Friday 4 June 2010


Some people have so got the wrong end of the stick about adverbs. Adverbs are not bad - using them lazily is.

Did you spot the adverb in that sentence? Should I have expressed that better? Differently? Ooops - "better" and "differently" - there go two more!

I have blogged about the poor use of adverbs before. Once in a post about "over-writing", because adverbial diarrhoea is part of that. And once in a post about the importance of showing more than telling.

It would help if you were to skim those posts to see the contexts, but I will quote from the second post here:
1. Go easy on the adverbs. Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

Let me elaborate on why it is absurd to claim, as I have heard people do, that adverbs are bad. (And after that I will show you how bad they can be in the hands of certain writers.)

Take the second sentence of that extract: "Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade."

The adverb is, of course, "lazily". (By the way, "of course" works as an adverbial phrase, as you'll see if you replace it with a true adverb: "obviously". Are you going to tell me that using it was bad? It's not bad, because it says what I want to say accurately and succinctly. OMG - two more adverbs! Slapped wrist, naughty author!)

Anyway, back to lazily. "Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade." Would you suggest that I should have avoided this adverb?

If I'd left out the adverb, we'd have been left with. "Adverbs, used, are an immature writer's stock in trade", or, more normally, "Adverbs are an immature writer's stock in trade." But they are not. So it would be wrong. What I am trying to say is very simple:

Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade.
There is no better way to express that sentence and I wouldn't want to because there is nothing wrong with it.

So, what do we mean when we CORRECTLY find fault with adverbs? Because it is the case that lazy over-indulgence in adverbs is an example of weak or immature writing - though many authors, at least in highly commercial genres where style is less of an issue, do get away with it. (Because it is partly to do with style, meaning and prose skill, not anything at all to do with faulty grammar.)

Here's the rest of the extract from that original blog post, immediately following the extract above. It shows some extreme (imaginary, because I wrote them) examples of how badly adverbs can be used. (By the way, see how I would have altered the meaning of that sentence by omitting badly).
"Listen," she whispered conspiratorially.

"What?" he interrupted eagerly.

"Nothing," she replied, hesitantly, deciding that she was not going to tell him after all.
She leant towards him, her hair brushing his cheek. "Listen. I ..."

His pulse quickened. "What?"

Carmelle took a breath. She paused. What if her informant was wrong? She shook her head, looked down at the stem of the glass pressed between her fingers. "Nothing."
The second is so much better, isn't it?
Now, that was an example of adverbs in dialogue tags, but you will see how over-use of adverbs spoils writing in normal narrative too. Try this - I've put the adverbs in italics:
She walked slowly through the woods, stopping occasionally to pick a flower, sadly thinking back to the time she'd walked here with her young daughters. Their cheeks had glowed rosily after a late summer picnic, and she could picture the hair sticking damply to their foreheads. The air had been heavy with birdsong then, but now the silence fell eerily around her and suddenly she felt a chill pass down her back. All things pass, she told herself.
It's a rubbish piece of writing in many ways and some of those adverbs are mere tautology, but the main thing is that they are lazy, for differing reasons.  
  • Slowly wouldn't be necessary if more care had been taken to choose a better verb than walked
  • Occasionally is fine and necessary, though it would be better if we actually saw her do it once and the rest of the thoughts happened during this one moment of flower-picking.  
  • Sadly shouldn't be necessary from the context of the para and if the rest of it were written better.
  • Rosily is tautologous after glowed and damply is pretty obvious or would be unnecessary if the foreheads were described as sweaty (or something).  
  • Eerily is not too bad but I'd rather be shown other aspects that made me know it was eery, without being told it so obviously. 
  • And suddenly is a word which should only be used when there is no alternative - here, it could be omitted without loss of meaning. And, therefore, should be.
So, adverbs are not bad but careless or lazy over-use certainly is. Certainly, really, actually, truthfully, adamantly, obviously, very much is. OK?
It's worth saying, too, that lazy use of anything is an immature or poor writer's stock in trade, too. Let's not blame it all on adverbs. I have seen other forms of crapness. Really.


Anonymous said...

'Thank you,' he said gratefully.

Sarah Callejo said...

I loved this post. It's great and very useful. Just shows how insecure we can get. We go from one extreme to the other. From an excessive use of adverbs to completely banning them from our work, after someone suggests we use them with moderation.

Jane Smith said...

Nicola has once again explained everything perfectly AND made me hoot with laughter. "But so does dribble", indeed.

Thomas Taylor said...

I heartily agree.

Sometimes adverb eradication just leads to word count inflation.

Amie McCracken said...

Ha ha, crapness, love it. I've never fallen into the adverb trap...but thank you for saying they aren't bad. It's so annoying when people are so black and white. Moderation!

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post, Nicola. The trouble is, some new or inexperienced writers want rules and definitive statements where everything is either black or white, good or bad. And writing is infinitely variable. (Oops...)

Rosy T said...

Great post, Nicola. I am a confirmed hater of the strict anti-adverb perspective which one encounters all to frequently in writing circles.

I recenlt read Poppy Adams’s 'The Behaviour of Moths'. Not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was shortlisted for the Costa prize and I very much enjoyed it, and in particular I enjoyed (and here I seem to be in line with the reviewers) the writing and the fresh, original voice of the MC, Ginny. Almost as powerful as the characters – almost another character in itself – is the gothic house, Bulburrow Court, in which the action unfolds.

Adams’s book is rich in adverbs – it is lush with them throughout. Here is just one short passage – a crucial one, as it is the very first passage in which Adams describes the house.

"There are four storeys and four wings. In the reception rooms, marble fireplaces stand squarely under ornately corniced dealings. In the panelled hall, a large oak staircase pours majestically from the vaulted ceiling on to the parquet floor, while behind the pantries at the back of the house - the north side – winds a much smaller, secret staircase designed to shuttle domestic staff discreetly up and down...."

I can think of a lot of anti-adverbists who would have been putting red ink thorough several of those lovely 'ornately's and 'majestically's. OK, I am quite aware that nobody ever says there is an absolute ‘rule’ against using adverbs, as such. But there are many, many how-to books, and how-to websites, which will tell you that here should at least be a presumption against them – that a writer should take a prima facie position against the use of most adverbs.

Of course we should test every adverb to see of it is worth its place in a sentence – but I believe we should test every single word to make sure it is the right one for what we want to say – for clarity and meaning, for context and character voice, for the rhythm and sound of the sentence. To me it is illogical and meaningless to suppose that we should ‘test’ an adverb any more than an adjective, a noun, a verb, a pronoun. They are simply a part of speech – inherently no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other word. Sometimes they are the right word for the job, sometimes not. To suggest starting from a position of limiting ourselves – even as a prima facie position – from the use of a whole, rich section of the language seems to me perversely self-defeating. And it is certainly a position taken by very few of the writers I personally admire.

Jus one more example - and, OK, it's a slightly tongue-in-cheek one, but one that I love, and from one of my absolute favourite writers. It's Ali Smith, with the ending of one of the stories from her brilliant collection ['Other Stories and other stories'.

"Goodnight, we said, like every night, and you longingly hopelessly happily fearfully selfishly loyally temptingly knowingly passionately lovingly wordlessly kissed me, and I kissed you all of it back

So I would argue: don't begin with a prejudice against adverbs. Embrace them, and think - creatively, lovingly, generously but also circumspectly and thoughtfully - about the many, varied and nuanced uses to which (as with every other word in the language) they may usefully be put!

Martina Boone said...

This was a welcome sight for a post. Adverbs are maligned. I agree with Sarah that we take rules so literally that we get analysis paralysis. Thanks for making the case for the deliberate and proper use of adverbs. Can we link this to our blog's Friday round-up? It's an awesome post!

Thanks so much!

Nicola Morgan said...

Marissa - of course! Please don't feel you need to ask. All links welcome at any point. It's only quoting that would need permission (which I would always give, with appropriate credits)

Others - glad it chimed!

Marian Perera said...

It's true - adverbs are just one of the tools a writer has, and it's up to us to use those tools appropriately.

Personally, I prefer to be sparing with them, so that the ones which are really meaningful will carry even more of an impact. But Rosy T has a great example of how several can be strung together to provide just as much of an effect.

Anonymous said...

