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Adverbs: Kill Them or Let Them Live?

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

Adverbs are a polarizing topic in the writing and editing world. Some people think we should eliminate adverbs altogether, and some people think we can use adverbs whenever we want.

This controversy often centres around Stephen King's dislike of adverbs in his famous writing advice book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think people often misunderstand King's intentions, although what he wrote about adverbs definitely seems harsh: "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops."

In my humble opinion as a professional editor, the middle ground is the way to go with adverbs. Like with punctuation or certain words or phrases, using adverbs too much will make them redundant and ineffective; however, adverbs can be effective when used properly.

What is an adverb?

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb or adjective—adverbs answer the where, when, why, and how questions. These are often "ly" words like "quickly," "sharply,"and "magically." Some adverbs do not end in "ly"—like "very"—and there are also adverbial phrases such as "over there." (For a more in-depth explanation, see Grammar Girl.)

How to use adverbs

To use adverbs effectively, make sure they add something to the sentence. If they do not add any new or necessary information, take them out.

Too many adverbs make a sentence sound wordy and look cluttered: "I ran quickly and jumped highly over the fence, then continued to the far side of the field over there while the dog growled noisily behind me."

This sentence can be simplified by cutting out redundant and useless adverbs and adverbial phrases: "I ran and jumped the fence, then continued across the field while the dog growled behind me."

When you edit your work, ask yourself whether an adverb makes a sentence or phrase better. If the answer is "no," delete it. For example, does "quickly" modify "run" to make it better? No, it does not. Running is inherently quick and does not need the modifier. Does "noisily" modify "growled" to make it better? Again, it does not—growling is noisy, and readers know that without the adverb.

When it comes to adverbs, writers often forget that their readers will pick up on things and fill in the blanks. You don't need to spell out everything for your reader; give them some credit, and let their imagination do the work.

Happy writing!

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