Advice on adverbs

Some writers feel strongly about adverbs. For instance, Stephen King, or some say Nathaniel Hawthorne, is quoted as saying the following about this part of speech: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

In this post, we’ll consider the adverb, that most mobile of the English word classes, which often finds itself both the subject and object of language controversies. These disputes include using flat adverbs and using adverbs in creative writing, whether fiction or non-fiction.

As a refresher, adverbs are those words that modify verbs, but can also modify adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and even entire sentences. People often identify adverbs as those –ly words, since many adverbs are formed by adding -ly to adjectives: polite—politely, graceful—gracefully, fearless—fearlessly.

Some adjectives already end in –ly, so that they need a prepositional phrase to express what cannot be expressed in a single adverb, a topic discussed in a previous post. For example, the adjective friendly cannot be expressed as a single adverbial modifier but must be turned the prepositional phrase in a friendly manner in order to function as an adverb.

Of course, there are a lot of commonly used adverbs that don’t end in –ly: too, always, soon, very, not, apart. But there is also a set of adverbs that don’t have the –ly ending, but are   known as flat adverbs: they look like their related adjectives, but they are functioning as adverbs. Some even have an equivalent ­–ly version, such as slow–slowly and quick–quickly.

Flat adverbs became a source of controversy after prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century applied Latin grammar to the English language; because adjectives were not used as adverbs in Latin, they created a rule that the adverb associated with an adjective must have the –ly form: go slowly, NOT go slow; do something quickly, NOT do it quick. Even though the use of flat adverbs had been practiced for centuries, it became unacceptable or substandard, excluding their use in traffic and other signs where space was limited. (macmilliandictionaryblog.com)

Except for diehards holding onto these prescriptive myths, the use of flat adverbs is becoming generally accepted, reflecting or describing the common practice. An example is the adverb fastly, which can still appear in an Internet search on Wiktionary.org with the following sentence as an example: We tied the rope fastly this time; we didn’t want it to get away again. However, this word is obsolete, existing now “only as a nonword since fast serves as both adjective and adverb” (Oxford reference.com).

The Grammar Exchange identifies flat adverbs as falling into one of three categories:

  1. Those that don’t have an -lyform. (fast)
  2. Those that have an -lyform with which they share meanings. (slow–slowly)
  3. Those that have an -lyform with which they don’t share all meanings. (hardhardly)

For the third category, they provide this example of nearly opposite meanings:

He works hard. vs. He hardly works.

A second controversy around adverbs is their use in writing. Stephen King and others advising writers feels strongly about adverbs, saying they are the killer of prose.

Adverbs can weaken your writing. As author Darcy Pattison says in her blog Fiction Notes, “Strong writing relies on strong verbs and strong nouns.” Since a goal of writers is to create in the reader’s mind the clearest image, we strive for specificity. An adverb may be a less specific descriptor than a specific, active verb, as well as a more precise noun.  Here are some examples she provides:

Not: The small dog ran quickly into the kitchen.
But: The poodle raced into the kitchen.

Not: The dancer turned around quickly.
But: The ballerina pirouetted.

Adverbs can also be redundant. Charlie Jane Anders of gizmodo.com provides these examples: She crept stealthily. He yelled angrily. They ran quickly. In addition, adverbs can weaken your verbs, or prop up a weak verb. Consider these examples provided by King himself in On Writing. He believes that adding adverbs to verbs of dialogue attribution weakens those words.

Adverb modifying dialogue attribution verb

Strong version without modifying adverb

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.  

“Put it down!” she shouted.

“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”

“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

 “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

                                                         Qtd by Maria Popova on brainpickings.org

Anders offers two more criteria for evaluating whether to use an adverb or not:

1) Does it change the word it modifies? Does it make the verb or adjective mean something drastically different?

2) Does it convey some vital piece of information in a way that’s better or more evocative than real description or a stronger verb by itself?

For example, she writes that “horribly fatal” doesn’t tell us anything new while “hilariously fatal,” “moderately fatal,” or “arguably fatal” do.

Eliminating unnecessary adverbs, especially if you replace a weak verb and adverb combination with a stronger verb, can streamline your prose. As discussed, selecting a powerful, specific verb will create more vivid images. They will also reveal nuances in meanings: One could “run quickly,” but in addition to running, there is jogging, racing, trotting, or galloping. Only the writer knows the precise meaning intended.

Author Barbara Baig is a strong supporter of adverbs, claiming that as one of four content parts of speech, they are “an essential for every writer’s toolkit [because] they can do things that the other parts of speech cannot.” Baig distinguishes the different forms adverbial modifiers take, including both as a single word or a group of words (prepositional phrase) as discussed earlier. Adverbial modifiers in their various forms contribute to “the repertoire of syntactical techniques available to those of us writing in English.” (writersdigest.com)

Even Pattison recognizes there are times when adverbs are needed to be more exact.  She offers a sentence to illustrate her point: After a stressful day at the office, he jogged leisurely through the park. With the addition of the adverb leisurely, the sentence more fully expresses what is occurring. As she elaborates, “The jogger is moving quickly, but not too fast, taking his time after a long, busy day.”

The most important thing to remember about adverbs is that as modifiers they can clarify or add information to sentences. It’s important to be careful in your use of them, but also conscious of the desired purpose and effect of your writing. Decide on your style and on what you want to express – the exact image or meaning that communicates your vision.

(Material for this post was compiled from a number of resources, including English 3200, macmillandictionaryblog.com, oxforhttps://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/13/stephen-king-on-adverbs/dreference.com, The Grammar Exchange, darcypattison.com, brainpickings.org, gizmodo.com, writersdigest.com.)

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