The Problem With Adverbs (and How to Solve It)
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
So says master writer Stephen King in his memoir of the craft, On Writing.
He’s right. Sort of. Often. The thing is, adverbs are often a weaker choice than other options when you paint a scene or describe a person. However they can sometimes be just the thing to add details while keeping text lean. Today we’ll take a deep dive into adverbs: what they are, why they’re used, how people make mistakes using them, and how to use them well.
Most words are divided into four types: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. The majority of adverbs end with “ly”
People usually fully understand the difference between nouns and verbs, but sometimes get mixed about adverbs vs. adjectives. Adjective modify nouns, and nouns alone. Adverbs modify everything else.
- In the sentence Big Johnny quickly ate the pink cake, big and cake are adjectives because they describe and modify the nouns Johnny and cake. Quickly is an adverb because it describes and modifies the verb ate.
- In the sentence The best friends went everywhere together, best is an adjective because it describes the noun friends. Everywhere is the adverb because it describes the verb went.
How Are Adverbs Used?
All adverbs modify different words in different ways, and the list of adverbs in English occupies about 10% of the total number of words. Despite this variety, they fall into seven broad categories.
These go at the beginning of a question and modify a verb with a state of uncertainty. They create a question, hence the name. You’ll recognize them from the list of journalistic questions. Examples include:
- How is your brother doing?
- When does lunch start?
- Where are my shoes?
- Why is he late?
- How to I get there?
These join a clause or sentence with another clause or sentence, acting as subjects within a relative clause. In many ways they act like conjunctions (but, and), to connect to ideas. Examples include:
- This is the shop where I bought my skateboard.
- Next year is when you can learn to drive.
- I don’t know why he’s so late to the meeting.
This is the largest category and most frequently used kind of adverb. They modify a verb to describe things like amount, frequency, matter, number, and other details. Examples include:
- They partly completed the assignment on time.
- She told the secret quietly.
- We never eat dessert before dinner.
- When it hit the fan, it went everywhere.
- Aunt Lin will get there soon.
These focus the reader on specific information, either by calling out emphasis, detailing restrictions, or ordering information. They’re usually placed before they noun they modify. Examples include:
- David also ate the spiders.
- Sal and Jose even washed the cheese grater.
- Only Calvin is allowed inside the house.
- Her remarks were purely spiteful.
Adverbs of Attitude
Some adverbs modify the word less than they indicate an interpretation by a narrator or speaker about the situation they help describe. These also tend to feature heavily in snark and sarcasm. Examples include:
- You can naturally come with us if you want.
- Apparently you didn’t get the message about today’s start time.
- She clearly doesn’t care about the situation at all.
Adverbs of Evaluation
These indicate an assessment about the verb, adjective, or adverb they describe. Most often they indicate attitude, degrees of certainty, or some kind of judgment. Examples include:
- She honestly admitted what she had done.
- He is obviously the smartest person in the room.
- Presumably, they will get the job done like they promised.
- They gave out grades fairly.
- The hero foolishly left her armor at home.
Linking adverbs connect ideas. They differ from relative adverbs in that they don’t serve between a dependent and independent clause, but rather connect discrete ideas. Examples include:
- He liked the cake but nevertheless ordered a salad.
- I drove to her house; otherwise I would have had to walk.
- She gave him food, and furthermore let him spend the night on the couch.
When thinking about what kind of adverb one is, keep in mind that the key is its usage, not the word itself. Any given adverb can fall into several different categories.
Common Adverb Errors (and How to Avoid Them)
King doesn’t have his opinion about adverbs because they are universally and essentially bad. He has his opinion because of how frequently people make mistakes in their usage. These aren’t grammar errors. The grammar involved with adverbs is pretty simple. It’s a matter of style and art.
When you choose to use adverbs, do your best to avoid these most common mistakes.
Telling Instead of Showing
This is the most common mistake people make when writing with adverbs. In many cases, an adverb gives a weaker description than might have happened with adjectives or verbs doing the same work. “He moved quickly” doesn’t have the same punch as “He sprinted.”
This is especially common in dialogue, where a writer will use a tag instead of more colorful, powerful language. Compare these three descriptions of the same statement:
- “I’ve had enough!” Sarah said loudly.
- “I’ve had enough!” Sarah shouted.
- “I’ve bloody well had enough!” Sarah said. She slammed her fist on the table.
If you suspect you’re using an adverb to tell instead of show, play around with how you might use an adjective or verb to create a more impactful sentence.
Sometimes It’s Okay, Though
When you want to indicate a detail but not make that detail the focus of a sentence, you can do that by using an adverb. It gives a little color to the statement without drawing unneeded focus.
Pro Tip: Check out our guide to “Show vs Tell” for more tips about how to include descriptions in your books.
People throw in adverbs sometimes because they feel natural, even when they don’t add anything meaningful to the sentence. “She shouted loudly into the phone” is one word too long, because anybody shouting is by definition being loud about it. That’s the whole point of shouting.
Look out for this also when using two adverbs in the same sentence. A “slow and leisurely walk” tells you the pace and tempo of the walk twice. You could cut it down to a “slow walk” or a “leisurely walk” without losing anything. You could even just call it a “stroll.”
One final form of redundant adverb is when you modify a word that doesn’t require modification. For example:
- “Completely bankrupt” doesn’t work, because bankrupt means you’re out of money. It’s a binary proposition.
- “It’s very unique” doesn’t work since unique is an absolute state. Nothing is partially unique.
- “Very perfect” doesn’t work because perfect is the best possible state. You can’t improve on perfect.
Sometimes It’s Okay, Though
Although redundant adverbs are bad writing, they’re common speech. It’s okay to throw some in your dialogue, especially as a tag for one character. Likewise, you can use redundancy effectively to emphasize a point even though the usage is technically incorrect. Just make sure you’re doing it on purpose.
This is the opposite of redundancy: adverbs that modify a word in a nonsensical way. Look at these examples:
- She literally jumped a thousand yards.
- The dog slobbered neatly onto the pillow.
- He was totally half paying attention.
In all these cases, the adverb cancels out the verb it modifies. It’s best to rewrite these sentences completely, sometimes taking a minute beforehand to make sure you know what you really mean by them. Here are those same sentences fixed:
- It seemed like she jumped a thousand yards.
- The dog drooled a little onto the pillow.
- He spaced out completely for a minute.
Sometimes It’s Okay, Though
Oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp” are part of common language. Although they contradict each other, their meaning is clear within the context of how we use English. They’re safe to use, but only if used with care.
This is the only grammar-oriented item on this list, and best illustrated by the following sentence.
“She told the walrus she loved him”
Now ask, where in that sentence would the word “only” go? Each placement changes the meaning of the sentence. Compare:
- Only she told the walrus she loved him.
- She only told the walrus she loved him.
- She told only the walrus she loved him.
- She told the only walrus she loved him.
- She told the walrus only she loved him.
- She told the walrus she only loved him.
- She told the walrus she loved only him.
- She told the walrus she loved him only.
You see what I mean. When you’re editing, if you find a sentence with an adverb that confuses some of your beta readers, check in on the adverb’s placement. That might be the source of your problem.
Sometimes It’s Okay, Though
In some cases, you can use odd adverb placement to give your language a whimsical or poetic feel. That’s totally okay, but only if you did it on purpose for that reason. Most of the time it’s a mistake, and one we shouldn’t double down on.
Photo by Liliana Drew.