In Defence of Adverbs

Horror writer Stephen King would have us get rid of adverbs. He hates them. He considers them timid writing. And to some extent, he’s right. Of course, he’s sold a gazillion books and has the perfect right to tell other people how to write. I’m not denying that. But I’m not sure he is totally correct on this score. You can’t eschew all adverbs in your writing.

So, for those who aren’t quite sure what an adverb is, let me explain.

An adverb is a category of word that modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Many adverbs in English end in -ly. Many don’t. For example, adverbs ending in -ly include:

quickly, firmly, silently, appropriately, suddenly, sadly, wearily, etc.

Adverbs that don’t end in -ly are sneakier. They creep into our writing when we don’t even know they are adverbs.

afterward, already, almost, even, often , more, near, too, etc. Even malapropos.

If we follow Stephen King’s advice, we must dispense with the sneaky adverbs as well as the -ly ones. But looking at a list of sneaky ones, that would be difficult. They are just so damned useful.

The problem is exacerbated when you consider that adverbs aren’t always just one word. There are adverbial phrases and clauses, groups of words that together do the work of an adverb. For example, in the sentence, He ran as if his life depended on it, everything in bold is an adverbial phrase, telling the reader how he ran. And not a -ly to be seen anywhere,

Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. But it’s just an example.

So what do we do? Can we never use an adverb? Well, my opinion is we shouldn’t use them too much, but we shouldn’t avoid them altogether (altogether is an adverb). Stephen King declared the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Good for him.

Too much of anything is bad for you. Too much water, too much oxygen, too much red meat, too much running, too much work. Even too much Penfolds Grange 1956, although that last one is hard to believe. The point is, using adverbs without being judicious about it (that’s an adverbial clause by the way) does constitute what King refers to as fearful writing. A writer who fears, he claims, uses adverbs as a prop for their writing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all.

It all goes back to “show, don’t tell”. Your writing should show how something is done, without you having to tell us. Adding an adverb to tell us how someone says something, for instance, is a lazy way of doing it.

“Don’t you dare!” she shouted angrily. In this sentence, the word angrily tells us how she shouted. It’s a classic use of an adverb. But the context of the sentence should show us the speaker is angry without having her anger pointed out to us.

This is a fair enough criticism. But like all rules, there are exceptions. The judicious use of adverbs where they add something to the sentence should not, in my opinion, be avoided. Adverbs are words. There are lots of them, and they deserve a place in writing.

For example, take my own sentence above: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. Now, this contains an adverb: probably. Its job is to modify the compound verb should be avoided to show the degree of advisability of avoiding the use of a cliché. In that sense, it creates modality. If I was to avoid the use of the word, what are my options?

I could delete it altogether. The sentence then becomes Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should be avoided for that reason anyway. But that allows no modality; my advice becomes a command to avoid the cliché and allows no exceptions. Probably (damn – there is it again!) a bit strong. I could use other modal words, or a modal phrase. The trouble is, modal words are adverbs and adverbial phrases. That’s what modality is.

Alternatively (another adverb! Heavens!) I could give a reason why it’s best to avoid clichés: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché, and should be avoided for that reason anyway, since clichés are also an example of lazy writing. The trouble is, this still allows for no modality.

Adverbs have purpose. They are useful. They have a job to do. So avoiding them totally is not correct advice.

Don’t overuse them. Avoid them when modifying dialogue (but not always – even here they are useful). But feel free to plant a well-chosen, effective adverb within your writing when the need arises.

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2 thoughts on “In Defence of Adverbs

  1. Thank you for your defense of adverbs. They are the endangered species of the English language. While I respect Stephen King as a writer when it comes to this issue he is “under the Dome”. Every time I hear somebody answer the phone and say “I am doing good” I want to cry.

  2. Rain, Rain says:

    Better far, and safer, not to write about things that have attributes. Or, I now realize, modes.

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