I’m talking, of course, about adverbs.
While some English guidebooks and well-meaning authors warn writers away from adverbs, they shouldn’t be eliminated from your writing tools. Such warnings come because inexperienced writers can and do overuse and misuse adverbs. However, sometimes an adverb is the exact right word for a given sentence, but it can take experience, thoughtfulness, and self-awareness to decide.
When You Should Reconsider Using an Adverb
Notice that this heading isn’t “When You Shouldn’t Use an Adverb.” The following examples highlight some instances in which an adverb might not be the right choice. Then again, an adverb might be perfect. The point is to notice how sentences are structured and words are used so you can make the text as efficient and expressive as possible.
1. When it restates a characteristic inherent in the word it modifies. For example, in the phrases “he tip-toed silently” and “she gently caressed my glabella,” the redundant adverbs silently and gently add little because, by definition, tip-toeing is already done silently, and if a caress isn’t gentle, it isn’t a caress.
2. When it’s employed to add description to a nondescript word that could be replaced. The solution to bland verbs and adjectives isn’t to pile adverbs around them; it’s to use better verbs and adjectives. Consider this sentence:
- Eric called loudly for help as he pressed the gauze to the bullet wound, from which he was bleeding profusely.
The adverbs loudly and profusely add description that could easily have been incorporated into the text without adverbs. Doing so can make the action more tense, exciting, and visceral; it can also speed up the action by shortening the sentence:
- Eric screamed for help as he pressed the gauze to the bullet wound, which was gushing blood.
That’s not to say that the second version will always be better than the first. Every story has its own pacing, mood, audience, and voice, and you must account for those individually.
3. When it’s very or really. Very has no intrinsic meaning — it acts solely as an amplifier of the word it’s attached to. Really can mean “truthfully” or “in actuality,” but it, too, is often used as an amplifier. Both words are overused.
We really are very fortunate that our language offers such variety that a more interesting alternative to very X or really Y is often just a moment’s thought away:
- Instead of very loud, try cacophonous, piercing, or stentorian.
- In place of really soft, try whispered, faint, feeble, or sotto voce.
- Why describe something as very large when you could call it humongous, mammoth, or titanic?
- Need to describe something that’s really small? Try minuscule, microscopic, infinitesimal, or imperceptible.
Again, which alternative you choose depends on voice, mood, pacing, and audience.
Mark Twain is often credited with some good advice about using very, though it probably originated with newspaper editor William Allen White years after Twain died: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
4. When it’s literally. The word literally is skunked. It’s been used and misused and argued about so much that whenever it’s used, in text or speech, it draws unnecessary attention to itself. So I won’t argue one side or the other here. I’ll just warn you: Whenever the word literally appears in your text, stop and take a look at it and make absolutely sure it’s the best word for the job. If not, change it.
When You Should Use an Adverb
Here’s the proactive side to this discussion — the right time to pull out an adverb:
1. When it adds new information or context. Adverbs are legitimate, useful words that have legitimate places in good prose. Not only do they give readers a fuller understanding of meaning, but they can help create mood and voice.
A bride being late to her wedding is something different from a bride who is intentionally late for her wedding. A man who is dressed and punctual is commonplace, and therefore not interesting, but one who is well dressed and obsessively punctual might draw our interest. Without adverbs, we miss important details.
2. When the alternative is a wordy or ugly phrase. Consider the constructions “in a rough way,” “on a daily basis,” and “in a loving manner.” These phrases are just so much longer than they need to be when we have the adverbs roughly, daily, and lovingly at our disposal. A persistent, dogmatic avoidance of adverbs — which some so-called writing help guides seem to support — can often lead to shoddy constructions like these that do little more than waste readers’ time.
Also, practically any long, meandering string of prepositional phrases can be improved by the deft insertion of an adverb.
3. When no other word will do. This is the true test for whether to use an adverb, or any word. Writers and editors should pursue the exact right word every time. No proscription or linguistic algorithm is going to reveal what that word should be; that is what makes writing an art, and editing too! And sometimes — many times — that art requires an adverb. So don’t shy away from them, and certainly don’t fear them. Just make sure you use them thoughtfully and deliberately.