Adverbs Can Work

For those of us who are beginning writers, one of the rules of modern-day writing (as opposed to 19th century writing, for example) that is so frequently beaten into our brains is the concept that adverbs are to be avoided if at all possible.  They rarely work, the writing teachers say, and look down on us who use them.  Generally that’s good advice.  I suggest new writers learn not to use an adverb if something else will work.  But there are occasions where an adverb can work, and work well.  The key to using adverbs is to use them in places where their modifying ability can be put to good use and give more information that couldn’t be added any other way.  Remember, an adverb modifies a verb or an adjective or another adverb.  Don’t use them to modify the word “said” when using “said” as a dialogue attributive.

For example, take the quotation,  “‘I’ve got nothing to say to you,’ Dave said bitterly.”  Here, “bitterly,” an adverb (note the “ly” at the end of the word) is unnecessary, because the context of the quotation gives the reader all the information he or she needs to know about Dave’s mood.  What precedes that line of dialogue may also contribute to the context of Dave’s bitterness, but the reader should get the point without the adverb.  This is one of the most common misuses of adverbs.  The adverb in this example is also an instance of “Show, don’t tell,” where the author is “telling” the reader what Dave’s mood is.  Not good.

But I maintain that adverbs can be used well.  For example, “The woman walked across the street.”  Okay, she walked across the street.  Big fat, hairy deal.  Doesn’t tell you much.  But, add an adverb and it becomes: “The woman walked quickly across the street.”  Better.  From the context of the sentence, it might be obvious why she had to “walk quickly,” but in a situation where the context was minimal or lacking, the sentence at least gives more information.  There’s more action in the sentence.  It’s more visual.  I can visualize the woman walking in my mind’s eye.  It also rules out other possibilities.  She could have walked “slowly,” or “languidly,” or “drunkenly,” or even at her normal rate.  How’s the reader to know?  It’s in this type of situation that adverbs can work.  I certainly wouldn’t want to use adverbs in every sentence, of course not.  But in the right situation, an adverb can be important, and give a reader a better idea of what’s happening.

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