Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Adverbs better avoided?

Are adverbs something to be avoided like the plague or an inevitable mutation of the English language that we just have to deal with? I’ve heard it said that they’re the mark of a writer who lacks the vocabulary to use powerful words (for example, “He walked slowly” does not carry the weight of “He plodded” or “He trudged”) and the skill to vary their sentence structure. I’ve seen them used in published in professional work, from George R. R. Martin to J.K. Rowling, so it’s not something authors shy away from and, for the most part, the public accepts it without question.

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Why on earth should you want to condemn a whole word class? This is one of those daft ideas, like avoiding the passive, that some writing schools preach but that good writers completely ignore. The key to good writing is surely judging each word on its own merits, rather than by following these 'writing by numbers' rules.

And why should adverbs be regarded as a "mutation of the English language" - adverbs are hardly unique to English, and even the -ly suffix seems to have developed out of Proto-Germanic (compare with -lich in German), so even the idea of the adverbial suffix is a lot older than English. In fact the word adverb itself comes from Latin (adverbium), a language somewhat older than English. The fact that so many languages, from all parts of the world, have adverbs might tell you something of their functional usefulness.

There's an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that might answer your question. It's by professor of linguistics and co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Geoffrey Pullum:

Warsaw Will Mar-31-2013

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We might be actually better off actually getting rid of articles like "the" and "a/an" actually, as many languages actually do do without articles, as they sometimes don't actually add a lot of meaning, and some languages actually do do without them anyway, and anyway adverbs are actually much more fun.

jayles Mar-31-2013

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Some writers aim for a stripped-down style. Others like to enjoy the richness of the language.
I'd say that it's not about adverbs per se.

Skeeter Lewis Apr-01-2013

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In the article I mentioned above, Professor Pullum finishes by saying "And I don’t mean just that fine writing with adverbs is possible; I mean that all fine writing in English has adverbs (just open any work of literature you respect and start reading)."

This is very easy (for out of copyright books, at any rate) with Project Gutenberg, just open any book and search for "ly ". These are from the early paragraphs of a few classics. All of them, I suggest, would be poorer without their adverbs, some meaningless:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice

‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’
Charles Dickens - Hard Times

Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast. Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre

All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Then for an hour it was deadly dull, and I was fidgety
Mark Twain- Huckleberry Finn

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest
James Joyce - Ulysses

and the ceaseless human chatter of Venice came in at my windows, to which I seem to myself to have been constantly driven,
Henry James - The Portrait of a Lady

Incidentally, verbs like "plod" and "trudge" have very specific meanings. I see nothing wrong with using "slowly" in a sentence like "She slowly made her way across the room" when I don't want her to "amble, meander, wander, saunter" etc, I just want her to walk slowly.

Warsaw Will Apr-01-2013

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"To boldly go where no man has gone before."

Nothing wrong with adverbs. They're found in Old English as well.

AnWulf Apr-01-2013

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Isn't writing a little like a balanced diet? - everything in moderation.
If you use an adverb where an adverb is needed then it's ok... but if you overuse adverbs, or repeat the same tiresome cliche-ed adverbs, etc. then your writing is going to suffer.

Thredder May-07-2013

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This is something I had struggled with when joining an online critt community. My work was inundated with all sorts of structural errors, yet the most commonLY called out one was overuse of adverbs. I had another writer who tried to eliminate all passive usage from my work.

In the end, I took what I learned and exceeded expectations of what my work could be. It is still in process, but it reads incredibLY sharp now and more like the bestselling fiction we all aspire to write someday.

And there are still adverbs in the work, though near not as many. What did minimizing adverb usage do for me? It made the work sharper, cleaner and overall a much, MUCH better read. So minimizing these issues, rather than trying to hammer them out completeLY, can benefit a work greatLY. Like Thredder above said-everything in moderation.

But the important thing is to understand WHY a word works or doesn't in any given circumstance. If you minimize certain structural elements just because someone said so, and have no real understanding of why it does or doesn't work here or there...the only thing you're going to accomplish is making your bad writing look LESS bad. It still doesn't solve the real problem...your evolution as a professional writer.

Will I Am Aug-21-2013

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" I had another writer who tried to eliminate all passive usage from my work." Another piece of nonsense. Many of the people who criticise the passive mistake non-passive structures for passives, don't notice passives when they are being used. And the irony is some of the fiercest critics of the passive, like Orwell, use(d) it pretty heavily themselves.

Warsaw Will Aug-21-2013

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@Warsaw Will

Agreed. Passives are perfectly fine.

@Will I Am

Don't believe nonsense like "adverbs" and "adjectives" (I insert this because I have heard adjectives treated similarly) are bad. By whose standards are adverbs bad? Why would a word class (part of speech) exist if we are going to eschew like a plague?

Jasper Aug-21-2013

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