THE ANSWER TO THE ADVERB PROBLEM
It’s no secret that the writing community has waged a war on adverbs. Stephen King once said that the road to hell was paved with them. The chief complaint is that they weaken the prose, serving as an easy way out for writers who are too lazy to show instead of tell and that they aren’t worth their weight when it comes to the economy of words. And what all this hatred of adverbs has led to is their almost total eradication from the page.
But how have we managed to convince ourselves that there is an entire part of speech which is inherently evil? At first, these claims seem justified. Oftentimes, a stronger verb can take the place of a weak verb and an adverb put together. This is true when substituting “dashed” for “ran quickly” or “shouted” for “said loudly.” In these cases, by all means, eradicate your adverbs. This works here because the adverbs do actually add any necessary information to the phrase, and the job is accomplished in fewer words by using a stronger verb.
But the fact of the matter is that a substitution doesn’t always work so well. Take for example the sentence “She stared wistfully out the car window.” There is no single verb which means specifically “to stare wistfully” or anything which comes even remotely close, and it would take far too long to describe all of her body language which might convey the wistfulness. In this case, it makes much more sense to simply use an adverb, especially because simply deleting the adverb would alter the meaning of the sentence.
The rule of thumb? Never use an adverb which simply means the same thing as the verb. Running is always quick, and you don’t need an adverb to tell your reader this. Instead, use an adverb when there is no direct substitute for the word, or the adverb tells the reader information they otherwise wouldn’t have known.
It’s easy to think of this rule in terms of adjectives, which function in virtually the same way that adverbs do but are far less disputed. There is no sense in using the phrase “the green grass” because grass, at its default, is usually green, and including the adjective doesn’t give the reader any extra information. On the other hand, “the brown grass” or “the dead grass” does give the reader added information and would be appropriate places to use an adjective. This same principle can easily be applied to adverbs.
Regardless of where you stand on the adverb issue, hopefully this post has helped put some things in perspective, and remember, always be wary of definitive writing advice which tells you to “always do this” or “never do that.” Writing is an art, and seldom does it conform to rules as concrete as these. That being said, good luck and happy writing!
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Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
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