Every writing book I’ve read offers this bit of advice to help strengthen writing – eliminate adverbs. Today we will refresh our memories on what makes an adverb and explore why they should be avoided.
Put simply, an adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They can also be used to modify whole sentences and prepositional phrases. Clear as mud, I know. Let’s have some examples: (Adverbs are in bold. Words modified are italicized.)
- Modify a verb:
- She walked slowly.
- They ate quietly.
- Modify an adjective:
- He was incredibly handsome.
- The tree is very old.
- Modify another adverb:
- The dog ran very quickly down the street.
- Martha hugged her Grandma really tightly.
- Modify a whole sentence
- Obviously, he can’t have seen us.
- Modify a prepositional phrase
- They found the locket just under the bed.
Most adverbs are created by adding the -ly ending to an adjective.
- slowly, painfully, quickly, handsomely, strongly, etc.
However some do not, such as:
- still, well, never, fast, very, always, often, just.
Why do editors cringe when they see an adverb? Adverbs are red flags, they replace concrete descriptions or phrases with words that don’t hold real meaning. Let’s take a look:
Adverb-y writing: She badly needed a smoke. Slowly she peeked around the wall of her cubicle. Seeing no one, she quietly left the room.
We can do better than that.
Using visuals instead of adverbs: She needed a smoke bad enough that her hands shook. She stood on her toes to peek over the edge of her cubicle, no one was in the corridor. Carlton’s in hand, she slid off her high-heels and padded to the exit.
(The grammar police have caught me; I let two whoppers slip in my example. Had I known that thousands would read this I would have been more careful. First error – ‘bad’ should be ‘badly’ and, yes you guessed it, is an adverbial clause. Whoops! Also the Carltons somehow managed to get an unnecessary apostrophe. This writing thing is more difficult than it looks.)
Corrected ‘visual’ phrase: She craved a smoke. Standing on her toes, she peeked over the edge of the cubicle and saw the corridor was empty. Carltons in hand, she slid off her high-heels and padded to the exit.
Do you see the difference? We went from ordinary to interesting by switching the adverbs for concrete images.
You can do it too!
Material for adverb usage courtesy of EnglishClub.com
To see past Grammarland posts go here.
(Added later: This post is an extreme example of ridding writing of weak adverbs to make it stronger. I’m not advocating the elimination of all adverbs. My goal is to find ways people can use to make writing better.)