There are few classes of words with a worse rep than adverbs. The title of this post, taken from George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, is pretty much the gold standard of bad adverb use. Editors hate them; many writers eschew them. I, however, will stand up in their defense.
Adverbs are like guns.
Yes, I just said that. Okay, let me tone it down. Adverbs are like knives. Better? Okay. Onward.
Adverbs are like knives, because in the wrong hands, they can be quite dangerous, but when you have need of a knife, nothing else will do. Some writers actually refuse to use adverbs. This, to me, is like refusing to use the infinitive form or to stop using the letter “e”. In other words: crazy talk. Writing is hard enough without tossing out an entire class of words. There are times when writing a scene when I find a verb can only do so much to describe the action. It shoulders the burden as best it can, but it just…can’t…get across the goal line. It needs help; it needs modification. It needs an adverb.
But in the wrong hands…oy. Adverbs are a new writer’s minefield, and adverb abuse is a rookie mistake. I’ve been guilty of it dozens of times (still am, from time to time, at least in first draft). Here are two classic errors of adverb misuse.
Classic Error #1: using an adverb that is contrary to the verb.
Verbs have attributes. The verb “to yell” is big. “To whisper” is, by contrast, small. Adverbs modify things, making them larger, smaller, more intense, more drab. Using an adverb that contradicts the verbs attributes can be unintentionally comical.
He yelled quietly.
She whispered grandly.
They jumped slightly.
If you feel compelled to modify a verb in such a way, you’re just plain using the wrong verb. Find the right one.
Classic Error #2: using an esoteric adverb.
As in the title of this post, the wrong adverb can stick out like a sore thumb. Adverbs, when used, need to stay in the background. No word should stand up and demand the reader’s notice; it disturbs the narrative flow. “Glimmeringly” is a classic because it’s actually a verb that’s been turned into an adverb. Caution: that way lies madness. Using “stand out” adverbs only points out the weakness of the prose.
He shouted alarmingly.
She mumbled incomprehensibly.
They walked shamblingly.
In most cases like this, the verb stands fine on its own or, again, the writer has chosen the wrong verb.
Is there a time and place for adverb use? Absolutely (See? There’s one right there.) But use them with caution, and only with adult supervision. Oh, and always wear your safety goggles.