Stephen King said: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” While the author is renowned for such sentiments, he’s equally criticized for them. And he’s not the only writer to bad-mouth the part of speech. It may not be quite as heated as the Oxford comma debate, but adverbs have long been condemned by English professors, journalists and best-selling writers.
On one hand, it seems every part of speech — nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs — has an important role in language, and that exiling just one of them is irresponsible.
But on the other hand, adverbs seem the weakest of the four. Adverbs aren’t in themselves tied to bad writing, but they’re the gateway to it, and the slope is slippery.
Adverbs tend to lend themselves to boring verbs.
This is the argument most often made against adverbs. If you need an adverb to help your verb, it means your verb isn’t strong enough. In many cases, adverbs act as a crutch.
Take these examples:
- She wholeheartedly believed in hope.
- She clung to hope.
- He tearfully looked into the sun.
- He squinted into the sun.
In both cases, the stronger verb stands up on its own. The pairing of weak verbs with fluffy adverbs often results in telling rather than showing.
Adverbs cause overwriting.
Writers use adverbs to over-clarify.
Take these examples from King’s book On Writing:
- “Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
- “Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
- “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.
Why do we need to clarify that the shouting was menacing, or that his pleading was abject? It’s repetitive, and for all writers learning about word economy, it’s wasteful.
Remember too, adverbs aren’t just -ly words. They’re also anything clarifying or modifying an adjective. If a writer finds the need to further describe a descriptor… You see the red flag.
Adverbs are the yellow brick road to purple prose — the inclination to overcompensate with description rather than only using the description necessary to further the plot.
…and overwriting sometimes insults the reader.
It’s not just word economy that’s the problem. If you feel you need to tell your reader exactly how the shouting sounded or exactly how the pleading was implied (example above), it seems you don’t trust the intelligence of your reader. If you trust your reader, you believe they can come to these conclusions on their own without hand-holding.
Deleting the adverbs often result in sharper sentences and give the verbs some breathing room.
Adverbs can be useful.
Because strong verbs don’t always work alone. Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute, says in Writing Tools: “The earnest writer can overuse a writing tool. If you shoot up your verbs with steroids, you risk creating an effect that poet Donald Hall derides as ‘false color,’ the stuff of adventure magazines and romance novels. Temperance controls the impulse to overwrite.”
They’re effective when they change the meaning of a phrase. For example: “killing me softly.” If the writer said “killing me fiercely” it would not be helpful because it’s expected; softly though seems counter to killing. (Example from Writing Tools.)
Sometimes they are good for speeding things along. When you don’t have 800 pages to take a reader through every action, you might have to do some telling. Good storytelling is showing and telling effectively.
It’s easy to rely on adverbs. Just be careful how much you do. They’re one tool. Keep that tool at a distance and use it sparingly, as needed.