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Stop Hating on Adverbs

Today I’m going to talk about a much-maligned part of speech. Yes, I’m referring to the infamous adverb. If you’re any kind of writer, or even if you follow writing, you’ve without a doubt heard that ADVERBS ARE BAD. I say a little about why I disagree in this blog post. Recently, however, I’ve seen a great many tweets and various other posts from writing coaches encouraging writers to “obliterate adverbs” and similar nonsense, and this really flips my switch. Hence, an entire post devoted to the adverb.

The main thing that irritates me about the “no adverbs” philosophy is that the people who subscribe to it don’t seem to know WHY adverbs are bad. Or at least, if they know they aren’t telling. And I get reactionary and sick at my stomach any time it appears to me that someone is making a sweeping judgment of the worth of anything without giving clear reasons for it. I feel the same way about people dissing parts of speech that I do about racism and sexism and size-ism and any -ism at all. It flips my switch, and I want to come out fighting.

The thing is, a person can overuse adverbs. They can be a sign of hasty and amateurish writing, and going deeper than the adverb can make for better imagery. Compare “He walked quickly down the street” with “His boots beat a rapid tattoo on the asphalt as he wove through the parked cars…” The first doesn’t tell show you much other than the gender of the subject and the fact that he’s moving as a rapid pace. But from the second, you know what kind of shoes he’s wearing (boots), the ground he’s covering (asphalt), that he’s going fast (rapid), that the quality of movement is perhaps martial (beat/tattoo)…all kind of things, all without a single adverb. So, yeah, too much reliance on adverbs can make your writing dull.

On the other hand, telling a writer to eliminate any part of speech altogether is like telling a painter never to use the color red, or telling a musician never to play a B-flat. You’re taking a tool out of the box and throwing it away, not because it’s broken, but because it’s unfashionable. “Oh, manual drills are so last century! No one uses them any more.” But you know, there’s going to come a time when you want that manual drill. When an electric one won’t fit in the space you have, or when you need to drill a starter hole for a screw right away and your electric drill has lost its charge, or just because getting it out of the case is too much trouble and you can keep the manual one in your pocket.

Same with adverbs. Sometimes you need them. Consider:

“The creases in the wrapping paper stood out as sharply as those in a Marine’s trousers, and the crisp, double bow topping the package had been aligned with military precision. Clearly someone had taken trouble over this gift.”

Sure, you could eliminate those two adverbs. You could do it in one of two ways. You could decide that neither of them mattered, and replace “as sharply as” with “like,” and drop “clearly” altogether. And you know what? Your sentence would lose imagery. It would not mean the same thing. Or, you could do what far too many writers do, and replace those nasty -ly-words with prepositional phrases.

“The creases in the wrapping paper stood out with sharpness like a Marine’s trousers…”

And you know what? I’m not even going on with that, because if you can’t see how awkward it is to go around replacing every single word ending in -ly with a prepositional phrase, I doubt you can understand the point of this blog post. But I can’t tell you the number of dismal fantasy novels I’ve read that had me hugging the toilet from bizarre constructions like “With caution, the hero with swiftness unsheathed his sword and with bravery launched himself at his attacker. With dedication.”

It’s not a question of any part of speech being “bad” or “good”. It’s a question of knowing your craft. And that means being able to make the choice to use an adverb when it suits you or finding a way to replace that adverb you used in the first draft because it was the first thing that popped into your mind with something more picturesque. It also means being able to recognize when a word ending in -ly is an adverb and when it’s not instead of condemning every word with a particular suffix. It means understanding that adverbs also can modify adjectives, and sometimes you want to do that. And it means learning about adverbs that don’t end in -ly, and asking yourself if you really have it in for a part of speech or just an irritating suffix.

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