Boldly Defending the Adverb

It’s Adverbs Week here on Wordsmith Essays, and I want to talk a little bit about how they’ve gotten a bad rap when it comes to writing, be it in essays and articles or less formal fiction writing.

Some Writers Hate the Adverb

No less a writer than Stephen King has gone on record trashing the adverb:

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

What he really, really hates is adverbs used when talking about dialogue.  He gives the following examples of weaker sentences, and their stronger, adverb-less counterparts:

‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.

King does have a point.  When used incorrectly, adverbs can be used as a crutch.  Poor writers will use them when they’re not sure that their writing is strong enough to get the intended meaning across without explicitly telling the reader what’s going on.  Ironically, by adding an adverb in these situations, they’re actually weakening, not strengthening, their writing.

But that’s not to say adverbs are bad.  King’s ranting against a common usage of adverbs, but simply going through and crossing out every word that ends in “-ly” is going to make you a weaker writer, not a stronger one.

Give Adverbs a Chance!

Adverbs help with precision.  Sometimes, you just can’t quite get the verb you want for a situation, and no amount of peering through dictionaries and thesauruses will help you get exactly the meaning you want across.  The verb “to sigh”, for example, can bring with it many different emotional states.  Sometimes, the surrounding text will let the reader know if it’s an exasperated sigh or a happy sigh or a forlorn sigh.  English doesn’t have enough specific verbs to make that clear, and one easy and powerful way to do it, especially in a stand-alone sentence, is with a well-positioned adverb.

Without adverbs, we don’t have memorable quotes like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” or even Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  Absolute power would just corrupt, not “corrupt absolutely,” and you wouldn’t be able to “only blow the bloody doors off.”

Adverbs can add punch and emphasis, and can be very powerful when used sparingly and effectively.  So boldly go and use your adverbs well.

If you’re concerned your essay or writing has too many adverbs, or that they’re not popping like they should, why not head over to Wordsmith Essaysorder page today?  Our team of editors are available around the clock to help polish your writing to a fine shine.



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