Monday, April 11, 2016

Prose Blip – The Dilemma of Adverbs

A lot of writers hate adverbs.
It’s a fairly [see what I did there] recent fashion statement to say you’re abolishing every adverb from your manuscript.
In some ways, it make sense. After all, adverbs literally do nothing to make most sentences better. Very, very few of them do… anything.

Yes I keep demonstrating that fact.
But at the same time…
I disagree with the “eradication” of adverbs.

The Problem with Adverbs

In some ways, the argument against these words makes sense. I mean, most of them are useless words. They’re excess. We don’t NEED to use them. This quote is often used by this argument:

    Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
    —William Strunk Jr. in Elements of Style

Rather than simply taking this quote at face value, I would encourage you to actually read Elements of Style and decide for yourself whether it appears to be trying to reach authors of novels or authors of essays.
Would you just look at how many adverbs I’m using? I’m setting an awful example, if they are indeed that horrid to use. You really shouldn’t be listening to me, should you?
After all, I appear to be setting the devil’s example.
Well… let me finish, yeah?

The Problem with the Problem with Adverbs

Sure, an adverb can point to a weak verb. At that point, I will concede: an adverb that props up a weak verb is bad. The point of a verb is to be as strong as it can be so that you don’t have to stabilize it with adverbs.

At the same time, there is nothing – I repeat: nothing – wrong with the word “simply” or the word “very”. I find no moral, ethical, or scientific evidence which states “thou shalt not use adverbs”.

“But Aidan if all the authors say don’t, will the publishers take a book with adverbs?”

Short answer: yes, they will take your book if it has adverbs.
Want proof? Go find a book on your shelf that was published in the last ten years and has sold thousands and thousands of copies. (A few examples: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Way of Kings, Harry Potter.) Oh, and grab one from at least eighty years ago (Lord of the Rings being a great example).
Flip through it. You’ll find two things, both of which are constantly being preached against: passive voice and adverbs.

Published authors use passive voice and adverbs?
I can hear the riots starting.
Here’s the deal: the only thing wrong with an adverb is the verb. Huh. That’s weird, the only thing wrong with an adverb is something that isn’t even an adverb.

When your verb is weak, your adverb is bad.
When your verb is not weak, your adverb is not bad.
Sure, it may be unnecessary. But is it?

If we are, indeed, to “omit needless words”, then aren’t adverbs sometimes better?
After all, take this sentence: “she brushed her fingers against his arm, her touch so soft that it made him shiver.”
First, that’s an awful sentence. I apologize on behalf of that sentence.
Second, what happens if I condense it using one adverb? “She brushed her fingers gently against his arm. It made him shiver.”
Now, it’s still awful, but look: I omitted five words and added one, but both sentences convey the same thing. You’ll notice my verb – brushed – is strong. I could have used “touched”, and that’s weaker by comparison.

Adverbs are not the source of all evil.
They’re the source of one evil. And they do not require an all-consuming purge of your manuscript. Sure, go ahead, get rid of the ones you don’t need. I usually do that. Except in this blog post to prove a silly point. Yes, I’ve been purposefully jamming in as many frilly adverbs in as I can.
You’re welcome.

Related Posts:

Featured Post:


  1. Kill the adverbs with fire!
    I actually use a /lot/ of adverbs. I tend to describe stuff poetically in my novels (which needs to be changed, honestly) and in doing so, I use a lot of adverbs, even if my verb is strong on its own.
    I tried not using adverbs. Like I got rid of a lot of adverbs for a while and the stories fell flat. It also ruined my writing style.
    I guess the amount of adverbs also has to do with how a person writes and what their style is. *shrugs*

    1. Eheheh
      I find that I use a moderate number, because I use them sometimes (and don't care to change), but I don't use them /everywhere/.
      It does depend on the style, but at the same time... there's nothing intrinsically WRONG with using an adverb.... contrary to what most people think?
      I dunno, people should just try using the really good adverbs. Like spasmodically. I've always wanted to use that word...
      Well anyway, this is supposed to be me agreeing with you. ;P

  2. I tagged you for the Liebester Award. if you're interested, check out my blog for details. :)

    1. Oh, well thanks Rebekah!
      If I have time (probably not this week...), I may have to check this out. *nodnod*
      (Now to, you know, /find/ eleven questions to ask eleven people...)

    2. Yeah, I know...tell me about it. :) I was only able to find time (and those eleven evasive questions) because my younger siblings were watching a movie I had already seen WAY too many times on my laptop (which is where I usually work on stories) and I was between I had nothing better to do with my time. ;)
      No rush. I look forward to reading your answers.