Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Much-Maligned Adverb

Adverbs Are Our Frenemies

There is a perfect moment in the comedy In and Out with Joan Cusak and Kevin Kline where Kevin lets his hand drop – a classic limp-wrist move.

Adverbs get the same reputation.

I like adverbs; nay, I enjoy them. Since researching for this article and trying desperately to point out parts of literature I’m currently reading where they’re used well, I’ve changed my mind.

Used sparingly they’re the garlic to spaghetti sauce, they’re the tahini to hummus, they’re the Queen Latifah to Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction.

Used effusively they’re Styrofoam packing peanuts, they’re Belatrix’s multiplying curse, they’re thistle fluff from your neighbor’s yard.

What are they?

Adverbs, as a part of speech, are words that describe a verb or another adverb, or an adjective. They tell us where, when, and how.

They don’t always end in “ly.”

They are formatted like adjectives in that they are positive, comparative, and superlative (well, better, best).

Come here right now. (the adverb is now; another adverb is right; the verb is come; the noun is here)

The sentence could simply be one word: Come.

Does this simple subject sentence work? Sure, it does. It can work very (adverb) well in certain (adverb) circumstances.

Come here.

This complete subject sentence is made up of the simple subject, in this case a directive word with an understood subject of you, (come), and the words that describe the action, an abstract noun (here) that is an implied place.

Come here now.

At this point, I am describing how I want the subject (you) to perform the action.

Come here right now. (I could substitute immediately for right now.)

With the extra adverb, or the one word that does end in “ly” I add a sense of urgency.

It’s up to you (and your editors) to decide what works best in your story at any given place.

Do a global search in your document to highlight overused words.
Commonly overused adverbs include the following.









They follow a verb (an action word), they may make comparisons (will generally follow “than”), they may describe another adverb or announce their superiority with words like “best” (words that end in est), like “worst,” “most,” and “least.” (Adjectives can often be found before the thing described.)

They are needed to describe an action when the sentence won’t have the same meaning without it.

When I say “go” run fast.

They are not needed when the verb is strong enough, unique enough, or can stand on its own.

Hurry. (This simple implied subject sentence both directs and describes the action. I want you [subject] to move [verb] faster [adverb].)

Hurry up!

She strode to the bus stop.

The students flocked to see Big Bird.

One way to have fun with them in fiction is to allow a character his or her own voice: one person uses them outrageously; another, seldom if at all.

Make sense? Let’s share some examples from our reading and/or our current work in progress about how a sentence can be stronger without the adverb.

For help, one online resource to check is:

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