Use Adverbs Sparingly

National Grammar DayNext Wednesday, March 4th, is National Grammar Day, so I thought I’d celebrate by writing a post about grammar. Although it’s not really about grammar. It’s about one of those rules for good writing.

I learned a lot of writing rules back in broadcast journalism school: write short, uncomplicated sentences; don’t put more than twenty words in a sentence; write in present tense; don’t use the word “yesterday,” lest your listeners think you’re running old news; and on and on.

These particular rules are pretty much useless for fiction writing. Most novelists don’t write in present tense (although I hear it’s a thing in some circles) and nobody cares whether you mention “yesterday” in your novel or not. But among the rules that have stuck with me is this: Don’t use adverbs.

As I’m sure you know, adverbs are modifiers. Whereas adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, adverbs modify verbs (and adjectives, and sometimes other adverbs). Adverbs come in many flavors, including in conjunction with other words in adverbial phrases and clauses. But your garden-variety adverb is easy to spot: it’s an adjective with –ly tacked onto the end.

Right about now, you’re probably saying, “But why such prejudice against the poor adverb, Lynne? It never did anything bad to anybody, did it?”

Well, no. But it’s weak. If you dropped that adverb and used a different verb, your sentence would be stronger. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s say you wrote this:

Fred moved quickly across the field.

That’s an okay sentence, as far as it goes. But how did Fred move quickly? Let’s look at a few possibilities:

Fred hurried across the field.

Fred darted across the field.

Fred streaked across the field.

Fred galloped across the field.

Fred careened across the field.

See the difference? In each of these sentences, Fred is still moving quickly. But depending on the verb you choose, your reader will draw a slightly different – and more descriptive – picture.

Sometimes in writing fiction, though, you don’t want your verb to be quite so obvious about pulling the action along. Sometimes you want your verb to fade into the background. Yes, I’m talking about dialogue tags.

Some people just hate the word said. It grates on them. The repetition makes them crazy. If you’re one of those people, I apologize, because I believe said and its cousin asked are critical tools in any fiction writer’s toolbox.

If you use strong verbs for dialogue tags, you run the risk of taking attention away from the dialogue. Plus, it’s too easy to stray into the hyperbolic (ranted? cajoled?) or the physically impossible (I’m sorry, but nobody can shriek through an entire sentence).

But if you’re going to use plain-vanilla verbs in your dialogue tags, you need to do something else to give context to your characters’ words. You can describe their body language – crossing their arms, tapping their feet, looking away, and so on. Or you can describe what they’re doing as they’re talking – peeling a label off of a beer bottle, making an omelet, cutting flowers for a bouquet. Or you can use an adverb:

“Is Fred going to be all right?” Sadie asked hopefully.

“He’ll be fine,” the doctor said briskly. “Just don’t let him careen into any more fences.”

I wouldn’t go overboard on putting –ly words in dialogue tags; I’d use them sparingly, and intersperse them with the other methods I mentioned. But my point is that adverbs do have a place in fiction writing. Just not a huge one. And do take care that you don’t stray into Tom Swifty territory with them – unless, of course, you want to.

“Happy Grammar Day!” Lynne said editorially.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Use Adverbs Sparingly”

  1. Always a good reminder and I loved your example of “quickly”. I do a quick Find search for ‘ly’ before my final editing pass. Sometimes I catch ones that should be replaced, sometimes I see that the word is working and I leave it. Honestly, I think that most readers read past them without even thinking that they are taking away from the story, but as a writer, I want to create more than just a few words strung together, I want to create a memory.
    Thanks, Lynne!

  2. Like adjectives, adverbs should be used sparingly but not given up entirely–as my sentence illustrates. Or, I could have written “avoided but not abandoned.” A concise verb negates the use of qualifiers.

    My philosophy: Unless no longer deemed parts of speech, no parts of speech should be off limits to writers. As the saying goes: “Everything in moderation; nothing in excess.”

    Thanks for the reminders, Lynne! Enjoyed the post, as always.

  3. Fabulous post. I can spot a brand new author, usually in the first paragraph as they really use really and other words pretty much all the time. I am guilty of it myself in the beginning. I reworked by first book and removed about 1,000 “reallys”. Maybe an exaggeration, but, well you know. It’s to the point now, that I catch it when people speak it! Thank you for reminding us and pointing this out. It will only make us all better.

  4. Excellent advice, Lynne. Using other ways of showing that involve an actual action descriptor is so much more effective. Yes, adverbs have their place. I use them, too. But I try to be aware of when and how to make sure they are truly what I want in that instance.

  5. “I broke that window,” Tom said, painfully. (Sorry, I love Tom Swiftys!)

    I do an adverb hunt every time I finish a manuscript. I just type “ly” into my search and review each one to make sure there isn’t a better way to accomplish what it is supposed to do. I eliminate about half of them with that exercise.

    Now, how about another pet peeve: double adjectives on every poor noun. I have beta read several MS that have two or even three modifiers for almost every noun. Too much! Distracting! Takes me out of the story!

    Oh, and how about exclamation points?

    1. I’ve made myself a strict rule on my own blog, Shawn: no exclamation points and no emoticons (she said emphatically).

      You know what makes me the craziest about those strings of modifiers you’re talking about? People don’t know where to put the commas. I’ll see “bright, blue coupe” — which doesn’t need a comma at all (because “bright” modifies “blue”, not “coupe”). Or “tall, dark, and handsome, man” — which does *not* need a comma after “handsome”. Or people will go to the opposite extreme and put “wet heavy snow” — which needs a comma after “wet”. Argh…

  6. Thanks for this. I agree changing the verb makes adverbs unnecessary. The anti-adverb movement seems to be recent, sometime after the 60s I should say. Any literary historian know who initiated and championed it?

  7. Another good reminder, Lynne. Sometimes it is very, very tempting to use an adverb. Exceedingly tempting. Overwhelmingly tempting. Seriously, I must train myself not to flagrantly give in to temptation.

    After having fun with the topic, I do have a sincere question. Are adverbs more accepted in certain genres? I’m re-reading one of the Harry Potter books, and it seems that J.K. Rowling modifies about 85 percent of the dialogue tags with adverbs. Is that considered less of a writing faux pas in children’s and middle grade books?

    1. I would think it would be even worse in kids’ books. You’d think the idea would be to model good writing. But then I think about those Nancy Drew mysteries I used to devour like candy….

  8. An adverb isn’t necessarily weak; it may be proper within certain contexts. That means not using too many of them, especially in the same paragraph, or worst, within the same sentence. An abundance of adverbs bogs down the writing; therefore, making it cumbersome and perhaps incomprehensible. I had a problem with adverbs. I thought their frequency was essential to convey what I was trying to say. It was by chance that someone mentioned it in a Toastmasters meeting I attended several years ago. So I revisited all of my stories and started the long, arduous task of adverbial exorcisms.

    I saw a cartoon several years ago where a creative writing teacher stood before his class and recited lines from the stories of some students where the word “said” was substituted for a more ornate term. In the last panel, the teacher notes, “There’s a lot to be said for ‘said.’”

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