Tuesday, June 1, 2010

De-vilifying the Adverb

Adverbs get a bad rap. Don’t use them, we hear. They’ll make you look like a novice. If your first page has an adverb, an agent will never request more material. And so on, and so on. But the truth is, there’s more to the no-adverb rule than just, “Don’t use them, ever.”

First off, what IS an adverb? That telltale “ly” ending is (usually) a dead giveaway, but there's more to it than that. According to the good book (also known as the dictionary), an adverb is--get ready--“a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content.”

Phew. So, to sum up, an adverb is a word that modifies another word. (As I used to tell my middle school students, if the word modifies a noun, it’s an adjective. If it modifies any other kind of word, it’s an adverb.)

Well, that’s great, right? Adverbs modify other words, so they provide more information and add dimension…right? So what the heck is so wrong with them?

What’s wrong with them is that they often add unnecessary dimension--that is, the adverb is a weaker word than an alternative, or it’s redundant. Consider the following examples:

“Hurry up,” he said quietly.
She really liked corndogs.
He walked carefully past the principal’s office.

In the first sentence, “said quietly” is weaker than “whispered” or “hissed.” Same thing with the other sentences: Instead of saying “really liked,” why not say “loved”? Instead of “walked carefully,” why not “tiptoed” or “crept”?

As for redundant, check out this example (which could be a direct quote from SEE THE SAMELINGS’s first draft, I might add):

“Hurry up,” he whispered softly.

“Softly” adds absolutely nothing to this sentence, as a whisper is soft by definition. (Yeah, it took me a whole draft to figure that out.) You can ax it without losing any of the sentence’s meaning.

And that’s the litmus test for deciding whether an adverb is worthwhile: Does it add unique meaning to the sentence, meaning you can’t get from any other word (or from any fewer words)?

Consider this passage:

Daniel shoved his hands in his pockets. “Well, uh, thanks for coming.”

Clara couldn’t meet his gaze. “I had a nice time.”

He kicked the porch step. “Guess I’ll see you on Monday?”

“Yeah, sure. Monday. Mr. Monte’s class.”

“Mr. Monotony, you mean.”

She giggled, too loudly. “See you on Monday, then.”


Horror of horrors! TWO adverbs in a four-word sentence, “She giggled, too loudly,” and right in a row. At first glance, you might be tempted to give both “too” and “loudly” a good slash with your red pen. But look again. If you take away “too loudly,” the sentence’s meaning changes. And the whole passage loses some of its awkward giddiness.

So adverbs themselves aren’t the villains, but (some of) the situations in which we use them are. The trick is to figure out which situations are adverb-approved, and which aren’t. And nobody--nobody--can decide that but you.


Esther Vanderlaan said...

Wow. You are really at it. Good job!

Myrna Foster said...

Amen, sista.

Christine Danek said...

Thanks for the great post. I'm bookmarking this one. Short term memory loss is in full effect today.

Kelly Bryson said...

I find those kind of rules kind of amusing when I carefully read the stories I love. Adverbs frequently appear. The trick is, as you say, to only use them when they add something. Thanks fo rthe reminder!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, Esther.

Myrna: "Can I get an amen?" "Amen!" "I mean, let me hear you amen!" "AMEN!"

(I had a seminary teacher who thought we needed amen practice, since we didn't "Amen!" well enough. He preferred the Southern Baptist variety:) )

Christine, you're welcome! And thanks for the kind comment.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Kelly, you're welcome. And you're right - books are published with adverbs, lots of them, all the time. It's how the author uses them that's the key.

Katy Upperman said...

Great post! When I'm working on a first draft, I use adverbs freely, but during the revision process I use the find function and analyze each one. If I can take it out without losing the meaning of the sentence, I do. If I can rewrite the sentence in a more dynamic way without the adverb, I do that. If the adverb adds something, even just to the voice or mood of the story, I leave it.

John Green uses adverbs brilliantly in his books, just in case anyone's looking for examples where adverbs are absolutely necessary. In my opinion, there's no way his voice would be as unique without them.

Esther Vanderlaan said...

More than welcome!

Esther Vanderlaan said...

Can you check\improve my newest WIP? I could really use it. If you don't mind, that is. (This is welcome to anyone.)

A real difference

My name’s Kit. Kit Harris. I have a story that needs to be told. About me. Me and my family. I’m telling this for Mother.

I was 10. Daniel was 8. Jayden was 3.
It was 3 days before Mother went to the hospital. I asked her how to make a big difference, a real difference. She just smiled and said, “Kit, you’ll know. Some instinct. You’ll know, I assure you.” “I think you’ve made a big difference,” I said and hugged her. Her tinkly laugh filled the air, like thousands of tinkling bells, all chiming at the same time. “Good-night!”, I called over my shoulder. 1 day passed. Then a morning and afternoon. Then on the third day, in the evening, Mother said, “Kit, dear, I’m going to the hospital. I haven’t been feeling so well. I’ll be home soon.” She kissed me and left. I stared back, knowing she wouldn’t go to the hospital for a small problem. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Krista, Great post. These kind of rules of thumb are good, but it's important to know that there are exceptions. I was thinking of writing a post about de-villifying the passive voice, because it's the same thing: sometimes it's correct to use passive voice and the best option. You just have to know when. :)

Hey Esther, I hope I'm not cutting in on Krista's territory, but do you want me to read your story? I wouldn't mind. Just send it to me at a2sonnichsen@gmail.com ... for some reason I didn't get an email from you before when you said you sent one. Anyway that might be better than having your stuff critiqued in public. Just a thought.


Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Yes, this is something that I have been...not really struggling with, but annoyed with. It is SOOO easy to use adverbs. We use them constantly when we talk to each other, so it is natural to want to write them. It is harder (sometimes)to come up with something else. We have to think harder. Who wants to think anyway??? =)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great post, Krista! You have to think about the value of every word and its placement.

Angela McCallister said...

Thank you for this post! I use them too much in my first drafts. Okay, maybe even in my second drafts before I do my line edits. I like your examples. They clearly illustrate proper usage.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Katy, thanks for stopping by (and commenting!). Sounds like you've got a good feel for adverb-appropriateness:)

Esther, ditto what Amy said. Feel free to e-mail me your story, if you'd like.

Amy, YES! Passive voice definitely needs to be de-vilified. If only my junior high English teachers could hear me now! :)

Kathryn, I hear ya. Oh, I hear ya:)

Sharon, EXACTLY. It's not just about adverbs - it's about every. single. word. We pick on adverbs a lot, but you should be able to justify EVERY word on the page.

Angela, you are most welcome. And thank you for the comment:)