The Road to Hell Isn’t Really Paved with Adverbs

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The road to hell is paved with adverbs. - Stephen King
“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.”

For the record, I’m not a big Stephen King fan. In fact, the only book I’ve ever read of his is his memoir On Writing. I found it a rewarding read. The quote above comes from this book.

It’s often quoted, particularly the first sentence. And I can see why. It’s provocative and memorable. It even offers a useful insight into good writing and good writing habits.

But folks, it’s not meant to be taken literally. Adverbs aren’t bad. At least they aren’t always bad. They are, in fact, useful and necessary words. We would be incapable of clear thought without them. Mr. King is being a bit facetious and a bit hyperbolic here. I can prove it.

He means to be ironic of course, when he uses three redundant adverbs in the clause

…your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions

Certainly totally and completely are superfluous, but profligately, might add a nuance that a writer might intend. It’s one thing to be covered, but another thing to be profligately covered. How would that be communicated without the adverb? And even if it could, why would it be an improvement?

The last sentence of the quote includes two useful adverbs: really and too. And what’s more important is that there are numerous adverbial phrases throughout the paragraph–word groups that function exactly like an adverb:

  • with adverbs
  • from the rooftops
  • another way
  • the next day
  • the day after that
  • with dandelions

It’s good advice to writers to guard against the temptation to overuse adverbs. Focus on strong, vivid verbs instead. But there is no virtue in eliminating all adverbs. Even very. Don’t confuse sound advice with universal law.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

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  1. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko07-16-2015

    Thanks, Heather. I watched the video and it reminded me of this Writing Tip I posted last year: http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2014/05/tip-22-write-with-nouns-and-verbs/

  2. Heather
    Heather07-16-2015

    I just read On Writing last month, it’s the only SK book I’ve ever read and will likely read. I enjoyed it and wrote down many quotes and suggestions in my reading notebook. Funny thing was that just a couple of weeks prior to reading his comments on adverbs, I watched a short YouTube video of Jonathan Rogers making a similar point. I’ll post it on Facebook under your post.
    Thanks for writing about this.

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