In Defense of Adverbs, or: Adverbs, the Best Worst Thing
Everyone says adverbs should be avoided. You shouldn’t listen to them.
Adverbs suck—oh my, do they. Look to the left, and you’ll see venerable writer/editor masterminds like William Zinsser stating, “Most adverbs are unnecessary.” (On Writing Well, p. 68) Look to the right—if you work in the tabletop game industry, at least—and you’ll see respected in-the-trenches editors like John Adamus saying, “I will go so far as to say that adverbs are the tumors of sentences.”
(Disclaimer: While I haven’t worked with John, I respect him and by all accounts he is a great editor. This ain’t no put-down; it’s just my opinion. Also, John has since responded in his own post, On Adverbs.)
These guys have a point. It’s not hard to use adverbs for ill. Look at some flabby writing; you’ll be hard pressed to find an example without adverbs in excess, cluttering and confounding the reader. However, anything repeated enough times with conviction can turn into dogma, against which we writers and editors must be vigilant. (Arbitrary statutes like “Never split infinitives!” or “Never end sentences with prepositions!” come to mind.) Removing adverbs with abandon can have unintended consequences, even if the sentence still makes sense, and giving them the evil eye removes an important tool from your language-kit. Let’s begin to think about adverbs in a more nuanced way.
Flavors of Adverb
Just like our body is home to bacteria helpful and harmful, so too is our language full of adverbs good and bad. To distinguish the two, first we must distinguish the types of adverbs and which types are the worst offenders.
Adverbs of Time/Place
These adverbs tell when the action takes place, where the action is directed toward, or where an action takes place.
He looked out the window. (Where did he look?)
The cars were parked here yesterday. (Where were the cars parked? When where they parked in that location?)
Often these adverbs are essential to the meaning of the sentence. Try removing the adverbs in the examples:
The cars were parked.
Though still correct, these sentences don’t make sense. Even with context from adjacent sentences, I doubt they’d ever make sense. As long as the adverb gives important information to the reader, this type of adverb often isn’t an issue.
Adverbs of Degree/Frequency/Probability
These adverbs tell how much, how often, and how likely.
She completely agrees with me. (How much does she agree?)
That dog always barks. (How often does the dog bark?)
He’ll certainly leave today. (How likely is he to leave?)
This is some shakier ground. How necessary is it to say that somebody completely agrees or somebody will certainly leave? This type of adverb can sometimes bog down your sentences when used to emphasize rather than give essential information.
However, context counts here. When talking to one another, we humans like to emphasize. It’s easy for me to imagine saying, while defending my point of view, that somebody completely agrees with me. Omitting the adverb would strip my assertion of its sureness. However, here’s the same adverb used in another context:
Step 1: Wind the wire completely around the nail three times.
In this case, the adverb serves no purpose. By explaining how to wind the wire (“…around the nail three times”), it’s clear to the reader what I mean. As far as I know, there’s no other way to wind a wire around something multiple times.
All in all: keep aware of the context you use these adverbs in.
Adverbs of Comment/Relationship
These adverbs comment on ideas or show relationships between them.
She walks. In contrast, I run. (What is the relationship between her running and my walking?)
Interestingly, my head shrunk two sizes this morning, and thus I was worried. (What is the significance of my head shrinking? Why was I worried?)
I’ve loaded these examples with badly used adverbs. Of course my running contrasts her walking. Of course it’s interesting that my head shrunk and that I was worried because of it, unless I live in some world where head shrinking is commonplace and desirable.
Coming from the world of academic editing, I wrangle these adverbs daily. It’s easy to abuse the reader with them, whether by patronizing them (“Obviously,”) or imposing your opinion on them (“Importantly,”). However, when used well these adverbs guide the reader. (See how I used “however” to indicate a change in direction?) Ideally, a well-crafted sentence can explain itself without this type of adverb. But this world isn’t perfect, and neither is our language. If you can’t rewrite the sentence to make sense without this type of adverb, favor clarity over brevity.
Adverbs of Manner
These adverbs answer the how of the action.
She walks slowly.
Listen to me carefully.
They solved the problem easily.
Word-folks shake their collective fists at this type of adverb. “Aim for strong verbs; adverbs are the enemies of strong verbs,” is a common refrain. Why walk slowly when you can saunter? Strong verbs doubtlessly make strong sentences. But who says an appropriate adverb has to take away from a strong verb? A sentence is not a zero-sum game; adverbs and verbs can work in harmony.
Adverbs of manner present an unbeatable economy for doing two things: focusing the qualities of verbs and surprising your reader. From Zinsser again, a case for the first adverbial advantage:
“Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested.” (On Writing Well, p. 245)
Like I said: unbeatable economy. This sentence focuses on the quality of the verb “write,” condensing yards of text into a digestible adverb that creates a pleasing parallel with “interested” later in the sentence. Adverbs are essential for extracting qualities of action and being.
