Sunday, 21 November 2010

In Defense of the Adverb

Yes, I know. I'm being scandalously controversial by even contemplating this post. But I really and truly believe that adverbs are not such a Great Evil Thing. I mean, they were invented for a reason, right? Shouldn't we, as writers, be allowed to use them?

The real Great Evil Thing? Overuse of adverbs. I don't think using them at all is a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it's downright useful.

For example, the following words of dialogue:

"I don't think I can trust you anymore," she said.

Now in many cases, context will provide the reader with the speaker's tone of voice. Knowing the character will help too. But in many other cases, words like these could be said in many different, equally suitable, tones of voice. Is she angry? Is she saying it quietly? Is she saying it sadly? Is she joking, to lighten the mood? Was she angry before but now she's tired and resigned? Without an adverb, it's hard to set the right mood here, it's hard to give the reader a clear picture of the character's thoughts or feelings.

Of course, I could have said

She let out her breath, suddenly tired and resigned. "I don't think I can trust you anymore," she said.

Which gives us the right information without using an adverb. But while this works here, what about this-

She clenched her fists and gritted her teeth and glared. "I don't think I can trust you anymore," she said.

The first sentence just feels clunky and long and unnecessary. Better to say "I don't think I can trust you anymore," she said bitterly, which is more concise and effective (I think). 

So yes, adverbs can often be replaced with something else - active description, or nothing at all if the dialogue is clear and suitable - but that doesn't necessarily mean they're the most evil thing to afflict us since writer's block. I think that, used sparingly and effectively, adverbs can make a sentence have a greater impact than it otherwise would.

Fellow writers? What are your two (or a dozen) cents on this?


  1. I overuse adverbs. *hangs head in shame* But I do know their usefulness! I like your other ideas on minimizing adverb use and thus making the ones that appear more effective, thanks!

  2. isn't suddenly an adverb darling?


  3. I don't use very many adverbs but then neither do I avoid them. It's like metaphors. I know one poets whose poems are inundated with metaphors which he - somehow - manages to pull off but most people - myself included - tend to use them with care and for effect. We're so used to not seeing adverbs these days that an occasional one - used at the right moment - is very likely to grab your readers' attentions.


    Overuse is not good, but I see nothing wrong with some here and there!

  5. I'm with Talli. Prose without any adverbs is DULL.

  6. I agree! There's all this about not using adverbs--but as long as they're not overused they can help the writing.

  7. I'm definately an adverb user and abuser. I keep telling myself to find a group...

  8. I agree with "use but not overuse". Sometimes I struggle to find a way to express particular concepts without adding a dreaded "ly" - but I push through unless I feel the adverb makes the writing stronger.