Each month I send out a basic lesson to my freelance writers reminding them of general style and editorial guidelines that may atrophy over time. I reprint them here in case they, or anyone, wishes to revisit the material outside its original email format. Header image courtesy Tycho

 

Why Adverbs Are Awfully Awful At Least 82% of the Time
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs”
—Strunk & White. We only agree with half of this statement and may have only gotten through 3/4ths of Elements of Style in undergrad (JK it was ten pages).

 

“The adverb is not your friend”
—Stephen King, On Writing—by far his best work.

 

“If you see an adverb, kill it”
—Mark Twain, probably over Mint Juleps.

 

“The deletion [of adverbs] shortens the sentence, sharpens the point, and creates elbow room for the verb”
—Peter Roy Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer, aka that book I mailed to each of you that you totally read.

 

As I’m sure you’re all aware, an adverb is a word that modifies adjectives, verbs, and other adjectives. Adverbs tend to end in ly. Another definition of adverbs: a stylistic crutch for writers who don’t trust themselves to express an idea concisely, or for their readers to understand them. The adverb is the grammatical vehicle of excess. Adverbs are the raisins in your trail mix and the baking powder in your cocaine.

 

Why? Take a look at the following sentences.

 

The woman sprinted quickly.
 
The man jumped up
 
The giant clenched its fist angrily.
 
The editor removed the word completely.
 
The soup is really good.
 
The adverbs above are “quickly,” “up,” “angrily,” “completely,” and (shudder) “really.” Now read the modified sentences below the originals, which are the same except all adverbs have been cast into the ninth circle of hell.
The woman sprinted quickly.
The woman sprinted.
 
The man jumped up. 
The man jumped.
 
The giant clenched its fist angrily.
The giant clenched its fist.
 
The editor removed the word completely.
The editor removed the word.
 
The soup is really good.
The soup is good.

 

How has the sentenced changed? How hasn’t the sentence changed? Have you ever noticed a sprint that wasn’t quick? Have the majority of fists been clenched in an emotion other than anger? Please realize that adverbs usually echo meaning that’s inherent in the verb or adjective already. Adverbs recycle meaning. They suck mightily. Or they just suck. Using an adverb to escalate meaning tends to do the opposite.

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The Exception: Adverbs that Alter, Not Intensify, the Meaning of the Verb (or the Other 18%)

 

As Roy Peter Clark clarifies in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer (Chapter 5. Watch those Adverbs), not all adverbs are bad adverbs (or, um, badverbs). Adverbs that change the meaning of the verb or adjective can add layers of meaning previously unexpressed.

 

The woman sprinted quickly.
The woman sprinted haphazardly.
 
The man jumped up. 
The man jumped cautiously.
 
The giant clenched its fist angrily.
The giant clenched its fist weakly.
 
The editor removed the word completely.
The editor removed the word hesitantly.
 
The soup is really good.
The soup is arguably good.

 

Makes sense? As for those of us who use adverbs like really or very: unless you’re discussing dream-states, I’m going to pelt you with variant Rob Liefeld covers if I find these in your copy. Really.

 

Great Journalism