For the latter advantage, I’ll use an excerpt Zinsser gives on how his trip to Timbuktu contradicted his expectations:
“Mainly our reaction was one of amazement that the canons of truth-in-advertising had been so brazenly disregarded.” (On Writing Well, p. 273)
Later, in his analysis of the text:
“[I used] carefully chosen words: ‘canons’, ‘brazenly’, … They’re vivid and precise, but not long or fancy. Best of all, they’re words that readers probably weren’t expecting and that they therefore welcome.”
Use adverbs of manner to jolt and shift and subvert your verbs; to crack wit; to throw your body into your punches. Take care, though—a boxer with no restraint soon tires. Because adverbs of manner require the staunchest defense, humor me as I provide a few more examples.
Case Studies: Adverbs of Manner
Example 1: I Have a Dream — Martin Luther King, Jr.
This one doesn’t require much of an introduction. Let’s jump in:
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
King is throwing his entire weight into this rhetorical right hook. His white brothers’ freedom is not just bound, but inextricably bound to the Negro’s. It removes any and all ambiguity in “bound”; it adds a strength of conviction that compels Kings’ audience to continue with him.
Example 2: Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 27: First Date
Welcome to Night Vale is a fictional radio show in a typical yet surreal desert town known as Night Vale. This example comes from the radio station’s host, Cecil, explaining how the media has warped peoples’ self-image and encouraging them to change:
“Just peel back those artificial layers, Night Vale. Unzip that name-brand coat, those skinny jeans. Wipe off that makeup and gently, but very quickly, peel off that skin that’s covering up the true you.”
In a vacuum, I could argue that “gently peel” could just be “peel” and “quickly peel” could be “rip.” But the juxtaposition of gently and quickly—let alone that it builds a rhetorical tension as it delays revealing the verb—creates tension between the adverbs themselves. Gently and quickly are qualities typically thought opposed, and the cognitive dissonance they create here evoke volatile and beautiful feelings; Cecil wants you to be comfortable while you peel off your skin, but he also wants you to be efficient—leaving some skin hanging would just be unsightly.
Example 3: Tense Present — David Foster Wallace
This last example requires a little more background. In his essay Tense Present, David Foster Wallace defines a term he and his family identify with: the SNOOT. “There are lots of epithets for people like [us] — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is ‘SNOOT.'”
He later describes some of the unfortable-yet-true qualities of the SNOOT:
“…SNOOTs’ attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives’ attitudes about contemporary culture: We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs’ importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly educated people.”
Wallace is so self-deprecating here that I giggle every time, and largely I thank the adverbs. The one-two-three of curmudgeonly, routinely, and supposedly creates such an overblown picture of bitterness that I can’t imagine the sentence written any other way.
The Good, The Bad, The Adverb
Let’s wrap up the discussion into some clear concepts.
Essential adverbs: Sometimes adverbs are the only way of conveying information. (Just like how I used “sometimes” at the beginning of this sentence.)
Simplifying adverbs: Used wisely, an adverb can tighten up a sentence. If you want to be succinct and you can’t find a better verb, adverbs are your friend. (Again, look at “wisely” in this sentence.)
Intensifying or subversive adverbs: Adverbs can spice up your verbs and shift their meaning in important ways. (Michael Rundell gives a great description of how Margaret Thatcher used the adverbial phrase “totally and utterly” to great effect.)
Redundant adverbs: These adverbs repeat information. (He ran quickly.)
Empty adverbs: These adverbs give no new or meaningful information. (For example, “She is a fantastically excellent violin player.” when “She is an excellent violin player.” would do.)
Illogical adverbs: These adverbs give conflicting information. (He yelled softly.)
Weak adverbs: These adverbs give new or meaningful information, but poorly. They can often be replaced with a better verb, but sometimes you’ll have to rewrite the sentence. (Bad: She rose quickly from bed. Good: She leaped from bed.)
You’ll notice that I’ve listed more ways that adverbs can be used in a bad way than good, which is likely why they are considered bad to use in general. However, that doesn’t mean adverbs should be avoided like the plague. Adverbs are like candy. They’re sweet, addictive, and eminently munchable—but they can (and should!) be eaten in moderation. Just like passive voice can lead to lazy or unclear writing, but is appropriate or even necessary in some cases, the same goes for adverbs. To know when they’re appropriate, ask yourself these questions:
Is this adverb scaffolding or ornamentation? (Is the adverb essential or not?) If it’s ornamentation, is it economical? (Is the adverb worth the risk of bloating your sentence?) Is it tasteful? (What’s the context? Is this casual dialogue, prepared dialogue, or not dialogue at all? How many other adverbs are nearby? Does it just plain sound awkward? Would a rewritten sentence work better?) Is it beautiful? (Is there a better verb? Is there a better adverb?)
While it’s easy enough to throw in some adverbs mindlessly and indiscriminately—as Mark Nichol would say—it’s just as easy to remove them just the same. Let’s not sacrifice elegance for brevity at each and every juncture. I implore you, kindly yet firmly: take a scalpel to adverbs, not an ax.
Flickr image by Ian MacKay, CC BY-NC 2.0