an adverbial function.
See? You thought you only had to worry about –ly words!
You have to look at the function of the word or phrase to determine if it’s an adverb. There are many words that end in –ly that aren’t adverbs: Lovely, holy, and silly are three that leap to mind, not to mention sly and fly. So, to decide if something is an adverb, consider the function of the word or phrase.
– Does it modify something? If yes, go to the next question.
– Does it modify a noun? If yes, it’s an adjective, not an adverb. If no, go to the next question.
– Does it modify a verb or an adjective? If yes, it’s probably an adverb.
– Does it modify a clause or sentence? If yes, it’s probably a word or phrase performing an adverbial function.
So What’s the Big Fuss About Adverbs?
It seems to me that what started as a caution against padding your work with unnecessary adverbs turned into adverb hate. Adverbs aren’t the devil. They’re a necessary part of speech, and when used judiciously, they can add depth to your writing.
Here are the real adverb “sins” I see, and these are the ones I would caution against.
We hear all the time that we should only use “said” or occasionally “asked” for dialogue tags, so a lot of writers spruce up their dialogue tags by tacking adverbs to them. All of a sudden, we have people talking quietly, sweetly, nicely, angrily, quickly, fiercely, loudly, etc. Adverbs on dialogue tags are best avoided, I think. They muddy your writing, add words you don’t need, and keep the reader stuck in the writing, not the story. “Said” is invisible. When you tack an adverb to it, the reader thinks, “oh, he said that angrily—I should re-read it with that inflection.” That’s clunky to the reader.
Also, these kinds of adverbs tell rather than show. Instead of saying that the character said something angrily, why not show it?
“I can’t believe you did that,” he said angrily.
He clenched his fists. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said.
Weak Verb Modifiers
One of the strengths of English is its verbs, so why modify a verb with an adverb when you can just use a stronger verb?
The candles burned brightly.
The candles brightened the room.
I think this is what writing teachers mean when they say adverbs are “lazy.” They really mean, “use a better verb instead of the adverb.” The simplest thing to do is turn your adverb into a verb that strengthens your sentence.
This is perhaps more a matter of preference, but I think you can tighten your writing by eliminating a lot of the intensifying adverbs. Really, very, completely, absolutely, kind of, sort of, almost are some common offenders. We use them to make our writing more conversational, which is fine in blogs and e-mails, but rarely necessary in fiction. This is one of those areas where you can become aware of your own personal “tics” and do a “search and destroy” mission after your draft. Find some of the intensifiers that weigh your prose down and delete them. Many times, your sentences will be strong enough without them, and readers will understand the intensity of the verb or phrase from context.
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If you want to read a fantastic adverb primer, visit The Guide to Grammar and Writing, by the Capital Community College Foundation. And remember that adverbs are like pepper—a little goes a long way. Go overboard, and you’ll choke your reader. Use them with caution, and you’ll add depth to your prose.
This article was originally posted on April 20, 2011.