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.

ˈadˌvərb
Noun
-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!

 

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Commonly misspelled words, part 1: Not ‘too’ hard ‘to’ learn.

There are many homonyms in English; words which sound the same but have different meanings and different spellings. Some are so common that we rarely need help to differentiate them, but sometimes people need a mnemonic to help tell them apart.

MnemonicContractions are a common variant of homonyms; if the apostrophe doesn’t indicate a possessive, such as “Samantha’s book,” then it’s a contraction. They can often be eliminated as a confusing homonym by simply expanding the contraction.

Here’s a list of some commonly mixed up words, accompanied by some quick mnemonics to help determine which one should be used where.

To: Expressing motion in the direction of (a particular location)
“She is going to Toronto.”
Too: (1) A higher degree than is desirable or possible; excessively. (2) Also.
“He had too much ice cream.” “Is she coming, too?”

Handy mnemonic: If it has a second ‘o’ that’s one ‘too’ many.


They’re: A contraction of ‘they are.’
They’re going to a restaurant.”
Their: Belonging to or associated with people or things previously mentioned.
“Where did they put their leftovers?”
There: In, at, or to that place or position, opposite of here.
“The leftovers are right there on the table.”

Handy mnemonic: ‘There’ has ‘here’ in it.


Weather: Atmospheric conditions at a particular time and place.
“The forecast of rainy weather may cause the event to be rescheduled.”
Whether: Expressing a doubt or choice between alternatives.
 “She’s trying to decide whether to go to the party, or finish her assignment.”

Handy mnemonic: ‘Whether’ expresses a question, and starts with ‘wh’ like other questions, what, where, which, why, who.


Breathe: The verb; to inhale and exhale.
“I can’t breathe.”
Breath: The noun; the air that is inhaled or exhaled.
“Take a deep breath.”

Handy mnemonic: The action of breathing is more ‘energetic’ than the breath itself, so it has an ‘e’ on the end.


You’re: A contraction of ‘you are.’
You’re going to have to practice more.”
Your: Belonging to the person or people that the speaker is addressing.
Your order is ready to be picked up.”

No mnemonic here, once you expand your contraction, you’re all set.


Desert: (1) A dry climatic zone, often sandy and barren.
“Surviving in a desert requires a large amount of water.”
(2) To leave or abandon a person, place or organization.
“Now is not the time to desert your family, when you need each other the most.”
Dessert: A sweet course consumed after a meal.
“She had chocolate cake for dessert.”

Handy mnemonic: Dessert is the one you would want two helpings of, so it has a double ‘s’. To desert something is to leave it on its own, so it just has one ‘s’. Like-wise, a desert is a barren place, so only one ‘s.’


I hope these are helpful to you either as a personal reference, or as a teaching aid. The internet is full of people who could probably use some help with these problem words, so pass it along. Enjoy, and write on.

Words to Avoid: Their absence will make your writing shine.

 

Writing is tricky. Trying to express your meaning clearly can be hard enough, but also making it engaging can be quite the balancing act. As a writer, I’m still working on it, but as an editor, ill-considered or lazy writing jumps off the page at me like a facehugger from Aliens. While much of any writer’s voice is a product of their individual choices, there are a few words everyone needs to be wary of.

DSCF4826

Some of these are ‘blah’ words, that don’t really carry any nuance or connotations; some of them are ‘pointy’ words that we throw in for emphasis or filler, to ‘point’ at other words, often when we don’t want to search for better phrasing. Many words have been tragically overused, and their meaning has become so lost that they are no longer of much use. There are also one or two ‘primer’ words that have haunted us since childhood, and lastly, each of us have our own favourite words or turns of phrase that we use too much, but I can’t help you with that. Be vigilant and wary for the ever-elusive favourite word, but in the meantime, here’s a list that might help.

1. Very– The pointiest of the pointy words.
This is probably one of the most overused and misused words in the English language, and it means almost nothing. People throw it in everywhere for emphasis when a better word could eliminate the need for it entirely. For example, “famished” sounds immeasurably better than “very hungry,” just as “furious” or “enraged” gets the message across more clearly than “very angry.” Then we get into the plainly ridiculous uses of the word, such as “very dead” or “very unique.” When you are describing something which is either there or it isn’t, emphasizing it doesn’t help; you can’t be “a little bit dead,” or “more unique than most.” Drop the “very” from your writing entirely, vary your vocabulary with other emphasis words, and for the love of your readers, don’t ever emphasize binary conditions.

2. Good, Bad, Nice– The ultimate blah trio.
I’ve lumped these together since they are all on the no-scribble list for the exact same reason; they are so generic they are practically meaningless. If you ask me how the movie was, and I say “nice,” what does that tell you about the movie? Nothing, except that I vaguely enjoyed it. While my opinion is relevant, of course, you might want to know more. It could have been “classic,” “visually spectacular,” “playful,” “satirical,” or any combination of dozens of adjectives that all tell you much more than “nice,” “good,” or “bad.” They’re boring, they’re generic, and while you may legitimately have to use them once in a while, you should try to avoid them wherever possible.

