Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Rooting Out the Adverbs.

Reader (and writer, by the way) Lance writes, "I despise adverbs. They're overused and lead to lazy prose. When is it acceptable to use adverbs in a narrative? ....Thank you, here's a fresh apple."
Apple 03

Because Lance was kind enough to leave a fresh imaginary apple for the teacher, he gains status as Teacher's Pet.

As for adverbs, that's more of a stylistic question than an actual grammar question. Grammar doesn't care how many adverbs you use as long as you use them correctly (See? There's an adverb right there). Grammar does, however, insist that you never use adjectives in places where adverbs belong! 

  • This is a real delicious chocolate pie. (really)
  • You write very good. (well)
  • That hillbilly is sure good-looking. (surely)

As far as style goes, Stephen King believes, "the road to hell is paved with adverbs," and that they sprout like dandelions if you fail to root them out immediately. (from On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft )

King also insists that adverbs very seldom, if ever, be used in dialog attribution:
  • "It's freezing," Tom muttered icily.
  • "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
  • "That's the last time I'll stick my arm in a lion's mouth," the lion-tamer said off-handedly. {snicker}
Fotothek df roe-neg 0006211 007 Zirkusdarbietung mit Löwen

It is generally (Oh, look! Another one!) agreed upon among writers that it is better to use strong verbs than it is to use adverbs to describe weak verbs. 

On the other hand, some adverbs are actually necessary. I've given you some examples on this post already. Which is necessary, and which is expendable?
Grammar doesn't care how many adverbs you use as long as you use them correctly.
 It is generally agreed upon among writers that it is better to use strong verbs than it is to use weak verbs and describe them with adverbs.
The first sentence wouldn't make much sense without the adverb correctly. The second sentence would still make sense without generally, but might not be as precise. It's your call. If you can cut out the adverb and still say what you mean, then by all means cut it out.

Strunk and White, in their book The Elements of Style , don't seem to care much about excess adverbiage (Yeah, I made that word up.) Their main concern seems to be that the adverbs you do use are not awkwardly constructed (Yep. Gonna have to keep that adverb). In other words, don't just go around willy nilly, sticking -ly onto every adjective you come across. "Words that are not used orally are seldom ones to go on paper."

By the way, words ending in -ly are not the only adverbs. On this page, I've used the following adverbs:
when     not     never     very     seldom     still     much     

Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They may indicate place (there), time (now), manner (beautifully ), circumstance (accidentally), or degree (very). They do not have to end in -ly, as I have shown.

So to summarize, there is no "right or wrong" in terms of the number of adverbs you use in your prose. However, good writers use them sparingly and only when they add meaning that can't be added in any other way. It's a matter of style, not grammar.

What else do you need to know about adverbs or about any grammar/punctuation question at all? Always feel free to ask. That's what I'm here for. 

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