The Great Adverb Debate

My son comes home from primary school clutching homework sheets asking him to use adverbs (words or phrases that describe verbs or doing words) to complete a list of sentences.  Being able to use adverbs is important for the sats tests.

It was the same when I was at school – adverbs earned you gold stars.

And yet in the world of professional fiction writing adverbs have become dirty words.

To be clear, we’re talking here about single word adverbs ending in ‘ly’ eg quietly, quickly, ferociously, obnoxiously.

As Stephen King puts it, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.”

Many publishing professionals and people who have studied creative writing would agree. If you send a piece of writing to be critiqued adverbs are likely to be first in the red pen’s firing line.

But what’s so bad about them? Surely they enrich prose? They make one piece of writing stand out from another, helping to establish the author’s voice. Isn’t the way someone does something key to their character or mood? If all descriptive words are stripped out of modern writing, won’t everyone’s work end up sounding the same?

“A writer determined to eliminate adverbs will be a seriously handicapped writer,” says Barbara Baig, author of the Writer’s Digest books How To Be A Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. 

Adverbs, she argues, are important to add information or make something more specific.

I agree that adverbs can be useful and the No Adverbs rule is often applied over-zealously. Many highly successful authors including JK Rowling (and Stephen King) use adverbs in their work.

But there are times when adverbs clutter up the writing and slow the pace. Why say he ran quickly when selecting a more powerful verb would do the job for you – eg he sprinted/ skittered/ darted.

Why say she asked pleadingly when you could say she pleaded? Or why not include the word please in the dialogue and you won’t need the speech tag at all?

As an exercise, take a piece of writing, highlight all the adverbs and then try reading the piece without them. Decide with each one whether deleting it (and using a stronger verb if necessary) would improve the writing.

So is it ever okay to use adverbs? I’d say yes – of course, yes – if the word conveys new information or adds a different slant to the sentence eg she smiled involuntarily or he said huskily.

Adverbs are part of the writer’s toolkit so why not use them? But as with any set of tools the results depend on the skill of the user.

For greatest effect use them (adverb alert!) sparingly.

Where do you stand on the Great Adverb Debate? I’d love to hear your view – please leave a comment.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s