Adverb’s Advocate

The beleaguered adverb. One way to defend its use: to condemn its misuse.

Dale Stromberg

In my cupboard, I have a packet of Munchy’s Oat Krunch biscuits, which the copy on the bag declares to be “deliciously tasty”.

Deliciously tasty?

There it is—the Pernicious Adverb. The bugbear of writing-rules-writers everywhere. You’ve encountered such crusaders: They campaign against this part of speech with righteous vim, blanketing the literary ecosystem with adverb-exterminating DDT — bound and determined, like Ahab, to slay the –ly-tailed whale.

But just as conservationists battle to preserve the Sumatran elephant, many of us are anxious to save the beleaguered adverb. One way to defend its use is to condemn its misuse. So before venturing a rescue attempt, let’s consider bad examples in three categories: tautologies, self-evident facts, and cases requiring an adjective instead.

Unnecessarily Superfluous

Inexperienced or inattentive writers are often seen to combine synonymous adverbs and adjectives. Doing so adds no new meaning or nuance. Our opening example, deliciously tasty, simply says “tasty in a very tasty way”; delicious would be enough.

Other tautologies, like enormously large or hilariously funny, likewise can be expressed more elegantly as single words: enormous or hilarious. Can be, and hence ought to be.

Stacking up tautologies is an effective way of packing your text with keywords; if your goal is search engine optimisation, go for it. For text other humans will read, avoid it.

Obviously Evident

A related misuse is to employ an adverb to tell readers that which can be taken for granted. Two examples:

“The spaceship suddenly exploded.” – How else would it explode? Unhurriedly? Readers only need to be told the spaceship exploded; if nothing has made them expect an explosion was coming, it’s sudden by nature.

“When she jabbed him with her thumbtack, he instantly shrieked.” – Since the narration shows no intervening events, it’s plain the shriek followed right after the jab. Instantly goes without saying. If there were an appreciable delay before the shriek, that’s something the author would need to mention.

Related to this issue are phrases like “she smiled happily” or “they ran quickly”. Without information to the contrary, smiles are assumed to be happy and running is by default quick. What all these examples have in common is that the superfluous adverb belabors the point.

Unsuitably Adverbial

Another unfortunate tendency is to use an adverb-adjective combination where two adjectives would be more appropriate. Perhaps this form of adverb abuse just sounds, um, writerly. Two examples:

“That episode was hilariously mind-blowing!” – It is likely the writer meant the episode was hilarious and mind-blowing. But what they’ve written is the fact that it was mind-blowing is hilarious. Why? What was it about having their mind blown that precipitated them into fits of hilarity? This threatens to have no meaning.

“A bizarrely foreign odor of unidentifiable spices” – This is also certainly an error. It is to be expected that spices unidentifiable to a character will have a foreign odor—this isn’t bizarre at all. Why “bizarrely foriegn”, then? The author meant “bizarre and foreign”.

A simple test: Try writing your phrase the other way around. For example, change, “It was a frivolously transparent gambit” to, “It was a transparently frivolous gambit”—does it seem to say the same thing? If it does, it actually doesn’t. You have unwittingly committed this error; reversing words this way should entirely alter the meaning.

Adding Adverbs Advisedly

All that said, the adverb is an indispensable component of our language. When is it best used?

Above, we’ve mentioned  “she smiled happily” or “they ran quickly” as examples of redundancy. But there would be nothing wrong with “she smiled ruefully” or “they ran clumsily” because these adverbs provide detail not inferable from the verb alone. Adverbs that add something are not wrong.

It’s commonly asserted that a phrase such as, say, “she said quietly” is somehow weaker than e.g. “she whispered”. Now, “said quietly” might, in certain contexts, be replaced with “whispered”; perhaps this will make for more interesting prose. Remember, though, that not all quiet speech is whispered—remember, more generally, that the synonyms listed in a thesaurus are rarely exact equivalents of one another.

At any rate, sometimes you’ll want a character to whisper with added nuance, with a tinge of meaning not encapsulated in the verb “whisper”. You’re unlikely to find single verbs meaning “whisper nervously”, “whisper testily”, or “whisper dreamily”. This calls for an adverb—especially if the needful nuance isn’t apparent in the dialogue itself: “Thanks,” she whispered testily.

Adverbophobes might claim that, even without the adverb, testiness could be “shown” by having the character tap her foot rapidly or roll her eyes. Taken to extremes, this approach can lead to unwieldy wordiness, or even to onslaughts of burlesque gesturing.

So such arguments—and indeed all absolute dicta on how not to write—should be entertained cautiously, levelheadedly and thoroughly skeptically.

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