In Defense of Adverbs

A common piece of writing advice is to not use adverbs. We’re told that they’re weak, that we should find strong verbs instead. As with all writing advice, this one is situational. Some would-be writing gurus with good intentions take a situational piece of advice and try to make it seem universal. A writer for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently advised writers that deleting all adverbs and adverbial phrases would result in a piece of writing that means exactly the same thing while being easier to read.

But the “no adverbs” advice has been laid to rest by Geoffrey Pullum, a professor who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article titled Being an Adverb. Says Pullum:

“Applying this adverb-erasing recommendation across the board would be disastrous, in random ways. In some cases it would cause a spectacular change of sense: the slogan of the British department-store chain John Lewis, Never Knowingly Undersold, would become Undersold. Quite often it would yield vapid slop with the wrong meaning: Defusing a bomb must be done carefully would become Defusing a bomb must be done; The dog had been brutally treated would become The dog had been treated. Sometimes it would create outright ungrammaticality: a carefully worded letter would become *a worded letter.”

“The truth is that nothing as mechanical as abandoning adverbs (or certain subclasses of adverbs) is going to uniformly improve your prose. . . . Like the familiar advice to avoid passive clauses, it is never followed by the people who recommend following it.”

“The writers they admire never follow it either. And I don’t mean just that fine writing with adverbs is possible; I mean that all fine writing in English has adverbs (just open any work of literature you respect and start reading).”

As usual, there’s a grain of truth in this piece of advice. There are undoubtedly extraneous adverbs that can be cut to make your writing tighter and better. Just don’t go overboard. Sometimes a good adverb is exactly what you need.

2 comments so far

  1. Ing | Sunday, 28 April 2013, 9:49 pm |

    This reminds me of an adverb post Ray Rhamey did on Flogging the Quill (which is both a blog and an excellent how-to book).

    http://www.floggingthequill.com/flogging_the_quill/2011/04/free-ftq-chapterthe-yin-and-yang-of-adverbs.html

    He has some concrete, well thought-out examples of what adverbs do and don’t do well, and explains things in a way that’s easy to follow. It’s the best how-and-why demonstration I’ve seen. Definitely worth reading.

  2. Ben | Monday, 29 April 2013, 8:02 am |

    Ah, that really was a great read. He does a good job of describing WHY certain adverbs work and some don’t. Thanks for the link, Ing.

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