3. Because– The primary primer word.
There are times when one has to use “because.” it is a useful word, and one which has few synonyms, but using it too much, or in the wrong place, might come across as a bit early-childhood. It comes from how we were initially taught to answer questions in school: “Why is the dog outside? The dog is outside because he barked too much.” If too much of that translates into our writing now, we end up with things like, “The report was late because the input was late,” or “She couldn’t go because her mother wouldn’t let her.” Technically there is nothing wrong with these, but they evoke a grade school connotation that most writers want to avoid, especially when they are easy to fix. “Due to the delay in input, the report was also late,” and “Her mother would not let her attend, so she did not,” mean the same thing as the sentences above, but sound less clunky and more adult-like.

4. Alot– So blah, it’s not even a word.
Never use it. In fact, don’t use “a lot,” either, unless you are talking about a thing you park cars in, or that is measured by lots. It’s overused, generic, and there is always a better way to say that you have a large quantity of something. Really, there are a plethora, tons, immeasurable quantities, well, okay, a great deal of ways to get your point across without resorting to “a lot.”

5. Actually– The most pretentious pointy word.
Though sometimes misused, it is often correctly used as emphasis, “He actually expected me to help out!” or in its more useful form, as a way to differentiate, “You thought she was doing this, when she was actually doing that.” Either way, it gets used in far too many places. People also have a habit of starting rebuttals with “actually” (I’m guilty of this too, on occasion), and there it is excellent at conveying a sense of arrogant intellectual snobbery. So assuming you don’t want to be universally disliked, just try not to use it where it isn’t actually needed; your readers will like you more. Trust me.

6. Awesome – The flattest pointy word in the world.
Far from the awe-inspiring meaning it used to have, awesome is now just another word like “cool.” In fact, if you write using “awesome,” try replacing all instances of it with a word you wouldn’t use, like “groovy,” or “phat.” If it comes out looking odd, that’s because it is. Remove the “awesomes” from the page and it will make your writing that much more awesome.

7. Totally – The celery of words; nothing but filler.
No longer expressing a completeness or all-encompassing attribute, it is now mostly used as a strong affirmative or a generic pointy word, “It was totally amazing!” While something like that can be useful in casual speech, in writing it just fills space without purpose. It’s totally pointless; resist.

8. So – The overused, blah, filler, pointy word. Just stop.
While there are some legitimate, and necessary, places to use “so,” If you use it for verb emphasis it sounds juvenile; “I am so going to that kegger.” If you use it as a transition word, it ends up being unnecessary filler; “So, I went to the open house,” is no different in meaning from “I went to the open house.” So true. Speaking of which, using it for noun emphasis, while less ridiculous than other forms of emphasis, is still irritating to read, and rarely adds any meaning. It’s either true, real, over, empty, rockin’ or not. The “so” is irrelevant. Don’t be a so-and-so.

9. Really– The villain.
Much like “awesome,” “totally,” and similar words, it has lost most of its specific meaning in favour of generalities. Often it is considered interchangeable with “very” and is an equally poor choice. As an expression of affirmation or disbelief it has slightly more usefulness, as in, “Really? She said that?” and “Yes, she really said that.” It should really be avoided in almost all circumstances, though, as readers really find it annoying, it’s really likely your work will not be well received, and most editors will really tear your work apart. Really.

10. And Then– Just ugly.
Fine, it’s technically two words, and either of them are perfectly useful on their own, but when you combine them, you suddenly sound like you’re doing a grade two report. “We went home, and then we went to school, and then we went to the zoo…” You get the idea. There are much better ways to express consecutively timed events, I promise. There are several useful prepositions, and after you review them, following them up with some appropriate verbs, you may proceed to use them accordingly, and continuing along, can end by eradicating “and then” from your writing repertoire. While that’s going on, check out the bonus round below.

11. Common Verbs The everyday words.
This is more of a category of words to watch out for and try to change up. Words including “like,” “went,” “said,” “got,” “seem,” “ask,” and “came,” among others, are such useful words that they are used with alarming frequency. It’s worth your time to check for synonyms and use them where you can so your work doesn’t sound too repetitive.

Bonus round: Don’t use elementary sentence structures
This isn’t about words, but short, declarative statements often fall into the category of ‘primer’ writing, which is no problem for a third-grader, but not likely to garner respect for an adult. Sentence structures with just the basic ‘subject verb object’ don’t convey much information and are jarring to read, not to mention wasting precious words that could be used to better effect. Statements like “The man saw Jane,” or “We finished the research. It proved our hypothesis,” sound much like “I hate jam,” and “My dog has spots. It wags its tail.” Vary your sentence lengths and use all the gifts of modern syntax available to you; clauses, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs are your friends. Don’t neglect them. I’ll be writing more about those as time goes by.

Remember, if you treat your words right, they will serve you well. Much like minions. Happy writing!