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In Defense Of Adverbs

03/06/2014 10:03 am ET | Updated May 06, 2014

Like like and other filler words, certain adverbs have saturated our speech and our writing, making once-meaningful phrases seem totally vapid. The idea that adverbs are just extraneous fluff has led to a smear campaign against them, and it's become common to suggest axing the part of speech altogether in order to make writing more powerful. This forceful call for more forceful writing is misguided; adverbs can be phonetically pleasing, can imbue sentences with subtlety, and should not be entirely shunned.

First, a refresher: What does an adverb do? It tells us more about a verb. If a character is running from point A to point B, "he ran" is a description that doesn't sufficiently set the scene. How did he run? Quickly? Scatteredly? "He ran quickly and scatteredly" is less powerful than "he scampered," an adverbless sentence that conveys the same point more succinctly. And so, many writers have spoken vehemently against the use of adverbs.

This is unfortunate because when used well, adverbs serve an important purpose, and can enhance writing rather than detract from it.

A new writing app called Hemingway made the rounds last month, named so for its supposed ability to morph so-so essays into Moveable Feasts. In keeping with the philosophy that all adverbs are terrible, the app highlights every adverb in a passage, stating, "Adverbs weaken your verbs. Replace with more descriptive verbs. For example, change 'he walked slowly' to 'he tip-toed.'"

The app is not unlike a creative writing professor I once had. He was known for his pedantry, which was mostly perceived to be charming. Grades weren't doled out based on narrative arcs or realistic dialogue, but rather a strict adherence to the mostly useful but sometimes problematic rules outlined in The Elements of Style. Passive voice? Not if you want a passing grade. Serial commas? Always. And his biggest rule: absolutely no adverbs.

He always cited the same example to make his point: "'The house burned completely to the ground' is excessive. 'The house burned to the ground' suffices." Well, yeah. Unnecessary adverbs muddy up a statement. Intensifiers -- completely, totally, absolutely -- are the most frequently overused. When spoken, these words make the speaker seem a little ditzy. In writing, these words can serve an adverse purpose, and can end up unintensifying a sentence that would otherwise be brusque and impactful. They make would-be heavy statements flippant. "I am totally angry" isn't as effective as "I am angry."

The empty use of intensifiers is partly responsible for adverbs' bad reputation. But slews of other, more useful adverbs exist. Intensifiers are just one type of degree adverb (words that denote the degree of an action). Other degree adverbs, such as somewhat or moderately, are shunned for their tendency to make writing seem apprehensive or fearful. Stephen King writes in On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft:

Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. ... With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

King's argument isn't completely off-base, but while words like seemingly do convey a certain uncertainty, they don't always convey timidity. Sometimes, uncertainty should be conveyed in a piece of writing. Sometimes, ambiguity is more accurate than absoluteness. "She won" means something different than "She practically won."

And, of course, degree adverbs are only one variety of the part of speech. There are plenty of others -- adverbs of time, adverbs of place, and adverbs of manner -- that add clarity or complexity, especially in fiction. While authors of realist short fiction could stand to buy into Raymond Carver's bare-bones, economical school of writing, novelists have room to stretch out, meander, and play. And that's when adverbs can come in handy. In this passage from Anna Karenina, adverbs make the sentence more phonetically pleasing than it would otherwise be:

"Anna spoke not only naturally and intelligently, but intelligently and casually, without attaching any value to her own thoughts, yet giving great value to the thoughts of the one she was talking to."

Similarly, James Joyce's longest short story, "The Dead," concludes with one of the most memorable passages in modern literature, yet it uses adverbs on six different occasions. The repetition of faintly and softly emulates a haze of steadily falling snow:

"It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

So, should you do as the Hemingway app suggests and remove all adverbs from your writing? No, not completely.