Posted July 23, 2019
Adverbs are one of the most controversial elements of the English language. Some people believe that good writing should shed all adverbs; they believe adverbs are always bad. Others understand that adverbs have their place but argue that people should use them less. How can you ensure their use in your writing is effective?
What are adverbs?
Adverbs join other word types like nouns, verbs, and adjectives as one of the essential pillars of language. Adverbs often append an “-ly” at the end of the word but, as the bold words in this article show, adverbs can take other forms too. Adverbs are similar to adjectives in that both are modifiers. Adjectives modify nouns; while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. For instance:
- In “he’s a quick boy,” the word “quick” is an adjective modifying the noun “boy.”
- In “the boy moved quickly,” “quickly” is an adverb modifying the verb “moved.”
For more information about what adverbs are, see this article at Grammarly.com.
When to use adverbs
Adverbs have their place! Adverbs add meaning; they clarify the way, the time, or the place where something is happening or how it happens. For example, the adverb in "we arrived early" provides contextual information; it tells the reader when the arrival happened. Some best practices:
- Don't be afraid to use adverbs! A lot of people seem to hate adverbs, but they can add helpful context, information, and nuance to writing, and they can improve narrative flow.
- That said, use them sparingly. Though adverbs are not inherently bad, they are more likely than other word types to add verbal clutter to a piece of writing. It's the clutter that's bad.
- Some adverbs are crucial and unavoidable. For example, “not” is an adverb when it modifies the verb, and you cannot not use “not” when it’s needed!
When not to use adverbs
Famed author Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says, "The adverb is not your friend. The road to hell is paved with adverbs." The problem is that too many adverbs make writing more difficult to parse and understand. Excessive use of adverbs also encourages overwriting; instead of choosing more specific words, writers add a bunch of adverbs. Novelist Lucille Moncrief writes, "I contend that adverbs can make you lazy." Writers should strive to be economical in their writing. Other quick guidelines include:
- Avoid adverbs like "very," "interestingly," "quite," and "actually." These words have their place, but they don't add a lot of meaning, and they may be the most overused of all adverbs.
- Avoid adverbs if the word they are modifying has a more specific form that could be used instead. For instance, favor "he grinned" over "he smiled widely," or "she shouted" instead of "she spoke loudly."
- Avoid doubling up (or more) on adverbs: favor the more straightforward "poorly executed" over the excessive "all too often very poorly executed."
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.
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