Writers and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Adverbs

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Adverbs are just the worst! They are evil! Evil, I say!

Eh, well, sort of. Sometimes.

And sometimes not. Let me explain.

Adverbs have a pretty awful rap in the writ ing world. Many a writing teacher will get their red pen in hand at the very mention of an adverb, and actually seeing a rogue adverb running free through a student’s writing will send that red pen into a flurried frenzy of frustration.

“Adverbs are bad! They are weak! They are not to be used by proper writers! I have the red pen, so that makes these statements true!”

Again… well, sort of. Let’s look into this more closely.

1. What is an adverb?

First off, it’s important that we’re all on the same page as to what an adverb is. If you’re like me and hated English grammar class in elementary school, here’s the lowdown:

An adverb is a word that modifies verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. The shorthand many people are told is “they end in -ly”, which can be true but isn’t 100%.

Here’s some quick examples:

  • Modifying a verb: I ran quickly. [The adverb tells how you ran, and run is a verb/action word.]
  • Modifying an adjective: The man was extremely tall. [The adverb tells how tall he is, and tall is an adjective/descriptive word]
  • Modifying another adverb: I ran very quickly. [The adverb tells how quickly you ran, and quickly is an adverb]

2. What’s so horrible about adverbs?

Well, if you look at the examples above, you’ll see that, while there’s nothing wrong with those sentences, they could be stronger. Adverbs, if used too much, can make your writing weaker.

What’s more interesting: “I ran quickly down the hall” or “I sprinted down the hall”? Or “I raced down the hall”? Or “I jogged down the hall”? Or “I bounded down the hall”?

All of those options give more detail and specificity. Running “quickly” is more generic and so a bit less interesting.

How about “The man was extremely tall”? We could use different adjectives that carried more weight, or we could change it from “telling” the reader the man is tall to “showing” the man’s height through his actions.

How about “The man was gigantic” or “He towered over his workmates” or “He had to duck to avoid hitting his head as he stepped through the doorway” or “I had to crane my neck up to look him in the eyes as he approached me.”?

3. So does this mean all adverbs are bad?

Not at all. Personally, I feel that certain adverbs of frequency (Ex: “He never goes outside anymore”) or of place (Ex: “There are squirrels everywhere!”) or of time (Ex: “He came over yesterday“) are perfectly fine and useful at times, though not every writer or writing teacher may agree with me.

However, there’s one major area where I’d argue they’re pretty much necessary or, at the very least, pretty much unavoidable.

DIALOGUE.

People use adverbs constantly.

“That was so amazing!”

“I really don’t like that guy.”

“I will never do that again.”

“Why is he always late?”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard someone say, “Man, that cheesecake was so good! …wait, ‘so’ was an adverb. And ‘good’? That’s a pretty weak adjective. I should do better. Where’s my thesaurus?”

Like it or not, adverbs are incredibly common in speech.

While limiting adverbs in your narrative writing will make you a stronger writer, taking them out of your dialogue can make it sound stilted or awkward. This also is true when you’re writing something that is meant to sound like dialogue or a conversation.

Like, say, I don’t know, an instructional blog post on improving your writing.

4. Final Thoughts

Like so many things in life, “eliminate your adverbs” isn’t an absolute. It’s a good idea a lot of the time, but a good writer will also do their best to learn when this rule – like many other writing rules – can be bent or broken.

Happy Writing!

What are your thoughts on adverbs in writing, or on any other writing-related tips or rules? Please comment below. Also, for more information on writing dialogue, please check out my 3-part post series starting here.

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