Thursday, 21 January 2016

On Adverbs

I often see in writers' groups people smugly quoting 'rules'. "Take out all the '-ly' words, they gleefully chant. "Show, don't tell."

Aside from what we may infer from the fact a person doesn't know the names of the parts of speech, such advice is fraught with peril for the unwary novice.

Today, I'm going to talk about adverbs, sometimes designated in writers' groups of a certain calibre as '-ly words'.


An adverb is a part of speech that modifies a verb. It bears the same relation to a verb that an adjective bears to a noun. Hence the name.


 Someone, I think it may have been Stephen King in his wonderful book, On Writing, recommended the novice writer go through his draft eliminating adverbs. Now far be it from me to set myself up in opposition to the great King, but I don't believe he intended his words to be taken as literally as they often are.

It certainly is a great thing to limit the number of adverbs you use. Apart from anything else, doing without can force you to choose a more appropriate verb than the one you had. Another reason is that a sentence that is littered with adverbs and adjectives will usually read as if you were trying to get bonus marks from your fourth-grade English teacher. We've all been there - these semi-literate people who got two-year teaching certificates back in the 1960's and were the first people in their families to obtain any tertiary education filled the primary schools and have ultimately been responsible for more third-rate prose than Barbara Cartland and Diana Palmer combined. They trained us to write purple prose, and years later when we start to write in earnest, it is something we must unlearn. I was lucky; I got it beaten out of me at home, and every night at dinner, all through the fourth grade, I listened to my mother relentlessly mocking Miss Ridley, our form mistress. (See what I did there?)

So yes, you don't want to use them to excess, just as you don't want to use adjectives to excess. If there's one thing that annoys me in a piece of writing it's seeing every noun with a string of adjectives hanging off it.

Can we take a basic concept out of this? Yes, I think we can: it is that we don't want to have anything in excess. Can this be reduced even further? Perhaps not, but underpinning it is what I think must be a firm rule of writing: you must be in control of what you write, not it of you.


This is an easy one. It's because not all adverbs end in "-ly" (duh). If you can't identify what part of speech a word is without looking for cues like that, then you haven't yet attained sufficient proficiency in your language to be writing. Back to school for you! Bye!

Okay, so we're all down with why it's not a hard and fast rule, and we understand that we still might want to review the adverb use in our ms, vide Mr King. Now we have to beware of Trap Number Two.


I see this again and again nowadays. Many writers, who have apparently taken on board Mr King's adverb advice without fully understanding it, have taken to replacing adverbs with adverbial phrases, generally phrases starting with 'with', without in any way altering the structure of the surrounding sentence. E.G. "'blah, blah, blah,' he said, with a sad look on his face." Or "he walked across the room with speed." I'm not making this up! You can see it every day.

Make no mistake, gentle readers. This vile practice, if continued, will make you go blind, and will also cause hair to grow on the palms of your hands. 

Why is it so? you ask. It is so because functionally, there is no difference between an adverbial phrase and an adverb (hence the name). The only thing the writer achieved in the example above was to look like an utter dimwit. If you want to eliminate adverbs, that has to apply also to adverbial phrases.


So there you are: the adverb. A powerful tool, one to be used with caution, but not one to fear.

A final word of caution: if all this seems 'too hard', then it shouldn't. Words are the bricks, and grammar the mortar, that will build your fantastic castle in the sky. If you can't manage your basic materials, you aren't ready to build. Take a course, read a few thousand more books, go back to school, whatever you do, fix it. Then you may start to write.

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