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Monday, August 24, 2009

Truly, Madly, Deeply: Thoughts on Adverbs

Conventional writing wisdom has put the kibosh on adverbs. And I agree that most sentences are more powerful without "-ly" festoonments. This post is not intended to discuss the evils of unnecessary adverbage. There are plenty of posts on that topic online already.

One of the first critiques I read when I joined Critique Circle last year unleashed quite a lot of vitriol against the author's use of adverbs. And while I supported many of the suggested changes, I also felt a little pang of sympathy for the poor vilified modifiers.

After all, I grew up on Schoolhouse Rock and the Electric Company, where adverbs were celebrated with their own catchy theme songs. Lolly Lolly Lolly (Get Your Adverbs Here!) is tons of fun, of course, but I'm partial to the Electric Company's LY Song:

In the final analysis, we're left with the same old resolution: everything in moderation. Adverbs *can* be quite useful-- as long as we avoid the temptation to overindulge.

I recently read Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, and was struck by a sentence that contains-- in my opinion-- a particularly well-used adverb.

In this scene, a middle-aged man has traveled back in time to visit his wife when she was a child.

Her hands are clenched and she looks fierce and determined. Our daughter, I think sadly, would have looked like this.

This sentence worked very well for me. It raised a lot of story questions. Why does the protagonist, with his knowledge of future events, think this sadly? Did their daughter die? Was she lost or taken away from him? Disfigured? Were they never able to have children or a daughter in the first place?

The simple addition of "sadly" creates all these intriguing little possibilities, while not calling too much attention to the sentence itself. Any attempt to "show" his sadness here, I think, would have been too much, or given too much away.

So, gang, here's the question of the day:

What example of a well-used adverb do YOU have? Post your favorite redeeming example in the comments. It's up to you to prove that they're "positively, very, very, necessary"!

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.


Suzette Saxton said...

What a fun challenge! In reading Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie to my youngest this past week, I've come across many adverbs (funny how often you find them in the classics) and most all are a trifle on the creative side. And while I wouldn't exactly say they are a good use of adverbs, they have surely been entertaining:

"It must be sewn on," she said, just a little patronizingly.

"Come," he cried imperiously, and soared out at once into the night..."

"I'm Wendy," she said agitatedly.

Great post, Heather! (She said said appreciatively.) Now I shall be on a quest to find the perfect use of an adverb in a published work.

Scott said...

He laughed softly.

Sometimes, people just laugh. Other times, they laugh loudly. Then again, sometimes people laugh softly.

As I've been revising, I've been eliminating the pesky adverbs . . . for the most part. Sometimes, people do things softly or slightly or something-ly. Everything in moderation.

Oh, and I love, love, love Schoolhouse Rock. I even bought the 30th Anniversary DVD that came out a few years ago. Ah, the memories . . .


Cellophane Queen said...

Adverbs are not bad, but writers read somewhere they were and included all adverbs, rather than just the 'empty' ones:

Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, mostly, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally.

To name a few of the most egregious. A nice descriptive adverb is fine.

Stephanie said...

Great post. This adverb issue along with not over using "is, was, be, were" challenges me to write with respect for the economy of words!

Lynnette Labelle said...

This was great! Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I have to go back and watch it again!

Lynnette Labelle

Pamela Hammonds said...


I am reading Black Beauty to my daughter and you’re right: adverbs seem to be more prevalent in older works. Who knew parts of speech were trendy?

Here are a few from Black Beauty:

…again and again I neighed, pawing at the ground impatiently, and tossing my head to get the rein loose.

As soon as my knees were sufficiently healed, I was turned into a small meadow for a month or two…

Ginger and I had become fast friends, and now I missed her company extremely.

…she trotted anxiously along by the hedge, calling to me as long as she could…

And, Marva, I think you’ve hit on something with the list of empty adverbs. I’ll keep those handy and work to avoid them. Devotedly!

Thanks for the post, Dr. Dyer.

Suzette Saxton said...


I had no idea Black Beauty was written from the POV of the horse. My 7yo has read it, but I'm embarrassed to say that I have not. I think I will read that one to my youngest when we are done with Peter Pan. Thanks for suggesting it!

Pamela Hammonds said...


I had never read it either! We picked it up at an antique store this summer. I read on a blog recently that it was from the horse's POV, linking it to The Art of Racing in the Rain (told from the dog's POV) and others. It's a little different, but it works. Sad in some parts due to the animal cruelty.

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks, Pamela. Good to know about the sad parts - especially because my youngest is only four.

How amazing to find a copy in an antique store! What a true treasure.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I agree that it's an excellent idea to skip "empty" adverbs. One that Elmore Leonard rails against that isn't on the list and is best avoided most of the time is "suddenly".

Adverbs are an interesting part of speech. Remember they also describe nouns and adjectives and I generally find them better used in that function than as verb descriptors. Here is a sentence of my own that I debated a LOT. It has two adverbs in it--something unusual for me. But note the useage.

For a usually obedient lad, James was being amazingly difficult.

I hammered my head on my keyboard on that one. Considered re-writing it. Sweated over it. I tried cutting one. I tried cutting both. Eventually they both went back in which I doubt I would have done had they described a verb because then you can find a stronger verb.

talked softly = whispered, etc.
laughed loudly = hooted, etc.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who reads romance is familiar with the classic, "She lifted her chin defiantly."
I've never used it, but in those works it seemed to fit in some.

I like "imperiously," and "stridently" but most times I am able to work them in without the "ly."

Stephen King rages against adverbs, but you catch plenty in his his work. Still, he's one of my faves.

Unknown said...

Here's a justifiable usage I ran across recently:

"...I recently read Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, and was struck by a sentence that contains-- in my opinion-- a particularly well-used adverb...."

Recognize it? Why would a part of speech have evolved in our language if people didn't find it useful? It's just a question of proper use.

Matt Sinclair said...

As a fan of Tom Lehrer's songs, I must thank you for sharing that video. I only vaguely remember the piece from the Electric Company and had no recollection of the song being by Mr. Lehrer.

To your point on the adverbs, I agree that they should be used in moderation. Make them matter. I rarely find them useful otherwise.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I don't have an example, but I loved that line in TTTW too. :)

Unknown said...

This is the first positive post about adverbs I've read since beginning my writing journey last November! I'm so glad someone said what I've been thinking since I first heard that adverbs were bad! Yea! Moderation in all things. :)

Anonymous said...

Yep. I think moderation is key as well. That video was great video. Had me smiling.

Stina said...

I'm still on vacation so I don't have any examples off the top of my head (don't ask why I'm sitting in the library on the Internet while everyone else is at the beach--but only 20 more minutes then I can dragged my 9 year old out of here). However, J.K. Rowling is a big fan of adverbs, especially with her dialogue tags.

Tara McClendon said...

Great video. I think that the challenge is to use adverbs and adjectives that truly add to sentence.