New writers may wonder why they’re told not to use adverbs. Well, remember when Oprah had a show about the mad-cow scare and Texas cattle ranchers blamed her for beef prices dipping to a ten-year low? Celebrities like Oprah can sway public opinion. Likewise, in the writing world, people listen to Stephen King. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he writes:
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.
Many writers assume that adverbs are now a banned part of speech. I understand King’s frustration with adverbs. Inexperienced writers misuse them, and good writers overuse them. Some people drink too much coffee, but banning it isn’t the solution. Rather than abolishing adverbs, why not provide writers with better instruction on how to use them?
Avoid Redundant Adverbs
Adverbs shouldn’t be used unless they add meaning to a sentence. Consider the following examples:
“I am so tired,” she said sleepily.
“I am so tired.” She yawned and lumbered up the stairs.
“I could eat a horse,” she said hungrily.
“I could eat a horse.” She ransacked the cabinets and found a package of cookies.
“I’d like to throttle him,” she said angrily.
“I’d like to throttle him.” She stomped out of the room.
The adverbs in the first sentence of each example above (sleepily, hungrily, angrily) are redundant. Another problem is that the adverbs tell rather than show. By revising these sentences, both problems are eliminated.
Similarly, the sentences below (before revision) use redundant adverb-verb pairings:
She finished her meal completely.
She finished her meal.
She whispered the poem into his ear softly.
She whispered the poem into his ear.
He shouted obscenities loudly as he drove past her house.
He shouted obscenities as he drove past her house.
I personally feel that he’s a jerk.
He’s a jerk.
Use Strong Verbs
Careless writers use adverbs to modify weak verbs. Opt for strong verbs. Consider the sentence pairs below:
He closed the door forcefully.
He slammed the door.
He stated vehemently that he didn’t cheat.
He swore he didn’t cheat.
He found the book extremely interesting.
The book enthralled him.
Most writers would agree that the second sentence in each pair of sentences is better.
Minimize Degree Adverbs and Adverbial Intensifiers
A degree adverb or adverbial intensifier is an adverb that describes the intensity of the quantifying pronoun, adjective, adverb, or verb adjacent to it. Some examples of intensifiers are: absolutely, completely, clearly, terribly, extremely, very, really, highly, immensely, nearly, virtually, fairly, pretty, rather, slightly, hardly, scarcely, almost, relatively, so, too, strongly, strenuously, fiercely, utterly, somewhat, literally, only, totally, truly, madly, and deeply. Sometimes intensifiers can be eliminated without diminishing the meaning of a sentence. For example:
He was really clever.
He was brilliant.
She was very afraid.
She was terrified.
The music was extremely loud.
The music was deafening.
How to Use Adverbs
There are times when using an adverb is expedient. For example:
Use adverbs judiciously.
The sentence above is clear and simple. Is it possible to write the same thought without using an adverb? Sure, but I know I couldn’t do it with three words.
Adverbs are also useful when they suggest something unusual. For example:
The crowd exited silently.
The nun licked her spoon seductively.
Most of the time crowds are noisy. Nuns typically don’t behave in an overtly sexual manner. Readers notice when adverbs describe something unexpected.
Before joining the movement to abolish all adverbs, remember the immortal words of Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind:
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Who would remove “frankly” from that quote? Not me.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne