Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist
Published Mar 28, 2018

When to use adverbs

Reputable writers say:

  • "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."—Stephen King

  • "If you are using an adverb, you have got the verb wrong."—Kingsley Amis

  • "Empty your knapsack of all adjectives, adverbs and clauses that slow your stride and weaken your pace. Travel light."—Bill Moyers

  • "Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can."—Anton Chekhov

  • "Using adverbs is a mortal sin."—Elmore Leonard

  • "I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me."—Mark Twain

But, other reputable writers say:

  • "I adore adverbs; they are the only qualifications I really much respect."—Henry James

  • "Adjectives are the sugar of literature and adverbs the salt."—Henry James

  • "The Hebrews have a saying that God is more delighted in adverbs than in nouns."—Ralph Venning

  • "Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, nonfattening adverb or two."—Larry McMurtry

What’s the story with adverbs: are they good or bad? If the answer was that simple, we wouldn’t be writing this post. It depends on who you talk to and probably what day of the week it is.

Contents:

  1. Here’s the truth about adverbs
  2. Have we convinced you?

Here’s the truth about adverbs

Adverbs aren’t inherently good or bad: it’s all in how you use them. Let’s unpack when you should—and shouldn’t—use adverbs.

Use an adverb when…

1. It adds context or new information. For example, adverbs help you show time and place.

  • They went early to the nearby cinema to get tickets to the premiere.

  • The teacher rarely gives an "A" to anyone in her class.

A well-placed adverb can give emphasis to your meaning. Consider how a woman being late to her wedding differs from one who is intentionally late. And the phrase "Defuse the bomb carefully" doesn’t have quite the same kick as "Defuse the bomb." Choose your words carefully, too.

2. It can replace clunky phrasing.

  • CLUNKY: He patted her cheek in a rough manner.

  • SMOOTHER: He patted her cheek roughly.

3. Other words won’t work. Sometimes an adverb is exactly what you need. As smart as algorithms and machine learning code are, they cannot pick the right word every time. Only a writer or her editor can do that. That’s why writing is an art and not a science. Make sure you use adverbs sparingly and thoughtfully.

Replace an adverb when…

1. It restates part of the word it modifies or is redundant.

  • She whispered quietly to herself. Whispering is a quiet activity, so this adverb is redundant.

  • Tom gently caressed Sara’s shoulders. Caressing is always gentle, never rough.

2. It modifies a vague or weak verb.

  • WEAK: Joshua called loudly for help as the water level rose quickly.

You can easily replace "called loudly" and "rose quickly" with stronger verbs that are more emotive.

  • STRONGER: Joshua screamed for help as the water gushed in.

3. You use "very" or "really." What does "very" mean? Nothing solid, right? So whenever you feel obliged to drop in a "very" or a "really," find a stronger word than these weak amplifiers.

  • Instead of very large, try humongous or titanic
  • In place of really small, use minuscule or microscopic
  • Replace very soft with faint or whispered
  • Rather than really loud, replace with piercing or cacophonous

Have we convinced you?

So are adverbs good or bad? Or are they just another tool you should use thoughtfully so readers understand your meaning?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

I'm taking an extreme route. In my novel of 190k words, there are only THREE -ly adverbs (others like "seldom" don't count, it seems). Also, I've eliminated most occurrences of "just", "very", "really", "actually", and "somewhat", none of which add anything. I plan an "adverbial" read-through to decide where an -ly adverb would replace clunky text.

By sionnach.airgead on 06 April 2018, 12:54 PM

This blog from ProWritingAid came along serendipitously. I know . . . bite me. All the more fortuitous in the wake of reading Stephen King's 'On Writing' ( first published, 2000) He rails against adverbs. Aside: I'm not drawn to horror, or the 'thriller' genre - the clanking machinery of it all grinds me down . . . that said, by page 50 / 55 of King's On Writing I was delighted to find that Stephen is a damn fine writer. ( Yes, my delight is tinged with envy) Then, enamoured by his writing, I picked up his 'Night Shift,' first published 1978 . . . let's ignore the fact that my copy from Amazon identifies it as the property of Devon Libraries . . . lets all agree that 'The last Rung on the Ladder' is a story telling masterclass . . . what struck me was how much Stephen has learned since 1978. 'Night Shift' is heavily ( :) ) adverb polluted. The moral: use adverbs with discretion.

By uwillbetoo on 07 April 2018, 01:55 PM

Sound advice. Sprinkle sugar and salt don't shovel it.

By steph_nrich_1 on 09 April 2018, 10:13 PM

An intresting piece.​ I've made it a duty to ferret adjectives & adverbs out of my writing.​ The result: concise, lightwight.​ But one needs discipline.

By Celestine on 10 April 2018, 09:02 PM