You Removed All the Adverbs? Really?

Adverbs get a bad rap.  I’ve heard several published authors and writing industry professionals say, “Avoid adverbs.  Cut them all out.”  And I’ve seen it in writing advice columns as well.  I don’t think it’s horrible advice.  In fact, I imagine it arose as a concrete suggestion for weeding out weak words.

“Get rid of weak words,” said every English teacher, agent, and editor anyone has ever had.

“What do you mean?” asked someone, somewhere.  And -ly words were an easy place to start.

So the expert explained, “Don’t write, ‘He walked quietly’ when you could write ‘He crept,’ ‘He sneaked,’ ‘He tiptoed.’  In short, get rid of that adverb ‘quietly.'”

Translation: bad adverb, bad!

That makes sense.  Frequently (heh), words ending in -ly are weak or sloppy.  They could be replaced by a strong verb or left out altogether.  “Cut out all the adverbs” is not a completely untenable way to start the pruning process.  But as a blanket statement, as a stick to beat the unwary, it annoys me.

First of all, the English teacher in me would like to point out that all adverbs do not end in   -ly.  “No,” “never,” and “not” are adverbs.  “Often,” “now” and “when” are adverbs.  “Where,” “here,” and “there” are adverbs.  A story without adverbs would be nonsensical.  Or a fascinating exercise in convoluted expression.  And nonsensical.  Fairy tales might also prove difficult since “happily,” “ever” and “after” are all . . . you guessed it.

Additionally, all words that end in -ly are not adverbs.  “Deadly,” for instance,  is an adjective.  He unsheathed the deadly sword.  He could unsheath it in a deadly way.  But he can’t unsheath it deadly-ly.  His deadly swordplay might result in your untimely demise. But you won’t have died untimely.  Prematurely, pointlessly, violently.  But not untimely.

So, cranky rant on “Why you shouldn’t say you removed all the adverbs from your book” over, my other point is that adverbs are beautiful.  Even the -ly ones.  And they do serve a purpose.  They are functional, necessary words, and I have used them abundantly here. No doubt there are several I could have left out, but most of them pull their weight.  They provide transitions or qualify a statement that is not an absolute.  They tell when or where or how.  They do all those things in fiction, too.  Plus one more.

But I’ll save that for another time.