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Nov
28
2019

Adverb’s Advocate -- by Dale Stromberg

In my cupboard, I have a packet of Munchy’s Oat Krunch biscuits, which the copy on the bag declares to be “deliciously tasty”.

Deliciously tasty?

There it is—the Pernicious Adverb. The bugbear of writing-rules-writers everywhere. You’ve encountered such crusaders: They campaign against this part of speech with righteous vim, blanketing the literary ecosystem with adverb-exterminating DDT — bound and determined, like Ahab, to slay the –ly-tailed whale.

But just as conservationists battle to preserve the Sumatran elephant, many of us are anxious to save the beleaguered adverb. One way to defend its use is to condemn its misuse. So before venturing a rescue attempt, let’s consider bad examples in three categories: tautologies, self-evident facts, and cases requiring an adjective instead.

Unnecessarily Superfluous

Inexperienced or inattentive writers are often seen to combine synonymous adverbs and adjectives. Doing so adds no new meaning or nuance. Our opening example, deliciously tasty, simply says “tasty in a very tasty way”; delicious would be enough.

Other tautologies, like enormously large or hilariously funny, likewise can be expressed more elegantly as single words: enormous or hilarious. Can be, and hence ought to be.

Stacking up tautologies is an effective way of packing your text with keywords; if your goal is search engine optimisation, go for it. For text other humans will read, avoid it.

Obviously Evident

A related misuse is to employ an adverb to tell readers that which can be taken for granted. Two examples:

“The spaceship suddenly exploded.” – How else would it explode? Unhurriedly? Readers only need to be told the spaceship exploded; if nothing has made them expect an explosion was coming, it’s sudden by nature.

“When she jabbed him with her thumbtack, he instantly shrieked.” – Since the narration shows no intervening events, it’s plain the shriek followed right after the jab. Instantly goes without saying. If there were an appreciable delay before the shriek, that’s something the author would need to mention.

Related to this issue are phrases like “she smiled happily” or “they ran quickly”. Without information to the contrary, smiles are assumed to be happy and running is by default quick. What all these examples have in common is that the superfluous adverb belabors the point.

Unsuitably Adverbial

Another unfortunate tendency is to use an adverb-adjective combination where two adjectives would be more appropriate. Perhaps this form of adverb abuse just sounds, um, writerly. Two examples:

“That episode was hilariously mind-blowing!” – It is likely the writer meant the episode was hilarious and mind-blowing. But what they’ve written is the fact that it was mind-blowing is hilarious. Why? What was it about having their mind blown that precipitated them into fits of hilarity? This threatens to have no meaning.

“A bizarrely foreign odor of unidentifiable spices” – This is also certainly an error. It is to be expected that spices unidentifiable to a character will have a foreign odor—this isn’t bizarre at all. Why “bizarrely foriegn”, then? The author meant “bizarre and foreign”.

A simple test: Try writing your phrase the other way around. For example, change, “It was a frivolously transparent gambit” to, “It was a transparently frivolous gambit”—does it seem to say the same thing? If it does, it actually doesn’t. You have unwittingly committed this error; reversing words this way should entirely alter the meaning.

Adding Adverbs Advisedly

All that said, the adverb is an indispensable component of our language. When is it best used?

Above, we’ve mentioned  “she smiled happily” or “they ran quickly” as examples of redundancy. But there would be nothing wrong with “she smiled ruefully” or “they ran clumsily” because these adverbs provide detail not inferable from the verb alone. Adverbs that add something are not wrong.

It’s commonly asserted that a phrase such as, say, “she said quietly” is somehow weaker than e.g. “she whispered”. Now, “said quietly” might, in certain contexts, be replaced with “whispered”; perhaps this will make for more interesting prose. Remember, though, that not all quiet speech is whispered—remember, more generally, that the synonyms listed in a thesaurus are rarely exact equivalents of one another.

At any rate, sometimes you’ll want a character to whisper with added nuance, with a tinge of meaning not encapsulated in the verb “whisper”. You’re unlikely to find single verbs meaning “whisper nervously”, “whisper testily”, or “whisper dreamily”. This calls for an adverb—especially if the needful nuance isn’t apparent in the dialogue itself: “Thanks,” she whispered testily.

Adverbophobes might claim that, even without the adverb, testiness could be “shown” by having the character tap her foot rapidly or roll her eyes. Taken to extremes, this approach can lead to unwieldy wordiness, or even to onslaughts of burlesque gesturing.

So such arguments—and indeed all absolute dicta on how not to write—should be entertained cautiously, levelheadedly and thoroughly skeptically.

Posted by Dale Stromberg 28 Nov at 00:17
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 28 Nov at 18:28  
Bravo! Well said!