[Pricey falls to her knees and lets a grateful sob escape her tequila-infused lungs] Bless ye, Nicola. My day job forces me to peruse enough misused adverbs to scare a beagle right out of her fluffy bedcovers.

Jill said...

It's funny how childhood books still affect an adult. I like all the examples of adverbs given, even the bad ones, because they remind me of old children's books. I also wonder, though, at the two versions of dialogue. The one using adverbs is much shorter, yet still gets the point across. In some cases, I could see that it would be better to just make the point and get on with it and not overstate the case. In general, though, I do agree with you. But,you could also write a post about how too much showing is absurd. That would be hilarious.

Hart Johnson said...

Great examples! I think we can all hear things a thousand times and not really GET it until we see some good examples, so thank you!

Nicola Morgan said...

Arabella - that reminds me of an important part of the anti-adverb trend: the over-use of adverbs is old-fashioned. That's why it reminds you of old children's books. Language evolves and writers must evolve with it, unless we want to write in an old-fashioned way and not get published.

But the bad examples are really bad for other reasons. Partly the flow is poor and repetitive, naive. But mainly because there is no skill shown. There is no subtlety, nothing for the reader left to process - that's why showing can usually be preferred to telling (but not always, as you say.)

I think my whole point hear has been to try to show you that when something is presented as a hard rule and then is taken too literally, what we get is a cack-handed use of language. So, i would rather adults learnt through nuance and depth, rather than the shallow and simple rules which we need to learn when we are children.

Clever people know the rules and use them. Less clever people know the rules and are used by them.

Zoe Winters said...

LOL THANK YOU! I love your use of the word "crapness". I'm pretty sure you're the first person ever to use that as a real word.

To me the unnatural fear of the adverb is akin to trying to build a house without a hammer. Sometimes you really need an adverb. Most of the time you don't, and I cut out a lot of them in my writing. But there comes a point where you have to pick between an adverb and the thesaurus. Sometimes the thesaurus will be worse than the adverb if you're using a word nobody knows.

And I've also seen people write some of the clunkiest and most convoluted sentences while trying to avoid the adverb. Is there an official phobia name for fear of adverbs? There should be, so people can get treatment for their condition.

Jill said...

Yes, I know, Nicola, that we can't write like authors of the past, but it does make me feel nostalgic reading books like that. And I'm certainly pleased that you're standing up for the proper use of adverbs. I went through a creative writing program, so I know how teachers and students can get about following hard and fast rules that really aren't.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Every English teacher should read this - I believe they are responsible for a lot of adverb overuse, because they encourage us - at that larval stage - to use as many new words as possible.

And then we have to unlearn it all to write properly, succinctly and correctly. Oh noes! There goes the overuse of adverbs again!

But seriously, I agree with you. Adverbs say to the reader 'I know you've just read that sentence, but now you have, I'm telling you how you should have read it, for you missed that they were whispering conspiratorially etc etc.

Marisa Birns said...

Yes, all those adverbs in your example of the woman walking in the woods acted as speed bumps that trip a reader out of the story.

Agree with your wonderful, amusing post. Adverbs, used judiciously, can add good flavor. Not done in this way only ruins the meal.

Harry Markov said...

My understanding is that if it exists, it very well should be used and quite honestly, in creative writing adverbs can be used for the good of the story. Like you said, it depends on what the writer can do with the words.

The whole no-adverbs rule has been taken into extremes by some and when the situation does not propose any alternatives to strengthen or nuance the prose, then why the heck not. I mean, if the dictionary has them as words, they have to serve a purpose. Shame to not use adverbs.

Kittie Howard said...

Fabulous! You know your grammar, girl! Loved this post!

Elizabeth West said...

J.K. Rowling got slammed numerous times for using adverbs in her Harry Potter books. There aren't that many--I barely noticed them. I bet she's laughing all the way to the bank.

I try to avoid them if I can get a better verb in there, but sometimes, as in your example, Nicola, it makes the meaning more precise.

Julia Bohanna said...

I think I may have the dribble comment printed as a t-shirt. Very very good advice.

Julia Bohanna said...

I think I may have the dribble comment printed as a t-shirt. Very very good advice.

P Ropecia said...

I too agree with this post and it is really a great post.