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To Adverb or Not to Adverb

2009 September 16
by Andrea Graham

Dear Andrea,

How do you find a good balance in using adverbs and adjectives? Too many sound amateurish, and too few sound Spartan.

Signed,

Between an Adverb and a Hard Place

Dear Between,

I hear adjectives knocked on less frequently, but adverbs especially do get a bad rap. They’re actually important and sometimes necessary parts of speech and stripping every adverb from your work would indeed be misguided at best.  Instead, I recommend you examine them to see if they are being used correctly. What should you look for?

First, let’s rehearse what these babies are in the first place.

According to Merriam-Webster, an adjective is, “a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else.”

Generally, unless it follows was, in my experience, an adjective won’t be a problem. And if it’s following was, you have a bigger problem with the choice of the weakest and most common verb in the English language, as the most common reason, aside from poor grammar, that an adjective would come after a verb is that you’re telling, as in, “the coat was blue” or “Jenny was sad.”

The problem with both sentences isn’t the adjective, but that they’re telling rather than showing. If you’re being told to eliminate adjectives, it’s probably telling that the editor is gunning for.  And by the way, an adjective that follows a verb is either functioning as a noun, or is being misused as an adverb. In most cases, rewrite it this way, “Jenny wore a blue coat” or better yet, “Jenny fingered the top button of her blue coat.” We’ll get back to “Jenny was sad” once we’ve discussed adverbs.

According to Merriam-Webster, an adverb is, “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, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial.”

For those of you who still don’t know what an adverb is, they usually end in -ly and usually modify a verb.

The number one issue with adverbs lies in the modifying a verb part. When this is the issue, the problem isn’t the adverb, but the verb itself. When we write a first draft, we often will go with the first verb to come to mind. The easiest verb to write will often times be the weakest. Since it doesn’t say precisely what we want to say we will then add an adverb. So every adverbial clause should be examined with the question, “Is there a plain old verb that would communicate in one word what I am saying in two?”

For instance, instead of “walked quickly” (or briskly) try “jogged”  or another verb that describes the pace you’re looking for. If none come to mind and you’re describing something the english language is likely to have a verb for, check a thesaurus.

A similar issue is the old Tom Swifty, but while this looks the same as the above, finding a verb that means “said gently” isn’t going to fix it even if you actually find one.  These usually signal one of two things, that your dialogue isn’t being phrased gently at all and you added a crutch rather than fix the line, or a lack of confidence on your part.

The other major issue goes back to “Jenny was sad.” Whether Jenny is sad or feeling badly, the problem isn’t that adverbs or adjectives are innately evil, but that here you’re using one to tell us rather than showing us.  Any time an adverb or adjective references someone’s emotional state, unless it’s a line of dialogue, cut it and describe the “symptoms” of sadness and let your readers make that diagnosis. It’s much more powerful and much more believable.

It’s the association with telling in general that gives adverbs especially their bad rep. Adverbs that aren’t being used to tell, and aren’t propping up a weak verb choice, or weak dialogue, should be perfectly fine. While it will far less frequently be an issue, adjectives that aren’t propping up a weak noun choice, aren’t being used incorrectly to modify a verb, and aren’t telling are also fine.

In Christ’s Service,

Andrea Graham


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