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Bob Nailor

Adverbs Conditionally

There is a writing adage that claims: Never use an adverb to modify an action... or some such crap. That was drummed into me early in my writing life. I should never use a modifying adverb in a sentence ... but wait, that's exactly what an adverb is - a modifier.

In this argument I find myself ambivalent. I want to eliminate all adverbs as much as possible but at the same time, I find them very useful.

Consider the following sentences:

  1. "Don't do it!" she shouted loudly.
  2. "Don't do it!" she shouted reluctantly.
  3. "Don't do it!" she shouted hopelessly.
  4. "Don't do it!" she shouted excitedly.
Let's evaluate each sentence.

1. ...shouted loudly. Think about this for a second. Have you ever heard somebody shout quietly? I can't defend this sentence. If a person shouts, I'm just going to bet it is loudly and therefore, if you haven't shown that, you're not doing your job as a writer in showing. Yes, a definite case of "telling" which gets your hand slapped.

2. ...shouted reluctantly. This one I feel can be safely use if only to emphasize your showing that the person didn't want to shout out at the moment. Again, this is modifying and detailing a little stronger the emotion.

3. ...shouted hopelessly. Again, this one I feel is fair usage since it details the moment that you should have been writing about. Again, this is re-enforcing the emotion.

4. ...shouted excitedly. Another poor choice and a loser in my books. Shouted already indicates to me that the person is excited and by adding excitedly only reveals what I would call inferior writing.

There is a time for adverbs and a time not to use adverbs. A good writer knows when to emphasize or re-enforce with a modifier. If the writer has properly established the scene, a simple "she shouted" might work but be weak for the lack of an adverb modifier.

He glanced quickly at the bubbly stream, not noticing the bloody red mixing coldly into the flowing waters.

The adverbs in the above sentence could be considered superfluous. A glance is a quick look so quickly isn't needed. Does one need heat to mix blood with water? Also, is blood another color other than red? Not usually.

He glanced at the stream, not noticing the blood mixing into the flowing waters.
He momentarily looked at the stream and didn't notice the blood mixing into the cold waters.

Sometimes, simplicity is better. Adverbs have their place.

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Elyse Salpeter
Good post... I do this sin now and again. I tend to add these thinking it will make the action more understandable and it really doesn't.

I have a tendency to say "she screamed loudly." Um, of course it was loud, she was screaming." Or she was "amazingly brilliant" - no, she was just brilliant is most likely fine.

Great post.
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Bob Nailor
And we all hate it when we read "very unique" -- Arghhh!
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