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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.

Bottlecap by Quinn DombrowskiWhat is an adverb, anyway?

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!

Function Matters

Image of an old story by Sandra SánchezYou 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.

Dialogue Tags

words for the fridge by Elena MarinaccioWe 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.

Or

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.

Or

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.

The Intensifiers

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.

Lovely by Lindsey

– – –

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.

Title image by SouthdownPhoto.

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23 Comments

  1. Autumn2May says:

    I had no idea I used so many adverbs until I read the first draft of my story. I had so many slightlys in the draft it was absurd! 🙂 I’m better now, but it took a lot of practice to not include adverbs all the time. I write like a talk (to a certain extent) and apparently, when I talk I use a lot of adverbs! 😉

    • Autumn2May, LOL–I think we all do that at first. Sadly, there are a lot of big name authors who use a lot of those types of adverbs, so we read them and they get stuck in our heads.

      But then, I do this thing where I turn the adverb into an adverbial phrase to avoid the -ly ending, so I’m not sure that’s any better! I have to look for that and make sure I’m not telling instead of showing! 🙂

  2. David says:

    I actually have a specific edit devoted to removing extraneous adverbs. It’s fun 🙂

  3. SLWestendorf says:

    Hi Amy,

    I am in the minority – I LIKE the use of adverbs if, as you so eloquently (big grin) put it – use them judiciously. They are like culinary spice – just the right amount, and you have a great dish; too much and it is ruined. I do also cheat and use Edit Minion as my watchdog. I do not eliminate all my adverbs but if the text is unbalanced, they drop to the floor like flies who have just been sprayed with Konk!
    I love your blog – always informative and never dull!
    Have a Happy Easter long weekend ~
    Sandy

    • Thanks, Sandy. It is a bit of a matter of voice and personal taste, I’ll agree with you there. And it’s a thing to keep in mind as far as audience. If you don’t think your audience will mind them, don’t worry about other writers think–write for you audience!

      I had a post on my blog about writing for readers a while back… I think we all get too caught up in worrying about what other writers think or how they’ll critique us, when what really matters is reader response. Readers don’t look for the same thing writers do. They don’t tend to critique style and adverbs and voice–they just want good stories. 🙂

      Thanks for the nice comment about my blog, too! Happy Easter to you as well!

      Amy

  4. Carlie says:

    Hi Amy,

    Another brilliant and informative article!!

    After reading this, I re-read the first couple of chapters of my novel and guess what? Lots of dialogue adverbs!!! Ho hum.

    Good job it’s in first draft stage and hasn’t been edited yet – I’ve got some major chopping to do now 🙁 And here I was thinking I was adding depth.

    Have a great Easter!

    Carlie

    • Carlie, sneaky little devils, aren’t they?? If you just search for “ly” and “ily” with both spaces and periods after, you’ll catch most of the worst offenders. An occasional dialogue adverb isn’t horrible… Just take a look at them and see if you can reword to show the emotion. 🙂

      Good luck, and Happy Easter to you as well!

      Amy

  5. Love it Amy!

    Some people think I have declared a scourge against adverbs. What I really think is that adverbs have gotten out of control because of the extended use of conversational writing.

    The end result, is fictional writing that is littered with adverbs. I’ve seen it. It’s not good.

    Great article. 🙂

  6. mdlachlan says:

    Marvellous stuff, Amy. I’ve blogged on this myself. I have found myself unable to read some modern fantasy works due to the overuse of adverbs and ‘steroid verbs’ in dialogue attribution, he opined decisively.
    Some of our greatest writers use adverbs – Jane Austen, for instance – but even they would be improved by getting rid of them.
    The only writer I know who manages to use adverbs well is PG Wodehouse. And he is using them for comic effect. So serious writers should ask themselves how useful they are.
    Other favourites sins of mine are descriptions of facial expressions, ‘she cried, her eyes flashing with anger’. Again, you can’t say never ever do this – some people can do it well. A lot of fantasy writing is thick with this stuff, though, and it makes it very difficult to read.

    • MDLachlan, wow! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on my post.

      I absolutely agree with you on PD Wodehouse. Using them for comedic effect is a different beast, and he is indeed the master. (I still laugh so hard I cry when I read his stuff.)

      Oh, the facial expressions! I am an offender there, I fear. I have to rein myself in all the time. I have an “eye tic.” If there’s a verb that an eye can perform, I’ve found it. People are always glancing, looking, staring, meeting eyes, gazing, closing, glaring… It’s really quite awful. A little goes a long way, and when I edit, I have to do a search for some of these words.

