The Case Against Adverbs

I am going to tell you lovingly, quickly, and verbosely how much I dislike adverbs. If you think that is an example of overwriting, you are correct.

Adverbs are defined as by Merriam-Webster as words that “modify — that is, they limit or restrict the meaning of — verbs.” They usually end in -ly and “also may modify adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, or even entire sentences. An adverb answers the question when?, where?, how?, how much?, how long?, or how often?”

With few exceptions, and I’m not suggesting an adverb ban (notice I didn’t write “total ban”), they do little to enhance your writing and a lot to bog it down. Consider: The siren rang loudly. Then ask yourself, don’t sirens (by definition) ring at high volume?

Sure, exceptions exist. Adverbs such as “tomorrow” and “yesterday” can be critical. They also can be deployed in clever ways: Daniel Handler’s 2006 novel Adverbs features chapter titles with words like “immediately,” and the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close conveyed urgency.

Yet adverbs tend to double-down on nouns, repeating the same thought, and too often they are used to make up for stylistic shortcomings. Using words like “moreover,” “accordingly,” and “nevertheless” doesn’t fancify your writing or make it more intelligent; they just make it wordy and harder for the reader to get to your point.

The best writing relies on precise language versus overloaded sentences — “whispered” versus “said quietly” or “5 feet tall” versus “very big.” Cutting adverbs and adjectives from your work tightens the writing, allowing other words to speak for themselves, and it’s an easy step to take when you need to reduce word counts.

Plenty of writers have advocated for limiting adverb use. V.S. Naipaul advised, “Use as few adverbs as possible.” Stephen King, in his excellent craft book On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, agreed: “The adverb is not your friend.”

“With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across,” King wrote. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

“To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.”

What do you think?