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.
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.