In Defense of the Adverb

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I’ve written about modifier abuse before. A common error among young writers is to heap on the adjectives and adverbs, while more experienced writers prefer to concentrate on nouns and verbs, using modifiers selectively. Mark Twain famously hyperbolized: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

It’s important to understand, however, that this is hyperbole. Twain didn’t really believe in avoiding all adjectives and adverbs. His books have lots of them. He just meant to be judicious in the use of modifiers.

A fan on the WriteAtHome Facebook page recently commented that “several agents and editors and even my critique group strongly discourage ANY adverbs.”

That’s writing advice going too far. In fact, it’s ludicrous. The adverb is often overused and misused for sure. As Stephen King points out, “He closed the door firmly” is no improvement over “He slammed the door.” Dressing up weak verbs with –ly words is no way to achieve dynamic, fluid prose. But adverbs are useful, sometimes essential words.

We could probably do without very. At least, we could reduce its use by 90% and the world would be a better place¹. But where would we be without not, sometimes, yesterday, and later? We need adverbs.

Some want to target just the -ly adverbs, but even those can be used effectively (see what I did there?).

Would this lady’s editors and writing group really change “To boldly go where no man has gone before” to “To go where no man has gone”? Blech.

What about the memorable opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Would these anti-adverbalists recommend deleting universally?

How about Fitzgerald’s iconic final sentence of The Great Gatsby?  Would “born back ceaselessly into the past” be improved by removing the word ceaselessly? Hardly.

My tendency is to be suspicious of any universal rule when it comes to writing. Great writing always seems to defy rules.

When it comes to adverbs, I suggest thinking twice and weighing whether it’s necessary or whether it improves or distracts from the sentence. Always consider choosing a livelier verb and eliminating the adverb, but if the sentence passes these little tests, leave the adverb alone.

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Comments? Don’t just leave them. Leave them immediately, boldly, and profoundly.

 

 

¹Twain also had a strong opinion on very: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Julai
    Julai12-08-2013

    Should, “every,” be struck from the list too?

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko12-08-2013

      What list, Julai?

      • Julai
        Julai12-16-2013

        I know it’s a determiner, but it seems all too like an adjective, which I use too much. Seriously though, without adverbs and adjectives sentences would run like: “There was a chair. A man sat on it.” I think writing rules have a tendency to restrict amateur writers, which is every first time novelist. How do you know if you’re good enough to break the rules, if you don’t’ try?

  2. Will
    Will07-31-2013

    Love the footnote!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-31-2013

      Me too, Will. I hope it doesn’t offend any readers though. 🙂

  3. Ryan Belcher
    Ryan Belcher07-31-2013

    I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. It’s good to develop a habit of challenging adverb usage. That is the essence of King’s On Writing. A few adverbs will remain, the good ones.

    It’s worth noting that if every writer stringently adhered to the advice in Elements of Style and On Writing the world’s prose would be worse off. It would be as if we only had one narrator. We need different styles.

    Each of your examples stands out for shunning normalcy. But it only works if the sentences stand out from novel/story itself. (James Joyce makes my head hurt.)

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-31-2013

      I’m a fan of “On Writing” and, with some reservations, “Elements of Style.” But I agree — writers ought not feel bound by arbitrary rules, even if they come recommended by highly regarded writers.

      I have promised myself to give Joyce another try one day. 🙂

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