Adverse Adverbs

Adverbs are incredibly useful, but often over-used; frequent adverb deployment often results in repetition, and can make a piece harder to read. As a writer, wanting to add detail is commendable, but many of us fall into the trap of always doing it the same way. Most writers have pet words that just appear too frequently, which will be discussed in a later post, but what we want to discuss here is not so much a single oft-repeated word, but a class of words.

-a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gentlyquitethenthere).


For example, a sentence such as “She slowly gathered her things.” is fine. The adverb ‘slowly’ conveys an important message of reluctance. If, however, it is followed by, “Somberly carrying her suitcase, she then slowly walked out the door, looked around sadly, and then hesitantly hailed a cab.” It gets to be a bit much. We get it, she’s slow and doesn’t want to go; we don’t need to get smacked upside the head with it.

The adverb count in those couple of lines is pretty ridiculous at nine out of twenty-five words, and it makes reading it a bit clunky. Sure, there’s detail, but does it really tell you anything new for all that it slows the pace?

“She slowly gathered her things. Somberly carrying her suitcase, she then slowly walked out the door, looked around sadly, and then hesitantly hailed a cab.”

Hint: No. No it doesn’t.

While every adverb needs a verb, not every verb needs an adverb. Many verbs can be quite expressive all on their own. In the above example, ‘then’ can be taken out in both cases, as the chain of actions is fairly self-evident. Some of the adverbs can be eliminated right away as redundant, such as ‘sadly’ and ‘somberly’. Another couple can be removed by choosing a more nuanced verb; ‘shuffled’ or ‘trudged’ instead of ‘slowly walked’ and ‘nodded at’ instead of ‘hesitantly hailed.’

“She slowly gathered her things. Carrying her suitcase, she shuffled out the door, looked around, and nodded at a cab.”

It flows better, conveys the same tone, and provides enough detail without beating the reader to death with it.

There are several ways to get around an accidental plethora of adverbs, and the first is to simply be aware of them. While not all adverbs end in ‘-ly’ it is common enough that doing a search in your word program for ‘ly_’ will give you a pretty good estimate of numbers.

If you realize that you may have a few too many, it’s time to start trimming them down. How do you do that? Glad you asked.

Reduce redundancy

Look for adverbs that can be taken out entirely. Are they just reinforcing something that’s already been said? Are they really adding anything? If the reader already knows how happy the character is, do you really need to add that they “skipped merrily” down the street, or is the fact that they are skipping more than enough? Do you have serial occurrences of “then” that are just bogging down a clear chain of events

Find better verbs

Look for adverbs that are there to prop up a non-specific verb, such as “walked” or “said,” and see if you can replace them both with a more descriptive verb. Are you repeating the same verb over and over, just using adverbs to set tone? Are you using any one adverb more than you should, just to try to get the verb to say what you want it to?

Dialogue tags are a good place to start. There are few things more jarring than reading a dialogue that goes something like this:
“…” She said seriously.
“…” He said glibly.
“…” She asked brusquely.
“…” He answered sulkily.
You can toss out a bunch of dialogue tags altogether if the conversation is only between two people, and if you do need them, you can replace basic tags and adverbs with more expressive verbs. “He joked” “She snapped” and “He pouted” for instance.

General verbs like “walked” or “looked,” among many other verbs, are so vague in meaning that any nuance has to be added via adverb. English has a vast array of synonyms, however, each carrying their own particular connotation of meaning. Compare ‘walked’ to trudged, skipped, sauntered, shuffled, strolled, hiked, strode, or paraded. Why say “She walked slowly” when you can say “She ambled” or “She plodded” and be much more precise with the tone you want to set?

Be Quite thorough

‘Quite’ is another common offender, much like ‘very’ is with adjectives, as discussed here. It has its uses for emphasis, of course, not to mention fine snarky comments, but many people just use it a bit more than necessary, and it starts losing its impact.

Cleaning out a cluttering of adjectives is a good step in readable writing. It makes your piece easier to read, and thus more likely to get accepted by a publisher. It also makes it easier to edit, and if your editor doesn’t have to slog through an abundance of adjectives, it will save a bit on your budget.

Hope these tips are helpful to you, and keep an eye out for Cor Lingua’s next post, coming soon. Happy writing!