      Thanks again for your comment!

    • Overlord says:

      Thanks for stopping by and MD adding feedback MD!

      Just a quick note… Fantasy-Faction.com has a review of Mr Lachlan’s book (Fenrir) coming VERY soon!!! (Been asked by publishers to hold off posting review until week before publication date).

  7. Rita Kuehn says:

    Very interesting and informative article! Thank for writing it. I believe in tightening up sentences, using the most powerful or descriptive verbs.Also I typically follow the rule of using “said” as the best choice in dialogue. However, last night I was reading an Elizabeth George novel, and in one piece of dialogue, she wrote: he said, morosely. I liked it because it called attention to his mood. So sometimes modifiers work, for me anyway.

    Also, liked your comments on the use of “that” in a sentence. I’d l ike more information about how/when to use “that.” Do you have any articles on that that 🙂 I could view?

    Great job here! Have a great Easter weekend!

    • Rita, I think an occasional adverb does exactly what you point out–highlights a specific mood or emotion that might be hard to pinpoint through action. Like I said–pepper that adds flavor but doesn’t choke the reader. 🙂

      Regarding “that”: I think very soon I wll do a post on tightening up sentences by eliminating extraneous words. I’m compiling a list of offenders now. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. mdlachlan says:

    As I say, on the facial expressions, it’s never say never. Sometimes, though, I use them as an opportunity to come up with a better description. It makes me ask what my characters are thinking. Alternatively, you (as in one) can look again at the dialogue and see if you can make it work harder. It’s the clichés I try to avoid, although my work does contain the odd widening eye – never a querulous glance so far, though.
    Again, Wodehouse is the master here.
    ‘I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back’
    Again, if you can do this sort of thing, it’s OK to do it. It’s just a lot of people can’t!
    My musings on style started with this blog here – learning from the Da Vinci Code. http://www.mdlachlan.com/?p=162 Hope you don’t mind links!

    • I think a lot of it depends on voice and tone, too. An author with a distinctive voice can be forgiven much–as you pointed out, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t even feel the need for pesky punctuation and such. And much is in the eye of the beholder, too.

      Regarding tone… I think that’s where an author has a real opportunity for personal growth. If I were to write a fantasy western (think cowboys with dragons, which I’m ruminating on right now), I’d have a very different tone than if I were writing an American humor tale. I might write more sparsely (see what I did there?) for the western, because that’s what westerns call for. For the humor tale, I’d probably be very conversational.

      I did read both of your posts. Bravo, sir. I was going to argue with you about dialogue tags, but then you said this: “Other descriptive verbs you can get away with in dialogue attribution refer to volume, not emotion. ‘he whispered’ or ‘he shouted, will sometimes (and I mean sometimes) give the reader a clearer picture than ‘said.'” Whew. Disaster averted. I think the occasional volume tag is appropriate. Sometimes, I want to know that the reticent monk mumbled something that only the chaste heroine heard. 🙂

      Thank you so much for your comments and the great discussion!

      Amy

  9. Bravo, Amy! I can’t even read a novel with adverbs in dialogue tags anymore because I’ve been effectively brainwashed against them. I don’t know why they are often allowed in this day and age — I wanted to throw “Name of the Wind” out the window after the third “Shep said darkly” within two pages. WHY??? Like you said, the “darkly, angrily, sadly, sweetly”, etc. should be implied by what’s being said. I’ve really come to appreciate subtly in novels and get insulted when too much is spelled out for me. “F- you!” he yelled angrily. Well, duh.

    • Do you know, Ashley, I gave up on “Name of the Wind” for that very reason? That and the passive voice. I just couldn’t get past it all! I know, I know–I’m a horrible fantasy reader/writer! But I can’t read anything like a normal person anymore–I just can’t immerse myself in a story if the writing gets in the way.

      But you know… I don’t think most readers mind them. I really don’t. As MD pointed out in his articles, Dan Brown sells millions and millions of novels even though writers and critics regularly pan his style. I think we worry about the wrong things sometimes as writers. This is not to say we shouldn’t strive for quality writing. I’m just saying that I don’t think readers care as much as writers do. 🙂

      LOL re: “F- you!” he yelled angrily. Yeah. I think that’s implied. 😉

      Thanks for your comment!

      Amy

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