Using Adverbs with Aplomb

Yellow team aiming at the cockerelAdverbs are a bit like mayonnaise. Both have their share of people who rail against their use, and both have their share of people who use them with everything. Use them too sparingly, and the result is dry and a bit bland; use them excessively, and the result is so sloppy it’s impossible to get through. Use them correctly, and both your writing and sandwiches will have that unobtrusive bit of extra flavor so many of us have come to expect in a good finished project.

Technically speaking, an adverb is a word or phrase which modifies a verb or verb phrase. They are commonly categorized as being either adverbs of time, adverbs of place, and adverbs of manner. Adverbs of time and place are so ubiquitous – and indeed, so necessary for efficient communication in English – that stylists rarely comment on their use. Adverbs of manner, however, are so frequently abused that some writers (Stephen King notable among them) advocate largely eliminating them from your creative writing.

King’s essay makes some valuable points – in general, more compact language is more powerful. The main problem with stuffing your writing full of adverbs is that it makes your sentences so long and loose that they are difficult to understand. It also deprives you of an opportunity to use more efficient, compelling words; a woman shrieking becomes a woman screaming loudly and suddenly, and a horse charging is downgraded to a horse running at you swiftly. Too many adverbs can result in a written work that is just as bland as one without any descriptors at all.

However, even some of the most confident, powerful writers in the anti-adverb camp will find that there are a few gaps gaps best filled by adverbs and adverbial phrases of manner. For example, they can help you seamlessly incorporate gesture into dialogue (“Of course,” Rhonda said with a wink), and they can help you draw focus to one attribute of a character’s action (Gently, Captain Folson laid Ms. Farrow down on the grass). While it’s a good idea to go through your writing and double-check the necessity of every word, there is no need to worry if such a double-check leaves some adverbs behind. Used correctly, they can contribute to an effective and beautiful style.