Here’s why adverbs are bad: They are the Joey Fatone of the NSync that is writing. Unloved, cast out, and hated by everyone, experts will tell you that adverbs don’t belong in a book.
But what do the experts really mean? Why do they hate adverbs so much? Anytime I read a writing “rule”, I do research to understand what people are trying to tell me, because it’s never what the rule says.
Adverbs are no different. It’s not that you can’t use adverbs, it’s that when you do use them, you’re creating a dozen other problems. Today’s post is all about getting underneath why adverbs are bad.
First: A little reminder
What is an adverb anyway? It’s a word that modifies another word, specifically verbs or adjectives. It’s a describing word. “The cat ran quickly.” In this sentence, the adverb “quickly” modifies the verb “ran” and provides additional description.
Adverbs can describe five elements of a sentence:
- How? (The cat ran. How did it run? Quickly)
- When? (The cat ran. When did it run? Today)
- Where? (The cat ran. Where did it run? There)
- To What extent? (The can ran. To what extent did it run? Very Quickly)
- Why? (The cat ran. Why did it run? Because it’s a garbage cat) (Note: This is an example of an adverb clause, a sentence that acts as an adverb, usually coming after “because” or “if”).
When people say “don’t use adverbs” that’s not what they mean. What they mean is “Don’t do these things that are the result of using adverbs poorly”. If you know what they are, you can avoid them.
1. Redundancy hides in adverbs
I think we can agree redundancy is bad. Your writing should be crisp, clean and straightforward. Every word should have a purpose, and you should do everything you can to eliminate wasted words (I wrote a whole post on this)
Redundancy hides in adverbs, especially when you use them to modify a word and explain “how” someone did something:
“He ran quickly”
“She banged the table forcefully”
“He yelled loudly”
In each of those examples, the adverb is not bringing any new information to the sentence. He yelled loudly. Well, how else is he supposed to yell? How else do you run, except quickly?
This is the real meaning #1 when experts say “don’t use adverbs”. What they mean is “don’t waste words.” Don’t pad your writing with words that don’t bring any new information to the table
2. Laziness hides in adverbs
We all like adverbs because they’re easy. It’s simple to modify a verb and make the verb mean what you want. It saves us from having to stop and think about the word we should be using.
Laziness hides hides in adverbs, especially when you use them to modify a verb to make it mean something different. For example:
“He ran slowly”
“He shook his head vigorously”
“She punched softly”
In each of those cases, the adverb distorts the meaning of the original word to the extent that it’s less powerful. The fix is the same every time – use the correct word.
“He ran slowly” – He jogged.
“He shook his head vigorously” – he nodded
“She punched softly” – she tapped
English has something like 85,000 unique words, although there is yet no word for that feeling you get when your favorite show isn’t on Netflix. I suggest “Netscrewed”. Anyhow, there’s a word for nearly everything. Use the correct word.
3. Vague writing hides in adverbs
In the paragraph above, I used the term “nearly everything.” I’ve taken the meaning of the original word (everything) and modified it with an adverb to mean the literal opposite of it’s meaning (not quite everything).
It’s too easy to do this with adverbs.
“She ran slowly”. So… she didn’t run at all, is what you’re saying. You’re saying she walked? Why not type “walked” then?
Write what you mean.
4. Adverbs clutter a sentence.
Let’s put this all together and see what it looks like. Below, I’ve found a bunch of adverb-heavy sentences pulled from random books. You can see the before / after and decide yourself if adverbs make a sentence stronger or not:
The shaking of the earth had halted, and the rain instantaneously cleared, only for the sun to beam down, although something was different.
The shaking halted, and the rain cleared. The sun beamed down. Something was different.
Sarah blinked for several seconds then gazed around dully, until her senses finally returned. Gazing around she smiled
Sarah blinked until her senses returned. She smiled
Ernest stopped abruptly as he saw who was lying there. Walter Paterson smiled weakly over at him, raising a hand.
Ernest stopped as he saw who was lying there. Walter Paterson smiled, raising a hand.
Riina vigorously nodded. “I made sure the magistrate didn’t keep it just in case things went sour. I also have a few love letters Linus wrote me when we were courting. They make it very clear that he’ll take care of me no matter what happens.”
Riina nodded. “I made sure the magistrate didn’t keep it. I also have a few love letters Linus wrote me. They make it clear that he’ll take care of me.”
What do you think? Do those changes make the sentences better or worse? Adverbs, man. They’re not your friend.
Remember the tagline: Writing is Hard