How to Eliminate Adverbs
Consider eliminating many of your adverbs.
Today, Bonnie Trenga will help us decide whether adverbs are useful or evil.
No one likes feeling useless, but adverbs might justifiably feel that way. Adverbs find themselves much maligned because they're often redundant or awkwardly placed. Master writer Stephen King complains about them in his book On Writing, saying, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops” (1), but he doesn’t shout it loudly. He likens adverbs to dandelions. When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow.
How to Use Adverbs
It’s not that I don’t like adverbs; they modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and whole sentences—sometimes smashingly so. Let’s see some examples. The adverb “quickly” could modify the verb “to run,” as in “A tiger! Run quickly!” The adverb “overly” could modify the adjective “sensitive” if you wanted to describe an “overly sensitive young man.” If you wanted to criticize someone’s cooking and use an adverb to modify your entire complaint, you might say, “Clearly, you didn’t read the recipe.”
So, adverbs have their place, but often writers can improve their writing by pruning adverbs.
Adverbs have their place, but often writers can improve their writing by pruning adverbs.
How to Cut Adverbs
Let’s quickly deal with adverbs you can easily cut: repetitive adverbs. You could, for example, write “She smiled happily,” but that would be redundant, and no one would smile happily while reading your (un)carefully crafted sentence. “Frowned morosely” and “jumped up and down excitedly” are other examples of repetitive verb-adverb combinations. Most of the time, a descriptive verb will suffice. The norm is to smile when you're happy. Only an unusual smile needs the highlighting of an adverb--a crafty smile or a resigned smile may merit a descriptor.
Now for a brief list of very, very useless adverbs: the ones often used carelessly as intensifiers. You really should cut these out: “extremely,” “definitely,” “truly,” “very,” and “really.” You can totally use them in dialogue though, especially if your characters are surfers. Otherwise, avoid them mightily.
You’ll also hear complaints about adverbs that are used alongside verbs of attribution, which are words such as “said,” “asked,” and “stated.” Some overeager writers think they’re being clever when they tack on adverbs to their “saids,” as in “‘I told you not to hit your brother over the head,’ she said angrily.” Instead, stick with a lone “said” most of the time. Let the substance of the dialogue get across the way it’s being said; don’t rely on an adverb to do the work for you. When you peruse your close-to-final draft, critique your adverbs on a usefulness scale. If you could cut the adverb without irreparably harming the sentence, please do so, and do so happily.
Next we come to adverbs that are allowed to stay—but not in their current position. Adverbs unwittingly get misplaced, especially when your sentence has two verbs and one adverb. In the sentence “She was looking at the man thoughtfully,” the adverb “thoughtfully” clearly modifies “was looking.”
Things get a bit dicey if we add another verb, though: “She was looking at the man running thoughtfully.” Here, “thoughtfully” could modify two verbs: “was looking” and “running,” so the sentence could mean she was looking thoughtfully at the man, or she was looking at the man who was simultaneously running and pontificating.
Most readers would likely assume that “thoughtfully” goes with the closer verb, in this case “running.”
No matter the correct interpretation, you don’t want to leave your readers wondering. Rewrite as appropriate: either “She was looking thoughtfully at the runner” or “She was looking at the man who was running thoughtfully.”
The adverb “only” also gets stuck in the wrong place. We covered this topic in another episode, but we’ll mention it briefly here. If you say, “Candace only edits on Tuesdays,” you’re suggesting that the only thing Candace does on Tuesdays is edit; she doesn't write, she doesn't sleep, she doesn't eat. She only edits.
Granted, misplaced “onlys” pop up in everyday speech, but in writing it’s best to be more precise and use “only” in the right place. The right place is almost never before the verb.
Sadly, we are at the end of our hopefully not useless time together. As you’ve seen, you are allowed to use adverbs, but use them wisely and only occasionally.
Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of The Grammar Devotional.
1. King, S. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 118. New York: Pocket Books.