August 19th, 2009
Writerly Wednesday on Grammar – Adverbs

Writerly Wednesday

Adverbs are words that modify the meaning of verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. These are often called the “ly” words but it’s not a universal rule that adverbs must end in “ly”. Adverbs are not used to modify nouns.

Adverbs are a perfectly correct part of the English language yet they are frowned on when you are writing fiction in particular. Why is that, when they do a valid job and are not grammatically incorrect?

Well, a sparing and judicious use of adverbs is actually quite acceptable, even in fiction. The problems come about when adverbs are over-used because it’s a sign that the verb they are modifying is too generic or too weak for what you are trying to convey.

For example:

  • “She ran around the corner.” – This is boring and it could convey just about any mood.
  • “She quickly ran around the corner.” – The adverb “quickly” helps set a bit of a mood of haste or hurry.
  • “She raced around the corner.” – This is a better verb choice as it no longer needs the adverb’s help to set the mood.

Adverbs are also considered a sign of “telling” the action to the reader by making the action obvious. It’s a weakness.

In the example above, “ran” is too weak a verb. It can mean too many things (a jog, a panicked run, a terrified fleeing?) and it’s too generic. Because it’s so generic, it makes the sentence almost disappear and become invisible. If that’s what is intended, it’s okay. But if you want to convey emotion or mood, it needs to be stronger.

The one real exception to this is dialogue. The characters need to speak naturally and in accordance with their word and selves and this can mean a more frequent use of adverbs.

So whenever you are tempted to use an adverb, stop and see if you can find a more descriptive verb, adverb or adjective to use instead. Is there a single word that can convey your meaning instead? If you don’t know one off the top of your head, try looking up synonyms or looking in a dictionary. It’s worthwhile.

When you’re almost ready to submit, take the time to search your manuscript for words ending in “ly” and see how many are left. Can you replace any of them with a stronger, more specific, word?

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