I use them often, as you may have noticed. Adverbs. They’re those nifty little words that, depending on your perspective, either give precision to your prose or needlessly clutter up the page. Some writers rail against them. (Hello, Stephen King.) Others dispense them with delicious effect. (Oh, hi, Stephen Fry.) In my view, adverbs are elements of language that can, like all others, add style to your writing. The key is knowing how and when to employ them.
You can generally recognise adverbs by the suffix ‘-ly’ that is appended to them, although it is important to note that not all words ending in –ly are adverbs and not all adverbs end in –ly. Their name indicates that their role is to ‘add’ something to a verb, although they can be used to modify other parts of speech too. This includes:
- adjectives (such as utterly fascinating, quite delightful)
- other adverbs (very cleverly, unreasonably often)
- clauses or sentences (Potentially, this is getting a bit technical).
Adverbs modify or specify such things as:
- Time (soon, later, afterwards)
- Place (nearby, overhead, beneath)
- Manner (exquisitely, unwillingly, predictably)
- Degree (mildly, intensely, extremely)
- Frequency (often, regularly, infrequently)
- Probability (likely, possibly, maybe)
- Emphasis (very, quite, positively)
- Duration (briefly, interminably, always).
There are also a cluster of interrogative adverbs whose purpose is to form questions relating to time (when), place (where), reason (why) and manner (how). Fortunately, you don’t need to remember all of this in order to use adverbs effectively. (See what I did there?)
Arguments against the use of adverbs invoke an apparent ineptness on the part of the writer, who may be depending on them to carry a weight of meaning and emotion that might otherwise be conveyed through sturdier words like verbs and nouns. It is true that excessive use of them can be a lazy way to “tell” readers what is happening and how they should feel about it, rather than “showing” or guiding them to this knowledge. Yet equally, one of the qualities of good writing is that it persuades us.
Through engaging with well chosen words, we become willing to believe in imagined worlds, innovative ideas, dramatic events and exhilarating theories. Words do have power, and writers are entitled to use all the linguistic gifts available to them in order to express their message in the best way they can. I believe this includes adverbs, despite what other experts might say.
Sometimes the touch of specificity given by an adverb is necessary to deliver an exact meaning or image. At other times, the vehemence of a writer’s feelings can be concentrated through a few rigorous adverbs. Then there is the outright glee of scattering them joyfully, exuberantly, willingly and wantonly, for the simple reason that words are fun.
Not every verb requires modification, and nor does every sentence need an adverbial adornment. To develop your discernment, learn to identify adverbs both in your own writing and in the material you read. Consider the effect they have and try rephrasing various sentences that contain adverbs while still retaining the meaning. You can then decide which version better expresses the idea, image or emotion in question and choose whether to use them or not.
It really comes down to a matter of taste. Adverbs suit the style of some writers but they hang inelegantly in the text of others. There is no need to shun them, and none to include them if you’d rather not. Either way, it’s up to you. Entirely and completely.
Whatever your preference, just remember as with all your words to use them artfully.
Do you have an affection for or an aversion to adverbs? Would you say they add or detract from the writing you read? Are there any you find particularly appealing? Feel free to share in the comments below.
Sources consulted for this article include The Little Green Grammar Book by Mark Tredinnick (University of New South Wales Press, 2008), A Short Guide to Traditional Grammar (2nd edition) by J.R. Bernard (Oxford University Press, 1993) and Dictionary of Grammar (Redwood Editions, 1998).