Adverbs!

Many writing guides deride the use of adverbs, advising against their use almost unequivocally (even if the best grammar software approves their inclusion). While I do agree that adverbs are problematic to some extent, they are effective when employed in the right context. However, it’s the challenge of identifying these proper situations that lead to people avoiding them entirely.

Just in case you need a refresher, adverbs are words that modify verbs. In the sentence, “Sheldon sobbed loudly at the hall,” for example, “loudly” modifies the meaning of the verb “sob,” adding the quality of volume to the reader’s experience of it.

Why do some writers discourage the use of adverbs? In many situations, they end up blunting the possible impact of a verb. In these cases, when you remove the adverb and demonstrate the quality it defines instead, the whole sentence would read much better.

For instance, the example sentence above can be written in any of these other ways, some of which may be more appropriate than the others, depending on the rest of the context.

“I can hear Sheldon’s sobbing from across the hall.”

“Sheldon’s sobbing filled the halls with grief.”

“Sheldon dropped down on his knees and began sobbing, filling the hall with his cries.”

All of the preceding sentences should work better, assuming they fit into the context of the piece. That’s because they paint a much more complete picture than the adverb “loudly” can ever do. If, on the other hand, Sheldon’s loud sobbing was all you really needed to tell, then the original sentence would do. Basically, if there is nothing more to add than what the adverb describes, then you can leave it to itself.

If there is anything to take home from this, it’s to exercise some amount of moderation when it comes to using adverbs. Don’t avoid them entirely, but ask yourself whether they’re the best way to describe the meaning you’re hoping to convey.

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