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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Writer Mag Column 20: Adverbs

Hanging around unnecessarily: Why you should eliminate most adverbs

Adverbs have a bad reputation. It’s not that we editors don’t like them. We have nothing to complain about when adverbs do their job successfully —that is, modify adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. We object, though, when writers rely on adverbs to do the work of strong verbs, or use them redundantly, or place them awkwardly. Only then do we want writers to trim their useless adverbs mercilessly.

Let’s quickly deal with adverbs that you writers can definitely cut: adverbs used carelessly as intensifiers. You could, for example, write "She smiled happily," but that would be redundant, and no one would smile happily while reading your (un)carefully crafted sentence. "Frowned morosely" and "jumped up and down excitedly" are other examples of repetitive verb-adverb combinations. Most of the time, a descriptive verb will suffice.

Now for a brief list of utterly useless adverbs. You really should cut these out: "extremely," "definitely," "truly, "very" and "really." You can totally use them, though, if your characters are surfers. Otherwise, avoid them mightily.

You’ll also hear complaints about adverbs that are used alongside verbs of attribution, such as "said," "asked" and "stated." Some overeager writers think they’re being clever when they tack on adverbs to their "saids," as in "‘I told you not to hit your brother over the head,’ she said angrily." Most creative-writing guides suggest sticking with a lone "said" most of the time. Let the substance of the dialogue get across the way it’s being said; don’t rely on an adverb to do it for you. So, when you peruse your close-to-final draft, critique your adverbs on a usefulness scale. If you could cut the adverb without irreparably harming the sentence, please do so.

Next we come to adverbs that are allowed to stay—but not in the position where they currently are. I’m mainly talking about "only" here. Consider this sentence:

Candace only edits on Tuesdays.

Here, "only" is next to "edits," which for sticklers suggests that the only thing Candace does on Tuesdays is edit; she does not write, she does not sleep, she does not eat. She only edits. Of course we all understand that the sentence means that Candace edits just on Tuesdays, but "only" is in the wrong position. It should come closer to "on Tuesdays." We have two choices: "Candace edits only on Tuesdays" and "Candace edits on Tuesdays only." Granted, misplaced "onlys" pop up in everyday speech, but in writing it’s best to be more precise and use "only" in the right place. Hint: The right place is almost never before the verb.

Adverbs unwittingly get misplaced elsewhere, too, especially when your sentence has two verbs and one adverb. Consider this sentence:

She was looking at the man thoughtfully.

The adverb "thoughtfully" clearly modifies "was looking." Things get a bit dicey if we add another verb, though:

She was looking at the man running thoughtfully.

Here, "thoughtfully" could modify two verbs: “was looking” and “running,” so the sentence could mean she was looking thoughtfully at the man, or she was looking at the man who was simultaneously running and pontificating. Most readers would likely assume that "thoughtfully" goes with the closer verb, in this case “running.” No matter the correct interpretation, you don’t want to leave your readers wondering. Rewrite as appropriate: either "She was looking thoughtfully at the runner" or "She was looking at the man who was running while thinking."

Finally, I want to mention the issue of hyphens with adverbs. Hyphens are useful for joining words that together describe a noun. Take this sentence:

The 10-year-old boy hopped on one foot.

Here, the two hyphens join up the three words to create one unit that modifies “boy.” A hyphen helps in this sentence, too:

The big-footed man had trouble finding shoes.

With “-ly” adverbs, though, you should ditch the hyphen because the “-ly” in the adverb automatically links up with the next word. Therefore, the punctuation in this sentence is incorrect:

The spiritually-inclined woman went to church.

Just a space there, please:

The spiritually inclined woman went to church.

Note, however, that if the hyphenated words come after the noun, you can get rid of the hyphens:

The boy who was 10 years old hopped on one foot.

Sadly, we are at the end of our hopefully not useless time together. Please rewrite these Criminal Sentences and send your carefully rewritten rewrites to

1. That is a poorly-worded sentence.
2. I sandwiched myself between the woman and the youth who was eating uncomfortably.
3. “I hate spinach,” yelled the girl loudly.
4. There’s never been a better time to save on our custom built furniture, which is locally-made.
5. I only meant to eat one cookie, but I was very naughty and gobbled down the whole box hungrily.

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