Rick
Harpalycus 29 Nov at 01:54  
Tell it in Gath. Publish it in in the streets of Askelon. A voice crieth out in the wilderness.

Harpalycus
Crgmccoll 29 Nov at 02:40  
Yes. Well said.

Adverbs should be used sparingly, deliberately, not lazily.
Brobertson 29 Nov at 05:05  
I'm curious. When did adverbs, a perfectly normal part of ordinary speech, become the literary equivalent of ebola?
__________________
... and they all lived.

Cwotus 29 Nov at 07:58  
I liked this muchly.
Crgmccoll 29 Nov at 14:24  
Brobertson
I'm curious. When did adverbs, a perfectly normal part of ordinary speech, become the literary equivalent of ebola?

This is Stephen King on adverbs. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique..."

I think he was the one who cemented the adverbs-are-evil dogma. I'm pleased the dogma is losing its grip. At some stages, I knew every adverb I used would draw comments in nearly every crit...

More thoughts on the topic here... (Though the article is pitched at newbs by the look of it.)
justpublishingadvice.com/stephen-kings-no-adverbs-rule-is-going-out-of-fashion/

Moderation and care should be the guiding principle, I think.




Henny 1 Dec at 05:56  
After years of labouring to avoid them, effectively stifling my creative flow, I'm only now re-gaining the confidence to include them as they come. And just weed out anything superfluous later on.
Magentafan 1 Dec at 07:02  
Excellent article.

I particularly agree with these two paragraphs.

All that said, the adverb is an indispensable component of our language. When is it best used?
Above, we’ve mentioned “she smiled happily” or “they ran quickly” as examples of redundancy. But there would be nothing wrong with “she smiled ruefully” or “they ran clumsily” because these adverbs provide detail not inferable from the verb alone. Adverbs that add something are not wrong.
It’s commonly asserted that a phrase such as, say, “she said quietly” is somehow weaker than e.g. “she whispered”. Now, “said quietly” might, in certain contexts, be replaced with “whispered”; perhaps this will make for more interesting prose. Remember, though, that not all quiet speech is whispered—remember, more generally, that the synonyms listed in a thesaurus are rarely exact equivalents of one another.
At any rate, sometimes you’ll want a character to whisper with added nuance, with a tinge of meaning not encapsulated in the verb “whisper”. You’re unlikely to find single verbs meaning “whisper nervously”, “whisper testily”, or “whisper dreamily”. This calls for an adverb—especially if the needful nuance isn’t apparent in the dialogue itself: “Thanks,” she whispered testily.
Adverbophobes might claim that, even without the adverb, testiness could be “shown” by having the character tap her foot rapidly or roll her eyes. Taken to extremes, this approach can lead to unwieldy wordiness, or even to onslaughts of burlesque gesturing.
I avoid using "said" with adverbs; 95% of the time there is a better verb that emcompasses "said" and the adverb (e.g. "shouted" for "said loudly.") I will use adverbs to add nuance to the way a character says something that isn't conveyed by the context of the dialogue, like the example used.
Harpalycus 1 Dec at 15:19  
95% of the time there is a better verb that encompasses "said" and the adverb? With all due respect I would be fascinated to know what verb would be 'better' than said sadly, knowingly, shamefacedly, threateningly, hesitantly, repeatedly, ironically, comically, jealously, boringly, appropriately, dully, dutifully, respectfully, threateningly and so on and so on and so on.
And I am not sure that shouted is the same as said loudly at all.
Regards,
Harpalycus.
Daldham 1 Dec at 15:38  
Brobertson
I'm curious. When did adverbs, a perfectly normal part of ordinary speech, become the literary equivalent of ebola?
Too often adverbs are used to couch, to soften, to waffle, to take the edge off of good prose. Some writers think they add nuance to their writing, but they usually, generally, finally, etc create weak writing. Be bold. Take a stand.
You can almost always find a better verb.
And yes, as part of speech or dialogue, I will agree they are okay. Sort of. Sometimes.
__________________
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Magentafan 1 Dec at 17:05  
Harpalycus
95% of the time there is a better verb that encompasses "said" and the adverb? With all due respect I would be fascinated to know what verb would be 'better' than said sadly, knowingly, shamefacedly, threateningly, hesitantly, repeatedly, ironically, comically, jealously, boringly, appropriately, dully, dutifully, respectfully, threateningly and so on and so on and so on.
And I am not sure that shouted is the same as said loudly at all.
Regards,
Harpalycus.
I said 95% of the time there is a better verb that encompasses "said" and the adverb. 95% of the time means much more often than not: there are certainly exceptions, as you pointed out. I suppose "saying loudly" is not necessarily shouting, though it would be very similar. One could also use instead "[character] raised [his/her] voice" and mean the same thing.
Brobertson 1 Dec at 17:08  
Crgmccoll


This is Stephen King on adverbs. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique..."

