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In Defense of the Adverb

April 20, 2019

Adverbs can be sneaky little words, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of them.

I have just decided to stop worrying about using too many adverbs in my writing.  According to conventional wisdom, the adverb is a sign that your verbs and adjectives are weak.  Instead of using adverbs, some writers proclaim, you should use stronger verbs and adjectives.  The adverb is the bad boy of grammar, but I think it has an undeservedly bad reputation.

Famous authors often malign the adverb and say its usage hurts writing.  For example, Stephen King’s most famous writing quote is:

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,…”

When the Modern Master of Horror equates a kind of word with eternal damnation, you have to take that seriously.  On the other hand, Stephen King uses plenty of unnecessary adverbs in his own writing.

I like to use The Shining by Stephen King as a great example of adverb hypocrisy.  The Shining is one of King’s most popular books, and it has a bunch of –ly adverbs in it (I have proof right here ).  If a famous author (who says he doesn’t like adverbs) uses adverbs in one of his most famous books ever, then maybe the adverb isn’t so bad.

Mark Twain also had a famous quote about the most commonly used adverb, ‘very.’  I’m pretty sure very is the most commonly used adverb.  I haven’t completed any statistical analyses to prove it, but I’m sure it’s true.  If it isn’t, it has to be close.  Anyway, here’s Twain’s famous quote about ‘very’:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

That’s decent advice unless you’re a student.  Replacing every ‘very’ with ‘damn’ might make you sound like Holden Caulfield, but teachers like Holden Caulfield only when he’s a character in The Catcher in the Rye.  Teachers don’t like Holden Caulfield in real life, and they don’t want students writing like him.  Besides, if ‘very’ keeps getting replaced with ‘damn,’ then ‘damn’ will soon be hated by elitist writers, and I can’t have that.  I like ‘damn.’  I like ‘damn’ very much.

I like Mark Twain too, but if you follow his advice you’d only be replacing an adverb with another adverb.

I like adverbs.  The adverb is one of the parts of speech that I learned in school, and it’s not necessarily easy to learn.  If every adverb ended with –ly (as some people believe), then learning adverbs wouldn’t be so bad.  Unfortunately, adverbs can be sneaky.  They can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  Adverbs can be almost anywhere in the sentence.  Adverbs can even look like prepositions, and that’s really confusing if you don’t know what a preposition is.

I stressed myself out learning adverbs.  I’ll be really ticked off if I went through all that for nothing.   What’s the point of learning a part of speech if I’m not supposed to use it?  I never hear math teachers explaining concepts and then telling students never to apply the knowledge.  I understand adverbs.  I understand the difference between ‘good’ and ‘well.’  I like applying knowledge in my personal life.  It doesn’t make sense not to use adverbs.

Some authors say that adverbs keep writers from finding stronger verbs.  Maybe, but so what?  Not every verb has a synonym that demonstrates the degree of intensity that the author is describing.  Some authors will then try too hard and apply a verb that doesn’t make sense in the sentence.  I’d rather use a weak specific adverb than a verb that makes the sentence sound awkward.  I believe writers can have the best of both worlds; use the stronger verb AND the adverb.  Why do we have to choose?

I think the adverb is a made up issue that is meant to divide people.  Stephen King is my proof.  King, one of the most popular authors of my lifetime, has lobbied against using adverbs, but he uses them constantly.  This is typical elitist behavior.  He gets struggling aspiring authors to worry about adverbs and to develop strong feelings either for or against adverbs, and then struggling aspiring authors argue about adverbs, losing sight of the bigger picture (such as their families and their own creative projects), and then Stephen King keeps using adverbs in his own books, knowing that it really doesn’t matter (and he probably laughs at us novices for falling for his trick… but I have no proof of that).

I think people should stop arguing about adverbs.  I mean, it’s not one of those divisive issues that breaks up families, but it makes writers doubt themselves.  True, I believe in a little self-doubt, but look at today’s successful authors.  Do you think James Patterson debates every adverb that he uses?  Does John Grisham?  Does Stephen King?  No.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not going to litter my writing with adverbs out of spite, but if I want to use an -ly word, I’ll use an -ly word.  If authors like Stephen King truly despise adverbs, they can stop using adverbs in their own writing.  And they can go first.

  1. Love this. I lament the decline of the -ly adverb in speech. One time I taught my 6th grade students a lesson about -ly adverbs. Shortly thereafter, as school was ending for the day, the principal came over the intercom to warn everyone that the roads were icy and encouraged us to “drive safe.” Arghhhhh!!

  2. Okay, I haven’t even started reading yet but I had to click for that headline. I haven’t looked at the adverb the same since reading King’s On Writing (lol). Okay, on to read…

  3. I once wrote a piece announcing a new Therapy Service for writers. AA, adverbial abuse, was one of the illnesses treated.

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