Stephen King said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Hemingway, known for his spare writing style, used -ly words far less often than the average writer (42% as often, according to LitCharts.) But what are adverbs? And are they really that bad?
What are Adverbs?
Adverbs are words used to modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
- The gazelle ran swiftly.
Swiftly modifies the verb ran.
- I mean, that gazelle was extremely fast!
Extremely modifies the adjective fast.
- Did you see how extremely quickly the gazelle ran?
Extremely modifies another adverb, quickly.
They can even modify an entire sentence:
- Fortunately, the gazelle was too fast for the lion.
Not all end in -ly. Take a look:
- To catch the gazelle, the lion will have to try harder.
Harder modifies the verb try.
There are different types of adverbs relating to things like time, place, and degree. But the ones fiction writers are most concerned with relate to manner.
What Are Adverbs of Manner?
Adverbs of manner describe how something happens. They modify the verb in a sentence.
- Marco downed his rootbeer and then belched loudly.
- “That’s gross!” Lexi joked playfully.
Sometimes, a manner adverb is essential to delivering just the right tone or flavor in a story. Stephen King uses them. Even Hemingway used them occasionally. So why the disdain among writers and editors?
Should You Use Adverbs?
Honestly, (see what we did there?) you can’t avoid adverbs entirely (hah!). They’re as much a part of English writing as verbs, nouns, and adjectives. And yet, they sometimes signal weak or unclear writing. Here are a few instances where you should do your best to avoid them.
When strengthening weak verbs
The English language is rich with tasty verbs, but writers sometimes revert to verb-adverb combinations rather than searching for a juicier action word. Let’s look at some examples of weak verb choices propped up by adverbs:
- After a day of fasting, Bob ate breakfast greedily.
- Kathy spoke softly and encouragingly to the child.
The fix? Use a more potent verb in the first place.
- After a day of fasting, Bob devoured breakfast.
- Kathy murmured encouragement to the child.
Devoured and murmured deliver more impact than ate greedily or spoke softly.
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When they’re redundant
Avoid adverbs when the word they modify means or implies essentially the same thing.
- The lion crept
stealthilytoward the unsuspecting gazelle.
- Luke ranted
angrilyat the taxi driver.
As part of a dialog tag
Adverbs in dialog tags clutter your writing, and they can even be unintentionally hilarious. Consider the “punny” play on words known as a Tom Swifty. Here’s an example:
“I think I’m allergic to hay!” said Tom balefully.
While creating Tom Swifties has become a language game, they were born out of a series of adventure books (featuring the character Tom Swift) whose authors had a fondness for adverbs in dialog tags.
If you’ve developed a strong character, their words and actions will convey tone better than any -ly word added to a dialog tag could.
Adverbs are like spice—use them with intent.
Adverbs themselves aren’t bad. We use them in writing and speech all the time. But their overuse is a sign of weak writing or telling the reader what to see or feel rather than showing and drawing them into your story. That’s why it’s important to know what adverbs are and which ones to eliminate.
Think of -ly words as spices. When you’re cooking, you wouldn’t dump a bunch of spices into your dish and call it gourmet. The same applies to adverbs and writing—sprinkle them in for flavor, but make their use a conscious choice rather than a bad habit.
Are you good at spotting adverbs? Has your writing improved as a result of using adverbs consciously? Tell us about it in the comments!