I think he was the one who cemented the adverbs-are-evil dogma. I'm pleased the dogma is losing its grip. At some stages, I knew every adverb I used would draw comments in nearly every crit...
Is it possible that one writer, even one of Stephen King's stature, could (cringes, looks left and right) singlehandedly eradicate adverbs from respectable usage? I could be wrong about this, but I've also heard that Stephen King never met an adverb he didn't like. I just now checked the first chapter of his Salem's Lot, and spotted an adverb every couple of paragraphs.

The declaration "the road to hell" is so catchy that it has overpowered the moderating advice that comes after it.

Thanks for the link!

Moderation and care should be the guiding principle, I think.
Yes, adverbs should be used sparingly and judiciously. ( at the nay-sayers)


Brobertson 1 Dec at 17:19  
Magentafan
Excellent article.

I avoid using "said" with adverbs; 95% of the time there is a better verb that emcompasses "said" and the adverb (e.g. "shouted" for "said loudly.") I will use adverbs to add nuance to the way a character says something that isn't conveyed by the context of the dialogue, like the example used.
I'm with you; the world is not going to end if a character shouts or whispers or declares once in a while.

Try writing the same word twice in less than half a dozen paragraphs and see what happens... but at the same time we can't write "said" often enough?


Brobertson 1 Dec at 17:22  
Harpalycus

And I am not sure that shouted is the same as said loudly at all.
Regards,
Harpalycus.
True. Also, there are times when a person will say something quietly without whispering.


Crgmccoll 1 Dec at 21:13  
On another blog, a similar discussion led to the observation that an adverb is needed for
"Life sucks," she said cheerfully.
But not
"Life sucks," she said sadly.

There are no absolutes, but I think the poster was correct, and the author of this blog made a similar point.

I can't think of any verb I would prefer to "said" in either of the above cases.

Luvrofinfo 2 Dec at 06:16  
Well written! Kudos!
Rlbrown 3 Dec at 19:31  
"One way to defend its use is to condemn its misuse." Knowing the misuse of an adverb that I am sometimes guilty makes the proper use immensely satisfying.
Mss 4 Dec at 20:25  
Hello:
Misuse and overuse of adverbs or the use of the same words, can take away from the flavor of it's content. I think a well-seasoned blend of words, allows a better flow of delivery. The audience will be more in tuned and receive what you are conveying.
Oznana 5 Dec at 21:16  
Thanks, Dale. Good article. Some of us have misused a whole range of words at one tine or another. We improve our writing by gradually 'unlearning' each bad or less favourable habit and substitute it with something more robust or less cringe-worthy. Each writer makes their own choices. 'Rules' of writing come and go. If not, we'd all still be writing the once-popular multiple POVs of previous centuries, for instance.
Mss 6 Dec at 10:07  
Yes, I agree that it takes practice. We get better and grow as we engage in it.
Kgchapman 9 Dec at 21:01  
Defend the adverb! Damn the torpedoes!
Iloverotin 11 Dec at 19:46  
Well-written! Short and sweet, I like this post a lot. I've been on both sides of the coin: when I was younger, I'd overuse adverbs like crazy. Then, I joined the "burn them all" camp. Today, I try to treat them on a case-to-case basis, like you've said. It was amusing to read about all of those perspectives in the span of a few paragraphs.

One other thing I would add is that, when writers employ tautologies, it's often because the verb they're trying to use is just not strong enough to match their intention. Writing "hilariously funny" is redundant, and most authors probably know that, but they will do it anyway because they think it ups the impact. Most of the time, introduction to a stronger verb or adjective will help break the addiction.


Harpalycus 12 Dec at 02:06  
While I agree with the overall tenor of the above - all words should be judged on a case by case basis rather than obedience to someone's idea of a rule - I still find the mantra of finding a stronger verb simply not an answer.
Above, I gave a long list of adverbs qualifying said (which seems to be the verb that gives rise to most objections) and asked for stronger verbs that had the same meaning and/or nuance. Not a single suggestion was offered.
It is noteworthy that in the example it is not a verb that is being qualified but an adjective. Let us apply it to a verb. She hilariously said. Not a very elegant sentence I will concede, but what 'stronger' verb has the same meaning?
Regards,
Harp
Even if a verb could be found, what is the basis for assuming that a single verb is inherently better than an adjective verb combination?
PS torpedo nets lowered.

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