Grammarian Grumbles – A Good Adverb Is A Dead Adverb

This article is posted in Page2Print and Grammarian Grumbles.

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He groaned audibly as he looked like he was going to vomit. Silently she picked up the knife, hoping he wouldn’t hear it. He said sarcastically, “Of course I’m going to pay you back.”

I write frantically, because I only have so much time tonight.

The adverb. What a misunderstood and overused concept. Is there ever a time when you’re writing and you throw an obvious adverb out there that your first thought is “that was a good idea”?

Today’s post explores the adverb and why I hate it (95% of the time).

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Grammarian Grumbles
A Good Adverb Is A Dead Adverb

Let’s throw out a definition for the adverb first, as I’m known to do:

From Dictionary.com:

any member of a class of words that function as modifiers of verbs or clauses, and in some languages, as Latin and English, as modifiers of adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases, as very  in very nice, much  in much more impressive,  and tomorrow  in She’ll write to you tomorrow.

The main use of the adverb in most writing is to modify a verb or adjective. In the academic sense, the Adverb is an incredibly useful tool because you aren’t telling a story so much as educating. But in telling a story, you may find that adverbs are so much redundancy.

In short, the adverb is a great tool; you just don’t need it.

The adverb exists in a clump with some other common writing tools that are used so much in fiction that they must be excised with cruel and unusual tortures. Adverbs, Big Words, and Dialog Tags are included in what I like to call The Rule of 5%.

The Rule of 5% states that during the editing phases (drafts 2 through 700), one of your main goals is to cut all but 5% of the writing tools included in the above list. Adverbs are one of the biggest offenders, mostly because it’s so damned easy to put them in everywhere and say exactly what you meant to say.

The Rule of 5% is of course not a rule so much as a guideline, and I don’t mean that you should go through your 100K-word novel and count the adverbs so you know exactly how many to cut. But if you go in thinking “I’m gonna cut all you bitches” you’ll find the noble few that deserve to stay.

Maybe in cutting adverbs from your writing you free up 1,000 words in 100,000. Maybe you free up 100. Either way it’s a great way to begin one of your editing drafts. Draft four or five for me is my Rule of 5% draft, in which I agonize over every “-ly” word, and cut almost all of them.

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Now, I said that adverbs are redundant and belittled them like a schoolyard bully, but I haven’t given any real reasoning for my belief. Let’s talk about the adverb and its jumped-up importance. The adverb is a tool that typically either weakens your writing by “telling” instead of “showing”, or you “show” already and having the adverb is just redundant.

The examples I gave at the start of this post will serve down here:

1. He groaned audibly as he looked like he was going to vomit. It’s incredibly redundant to say that the groan was audible. A groan is by its very nature a sound. Adding “audibly” may look good on the page but it lacks imagination and is useless to the reader except as chaff to be ignored and read around.

Instead of wasting a word on the adverb, think about how you can alter the sentence to show instead of tell. He groaned, clutching his stomach and dry-heaving. You’ve cut down on the words you used and given a much more visceral picture to the reader this way. Kill the adverb, alter the sentence.

2. Silently she picked up the knife, hoping he wouldn’t hear it. Again the adverb is unnecessary here, but for a slightly different reason. Given the context of the sentence, and those surrounding it (imagine a scenario in which a woman wants to pick up a knife silently, I’m not doing everything for you), it’s easy to understand from context alone that she’s going to be as quiet as possible when picking up this knife. It lends subtlety to a scene that you’ve painted the picture instead of describing the painting. She eased the knife from the counter and clutched its handle, waiting for the intruder to come through the door. In this case I’ve actually increased my word count but the scene has been painted so much better than simply being told she hoped he wouldn’t hear the silent knife picking up chicanery.

3. He grinned slyly as I slipped him the 100, and I knew that grin too well. He said sarcastically, “Of course I’m going to pay you back.” Again, the context surrounding this sentence will help you to eliminate the adverb. The guy’s general demeanor before this sentence will be enough to understand the tone of the phrase “Of course I’m going to pay you back.” He grinned as I slipped him the 100, that too-big grin he flashed for women and children. He said, “Of course I’m going pay you back.”  In this instance we dropped two adverbs and added a word or two by changing the independent clause in the first sentence. Now you understand in a very visual way that this guy is never paying the money back.

To end this, I’m not saying “Don’t use adverbs.” I’m saying “Pick your battle wisely, Adverb, and stand your ground. Firmly.”

Do you find yourself using adverbs in the initial writing phase as placeholders until you can flesh out the description or narrative and cut the word away? Do you think I’m just a pretentious nitwit and adverbs are your cuddle buddy? Your unhealthily overbearing cuddle buddy? Do you wish adverbs would die a very slow and painful death? Let me know in the comments below.

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