Avoid using adverbs for better writing

When we are in elementary school, teachers tell us to use adverbs. When we reach high school, teachers tell us not to use adverbs. What’s going on?

First of all, what are adverbs? Adverbs are parts of speech which describe verbs, adjectives, adverbs and whole clauses. Most of them end in –ly, such as quickly, obediently and awfully. (But not every –ly word is an adverb.) The most commonly used adverbs do not end in –ly and include words like not, seldom, never, today, very, more and less.The –ly adverbs are considered weak words by many writers because they tell, not show. For example,

  • Weak: The toddler walked quietly to bed.
  • Stronger: The toddler tiptoed to bed.
  • Weak: That baby is very tired.
  • Stronger: That baby could hibernate all winter.
  • Weak: The awfully pretty child looked at us flirtatiously.
  • Stronger: The dainty child beguiled us with her smile.

In each of these three examples, a weak adverb is replaced by a stronger, specific verb or adjective.

Another reason writing teachers say to avoid adverbs is because using them weakens ideas. The word “very” is a good example. In almost every sentence you can think of, when “very” is used as an adverb, the idea becomes weaker.

  • It’s very chilly out.
  • It’s freezing out.
  • That cake is very tasty.
  • That cake tastes delicious.
  • Rex is a very well-behaved dog.
  • Rex behaves well.

Some adverbs state the obvious. “The boy fell down.” Can a boy fall up? “Grandma hollered loudly.” Can Grandma holler softly?

We need some adverbs. We don’t have negative versions of most verbs, so the word “not” is the way to make most verbs negative. “Yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” provide crucial time information, as does “now” and “then.”  When we are organizing an essay, sometimes it makes good sense to start paragraphs with words like “first,” “next,” and “finally.”

As a general rule of thumb, adverbs which end in –ly are less organic to writing and should be eliminated or rewritten with stronger verbs. Adverbs which don’t end in –ly are harder to dismiss and might be essential to good writing.

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