Bad Adverbs? Good Adverbs? How to Tell the Difference.

by Dax MacGregor
Some claim all adverbs are bad adverbs. The truth is: some are. However, most times, it depends. Here's what you need to know.

Adverbs are words that modify verbs or adjectives. When used effectively, they change the meaning of the sentence. For example, without the adverb in the last sentence (effectively), the sentence would mistakenly say that adverbs always change the meaning of a sentence. We know that’s not true.

However, in conversation, we use adverbs often. As a result, until you master the craft of writing, bad adverbs will find their way into your work. Unfortunately, bad adverbs sprout like dandelions in an unmowed field in the manuscripts of most new writers.

What Is Wrong with Using Adverbs?

I often see articles telling writers that adverbs suck, to shoot adverbs on sight, or that adverbs are almost always bad. While many times better choices exist, there are still times when adverbs are the right choice. Let’s first look at situations where adverbs are a bad idea. Then we’ll look at situations where there are probably better options. Finally, we will wrap up by discussing when adverbs are an excellent choice.

Examples of Bad Adverbs

Unneded Adverbs Are Bad

In everyday speech, people insert unnecessary adverbs. Some examples:

Most adverbs simply add no value.

I really couldn’t care less.

She obviously doesn’t know any better.

If you can remove an adverb without changing the meaning of a sentence, it adds no value. Delete it.

Most adverbs add no value.

I couldn’t care less.

She doesn’t know any better.

Here is a list of bad adverbs that add little or no value. Watch for them in your manuscript. Delete them whenever you see them,

  • Very
  • Truly
  • Really
  • Obviously
  • Definitely
  • Extremely

However, if these adverbs are in dialogue, leave them. After all, we want our conversation to sound natural. If that’s how your character speaks, then leave those adverbs alone.

Adverbs Used to Modify Weak Verbs or Adjectives Are Bad

Sometimes writers use a weak verb or adjective and then add an adverb to give it more punch. Some examples:

Donna leaned close and spoke softly, “I’m with you.”

The robber jumped in the car and drove off quickly.

Sam looked intently at her brightly-colored short shorts.

In these cases, replacing the weak verb or adjective with a more robust choice produces a better result.

Donna leaned close and whispered, “I’m with you.”

The robber jumped in the car and sped off.

Sam stared at her hot pink short shorts.

Adverbs Used to Tell Are Sometime Okay

Often writers will employ adverbs to tell readers something when showing would be more effective. Showing vs. telling is an area of considerable controversy. My perspective? There are places you should be showing and other places where you need to tell.

The key is when you see adverbs used in the manner described below that you recognize them as a form of telling. If they appear in a section where you are showing, you need to replace the adverbs with information that shows what you’re attempting to convey.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Adverbs in Dialogue Tags Are a Form of Telling

Writers often use an adverb to modify a dialogue tag.

Bobby shouted brazenly, “Well, lookee there!”

“I don’t like the way he looks at me,” she said warily.

Betty asked seductively, “What’s new soldier?”

These adverbs represent a form of telling. Providing context that communicates the speaker’s intent is more effective.

For example, we can improve the sentences above by adding action beats in place of the adverbs.

Bobby’s eyes opened wide and he pointed. “Well, lookee there!”

She clutched my arm. “I don’t like the way he looks at me.”

Betty leaned close, touching her breast to his bicep, and whispered, “What’s new soldier?”

Personally, when I find an adverb modifying a dialogue tag, I almost always replace it. Why? Two reasons:

  1. It doesn’t take many words to replace these adverbs with action beats.
  2. Dialogue is a form of showing. So adverbs used to modify dialogue tags need to go.

Adverbs in Prose Used to Tell vs. Show

Here are some examples of adverbs in prose that are telling vs. showing.

Eleanor looked sternly at her daughter. “Elizabeth, I told you not to bother these women.”

She looked at him suspiciously and spoke in a softer tone. “I don’t believe you.”

He had to file the article electronically by midnight.

It doesn’t take much effort to improve these.

Eleanor grabbed her daughter by the arm and spun her around. “Elizabeth, I told you not to bother these women.”

She eyed him, leaned closer and hissed through gritted teeth. “I don’t believe you.”

He needed to upload the article before midnight.

In each of the above cases, the sentences without the adverbs have more power and impact.

When I find adverbs like these in my writing, I often replace them, even in a section where I have chosen to tell the reader something. Why? Because the result more effectively engages the reader. However, if replacing them requires a lot of words, then I may choose to leave them.

When Adverbs Are a Good Idea

There are times when you need to use an adverb. Don’t be afraid to use them. However, they have a way of unintentionally slipping into your work. So be cognizant and challenge them whenever you notice them in your manuscript.

Adverbs Which Alter Meanings Are Good

It’s okay to use an adverb to alter the meaning of a sentence. However, make the insertion of adverbs intentional.

Some examples demonstrating effective use of adverbs:

Mom pressed too hard on the accelerator. The wheels spun but the car barely moved.

He pointed diagonally across the road.

She smiled wickedly at her new creation.

In these examples, the use of the adverb is intentional and significantly alters the meaning of the sentence.

Summary

Adverbs are one of the many grammatical ingredients available to writers. But, like spices are to gourmet chefs, adverbs need to be sprinkled in judiciously. The recipe is spoiled when they are overused.

Here is my technique to ensure that I effectively use adverbs.

Scan each scene as you complete it, looking for words that end in ‘ly’. For each:

  • Ask yourself whether the adverb alters the meaning of the sentence. If not, delete it.
  • Is the adverb being used to tell vs. show?
    • If so, find a way to show your readers what you you mean.
    • However, If the adverb is in a section where I am telling (vs. showing) and if the replacement will require a lot of words, then leave it.

Some writers prefer to wait until they finish a chapter or section before scanning for adverbs. Others wait until the first draft of their manuscript is complete. They don’t want to interrupt the creative flow, which is a valid concern.

No matter what schedule you choose, be sure to include a scan to review your use of adverbs before you share your work.

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