Hemingway abhorred them. Stephen King famously quipped, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” If there can be such a thing as a controversial part of speech, adverbs probably are it.
On the one hand, adverbs can be useful tools to enhance your writing. They can convey important information about how something is said or done, which can completely change the meaning or add more layers of significance. On the other hand, adverbs can clog up writing, become repetitive, and turn into shortcuts that cover up for lazy writing elsewhere.
So, should you use adverbs? We’ll look at both sides and let you decide!
Adverbs: The Case In Favor
Adverbs are like the spices in your kitchen cupboard: you can do without them, but if they’re used in the right amount, they can elevate the end product from “just fine” to exciting.
In essence, an adverb is meant to enhance the context around a verb – typically an action verb – by adding information about how an action is performed.
The ideal teaching candidate will communicate ideas efficiently.
Please speak slowly – German is my second language and I can’t always keep up.
They also can modify adjectives, usually by denoting degrees or emphasis.
The new graduates were extremely happy.
When used properly, adverbs genuinely enhance or clarify the meaning of verbs, adjectives, or sentences. On a larger scale, they might create tension, foreshadowing, or suggestions about a character.
For instance, let’s say there’s a character who performs a morally shady action and whose motivations are, at that point in the story, a bit murky. If they perform that action verb “slowly” or “deliberately,” that might suggest to the reader that they’re enjoying the villainous action. If they perform that action “hurriedly” or “distractedly,” that same action suddenly might be cast as something the character finds distasteful or is being forced to do.
They can also reflect priorities, as in the “job listing” example above. Being able to communicate “efficiently” draws focus to that qualification, implying its importance as opposed to other qualities not named.
Used sparingly and with specific goals in mind, adverbs can be a real asset to your writing. And yet many successful writers still disparage them as the root of all writing evil. Why?
Adverbs: The Case Against
At some point, you’ve probably read a paragraph like this:
She quickly locked the door.
“Do we actually think we can pull this off?” she said doubtfully. She looked up at him worriedly. His face creased suddenly.
“We have to,” he said, quietly but certainly.
That was annoying to read, wasn’t it? That’s a prime example of how adverbs can clutter up writing and produce the exact opposite effect the writer wants.
When we look at many adverb examples, we often see instances where writers use adverbs as a sort of shortcut to “spice up” writing that could be much more concise. Instead of using words that carry their own connotations, writers often use adverbs as the quickest way to add description to a sentence.
Compare the above adverb examples to something like this:
“Do you actually think we can pull this off?” she asked. Her voice was trembling almost as much as her hands were, and she avoided his gaze.
A crease appeared on his face.
“We have to,” he muttered.
The second version – though perhaps not exactly cliché-free either – avoids a bunch of adverbs while also giving us more information in the implications of the words. “Muttered,” for instance, gives us a sense that perhaps the male character is reluctant or cynical, rather than the muddled “quietly but certainly.”
There are also instances where adverbs add information that already is in the sentence.
“Give that back!” she shouted menacingly.
He sidled down the corridor sneakily.
“Shouted” already implies a degree of menace or anger, while “sidled” implies a sneaky action, making “sneakily” redundant. They’re not technically incorrect, but they’re not strong writing.
You don’t need to strip your writing of all adverbs, unless you really want to. But just like it’s always a good idea to check for proper use of MLA style or APA format, check for adverb usage! A good rule of thumb is to try to eliminate around a third to half of the adverbs from your first draft. Use them sparingly, and you’ll find yourself with interesting yet concise writing!